It’s easy to believe the world is a stupid, cold and cruel place. We’ve been told as much by our leaders. On many days in our very recent memory, it’s hard to argue that the world isn’t going to hell in a handbasket.
But all things are relative. And if we look at statistics alone, there’s a very good case to be made that, despite all the false steps we make, we’re actually heading in the right direction.
Take myself, for example. I was born in 1961. For some reason, here in North America, we tend to think of the ’60s as some sort of Golden Age. We wax nostalgic for a simpler, gentler, more virtuous time. There’s even a psychological name for this phenomenon: rosy retrospection.
But the empirical evidence suggests otherwise.
For example, the average global life expectancy in 1961 was 55 years. Today, it’s 71 years. In North America, we’ve added 10 years to our life expectancy (from 68 to 78) in the last five decades. The biggest gains have been made in India, China, Brazil and South Korea.
Not only are we living longer — we’re living better. The Human Development Index is a measure of quality of life compiled by the United Nations. In 1961, the HDI for the countries of the OECD (the most developed countries in the world) was 0.48. In the poorest part of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa, it was 0.11. Today, the HDI for developed countries is 0.88. It’s 0.51 in Sub Saharan Africa. The empirical quality of life for the average Somalian is higher today than it would have been if you had lived in some of the richest countries in the world in 1961.
Almost everyone has more rights now than they did in 1961. This is certainly true for women, ethnic minorities and those of alternative sexual orientations. When I was born, only one third of the world’s population lived under some form of democracy. Today, that number is close to 50%. We have a long way to go, but we’ve also come a long way.
We have violence, but fewer people die of violent confrontations now than in any time in human history. Casualties due to warfare are way down, dropping from 250 deaths per million people in the ’50s to fewer than 10 death per million in 2012.
And while homicide rates per capita are a little higher than in 1961 (when they were at the lowest point in 40 years), they’ve been in decline since 1991 and getting close to where they were then.
We have hunger, but we’re winning. In the ’60s, for every 100,000 people on the planet, 500 died of famine. In the last decade, that dropped to three famine deaths in 100,000.
And our standard of living, along with our level of productivity, measured in normalized dollars, is over three times what it was 54 years ago.
Even the environment is trending in the right direction. Our air quality is better in major North American cities than it was in the ’60s. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there’s been a 63% decline in aggregate emissions of six common pollutants in the last three decades.
The world is a volatile place now. It was also a volatile place in 1961. The U.S. sponsored the Bay of Pigs invasion. East Germany put up the Berlin Wall. Millions died in China during the Great Leap forward. And the USSR test detonated a 50-megaton bomb: the largest explosion in human history. We were one year away from the Cuban Missile crisis — and two years away from JFK’s assassination.
My point, if it still seems to be vague, is that as flawed as we are, there is a strong statistical case to be made that we live in a better world than our parents and grandparents did. There is also reason to believe that our children will be smarter, kinder and more ethical than we are.
Humans fail forward. That’s our nature. We screw things up, but we eventually fix them. We tear things apart so we can build them better the next time. If we look forward, we see that the world will never be perfect, but if we look behind us, we see we’re in a much better place than where we came from.
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