Things have never been this good in human history

Happy dogYep. I mean it. Apologies if you were expecting this to be a wry and unoriginal joke.

We – the human race – have never had it so good.

There’s plenty of evidence for this.

The chances of the average global citizen, born today, dying from violent causes are the lowest in human history. Wars are far less frequent today than in all of recorded history. Combat deaths are massively down. Criminal violence is massively down. All this from the long-perspective of the last three millennia. Why? Trade, greater stability and societal control compared to ancient societies, spread of ideas and knowledge leading to changing values and attitudes, international agreements, human rights promotion, diplomatic and peacekeeping interventions, and much more.

References: “Our Better Angels. Why Violence Has Declined” – massively researched, and densely supported by statistics – by the Harvard-based psychologist Steven Pinker.

“Why Nations Fight.” Based on his case-study of 100 conflicts since 1648 Richard Ned Lebow concludes, among other things, that war is on the decline since attitudes, values and motives for violent conflict have changed markedly in that time.

What about health, education and general welfare? An extract from Charles Kenny’s “Getting Better:”

“Fifty years ago, more than half the world’s population struggled with getting enough daily calories. By the 1990s, this figure was below 10 percent. Famine affected less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa from 1990 to 2005. …Virtually everywhere, infant mortality is down and life expectancy is up. In Africa, life expectancy has increased by ten years since 1960, despite the continent’s HIV pandemic. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s children are now enrolled in primary schools, compared with less than half in 1950.”

The numbers of children dying from preventable disease is falling in absolute terms despite the world’s increasing population – and of course in percentage terms – partly as a result of successful medical interventions, especially vaccination. (Source: UNICEF)

For example, measles vaccine has led to a huge drop in global deaths from the disease. In the 1980s, measles killed 2.6 million a year. In 2016, for the first time since records were kept, deaths fell below 100,000.”

Hundreds of millions have escaped absolute poverty in recent decades – largely due to the economic advances of China and India – but other areas, including in South Asia, have also been transformed.

Eighty-nine countries—which represent nearly half the world’s population—are “free,” according to the Freedom House measures, and 116 are electoral democracies (out of 193). Twenty years ago, only 61 and 76 fit those respective categories. (To be sure many of the democracies are very imperfect, but the long-term trend is still encouraging overall.)

And getting a bit more parochial – what about efforts to alleviate poverty? For example, did President Johnson’s War on Poverty succeed? (ie Medicaid, Medicare, housing subsidies, guaranteed income to elderly and disabled, food stamps and other tax benefits – some of which came after but were inspired by Johnson). Largely it did. Adjusting for differing benefits, the poverty level in the US fell by as much as three quarters (roughly 19% to 5%) between 1964 and 2013.

Source: “The War on Poverty: Was it Lost?” by Christopher Jencks. New York Review of Books, April 2015.

Is it all good news? The major bad news I would allow is climate change – an enormous global challenge, though a new climate agreement is likely to be sealed soon in Paris. Not enough, but a beginning. But this threat can’t be discounted. It will have to be dealt with.

I am not saying of course that violence, poverty, ill-health and prejudice don’t still exist – and that things are fairly distributed globally. What I am saying is that, measured against previous human history, almost everything is the best it’s ever been for the human race as a whole.

Why do I say this? Because it’s important to focus on what works. If we keep repeating that things have never been this bad, we will obscure the opportunity to learn from what has helped the human race.

Are these improvements going to inevitably continue? Of course not, that’s why it’s all the more important to learn from our successes.

So let’s celebrate the good – and focus on what works.

Things have never been this good part 2 – very funny but also trenchant Ted talk from Swedish global health expert.

Things have never been this good in history, Part 3

Article from 2017 confirming a great deal of progress – for example:                                         ” On any given day, the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty:

A.) Rises by 5,000, because of climate change, food shortages and endemic corruption.

B.) Stays about the same.

C.) Drops by 250,000.

Polls show that about 9 out of 10 Americans believe that global poverty has worsened or stayed the same. But in fact, the correct answer is C. Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures.

Or if you need more of a blast of good news, consider this: Just since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations, breast-feeding promotion, diarrhea treatment and more. If just about the worst thing that can happen is for a parent to lose a child, that’s only half as likely today as in 1990.

When I began writing about global poverty in the early 1980s, more than 40 percent of all humans were living in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 10 percent are. By 2030 it looks as if just 3 or 4 percent will be. (Extreme poverty is defined as less than $1.90 per person per day, adjusted for inflation.)”


3 responses to “Things have never been this good in human history”

  1. Francis, thank you. This is such an important perspective. How do we influence mass media to embrace it? Would love to chat next time you are in NYC.

  2. […] Things have never been this good in human history, Part 1 […]

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