Big Picture
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Big Picture

What a Wonderful World

Life on Earth is good, and getting better

The media shows us an almost constant stream of scary events going on around the world, while talking heads — hoping to bump ratings or influence the next election — talk about all the reasons we should fear for our future and the future of our children.

According to a survey of more than 21,000 people from 36 countries in all regions of the world, about 60 percent agree that the world has become worse in the past year, rather than getting better or staying the same.

As the saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads”. In a networked world of unimaginable size — seven billion people! — there is plenty of bad news to go around. Those looking for signs of wickedness, war and turmoil can find it without even trying.

But this is no way to see the big picture.

Modern countries gather more and better statistics than at any point in history, and for older statistics that are missing, we even have scientists in charge of estimating them!

These statistics make it very clear: life has gotten dramatically better in the last 200 years.

So if you’re looking for good in the world, it’s actually very easy to find!

There are still many people living in extreme poverty —depending on how you measure that phrase, it’s 10% to 30% of all the world’s people. Yet the situation is much better than when I was a child, when more like 50% of all humans lived in extreme poverty.

Here’s a nice graphic from Our World in Data:

It’s kind of obvious, when you think about it. Electricity, lights, radios, vaccines, antibiotics, telephones, trade via railway and monstrous ships, cars, TVs that almost anyone can afford, birth control, cell phones — how could life not get better?

But it’s not just technology. Most countries provide cheap or free education to all children, including girls. Many countries have used regulations to make sure our food is safe to eat, to deliver universal health care in many places, and to fortify structures against earthquakes and tsunamis (deaths from natural disasters are down almost 90% in 100 years). Many countries have social institutions providing mentors to children, a safety net for the recently unemployed, education and rehabilitation for prison inmates so they can start living a normal life, and so forth. We’ve even driven some viruses like polio and smallpox to extinction.

And with so much education going around, the number of scientists figuring out everything you want to know has skyrocketed from thousands to millions. You want to know the intimate details of life as a Japanese spider crab? You got it.

Even human intelligence itself has increased! That’s right, it’s called the Flynn Effect. Although average IQ stores are holding steady at 100, that’s because 100 is defined as average intelligence. What’s actually happened is that IQ tests keep getting adjusted to compensate for our greater intellect. Why is that? Various explanations have been proposed, such as increasing genetic diversity and the higher intellectual stimulation of modern life. Richard Lynn suggests that improved nutrition for mothers and babies is the main cause, in part because even babies show signs of increased intelligence. The banning of leaded gasoline may also help explain recent gains.

All these improvements have happened without control by a central power like Rome of old. It’s almost as if, when it comes to international relations, we’ve learned to get along. Could it be?

Admittedly, problems remain — some serious and some relatively minor — in some parts of the world.

While child mortality rates have plunged by half since 1990, that’s still six million deaths per year — 0.1% of the population, but 4.5% of the world birth rate. To put it another way, 1 in 22 children die before their fifth birthday — 16,000 per day, 11 per minute.

Also, the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Mexico (the drug war) kill tens of thousands of people per year. But these roughly 100,000 deaths are below 0.002% of the world population. In fact, while the number of armed conflicts has risen in the last fifty years, the deadliness of those conflicts has gone down.


World War II killed roughly ten million people per year for six years, so this whole graph is small potatoes by comparison.

Remarkably, total deaths have dropped even as the world population doubled. So although it’s back above 100,000, it’s actually not so bad in the scheme of things. Murder rates are pretty stubborn but have generally gone down too (again because of leaded gasoline).

You might have heard there are more slaves today than ever before. That’s true. But again, as a percentage of the population, slavery is rare — and some believe we can eliminate it in 30 years.

A lot of countries have more minor problems. China enjoys stunning economic development — but they don’t have democracy or free speech, the internet is tightly regulated, and their quality of life has not improved for many years, except in rural areas. On the other hand, they are optimistic about the future. Meanwhile, Russia’s economic development has slid backwards. While Russia is ostensibly democratic, people that Putin doesn’t like tend to end up dead or exiled, independent media was dismantled, and Putin has used the state media and troll armies to influence public opinion not just in Russia but around the world. Meanwhile, the United States’ corrupt politicians aren’t improving the lives of its citizens, it has the most expensive health care (among other things) in the world, and life expectancy is two years below most European nations (20 years lower in some counties). The unprecedented level of media consolidation leaves a few big corporations in charge of deciding what news is “hot”, and the internet only seems to have enhanced misinformation flows and political polarization.

Still. The momentum is on the side of prosperity.

Worldwide, comparing now with then, almost everything is getting better. The late Hans Rosling gave excellent TED talks explaining not only how the world has been improving — with many “developing” countries on course to be “developed” pretty soon — but also why we should have hope for the future.

If you found any of the statistics above surprising, I strongly recommend watching Hans Rosling’s final talk, “How not to be ignorant about the world”. Did you know you lived in a “one-hump” world? If not, it’s a good time to learn:

The injustices in this world continue to alarm me. But given all the statistics, and as a watcher of U.S. politics, I tend to feel that the number of people who don’t seem to care about injustice and inequality alarms me more than the injustices themselves. Do we work together, or is it “every man for himself”? Will we rise the tide and lift all our boats?

In any case, you’re living at the most exciting time in human history, a time of dramatic improvement and promise. Our world’s momentum is taking us in a positive direction, and there’s no end in sight.

What’s next? Cheap rides in self-driving electric taxis? A colony on Mars? A network of tunnels under every city? An end to poverty? How about all of the above!




All things considered, the best ideas left undone

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David Piepgrass

David Piepgrass

Fighting for a better world and against dark epistemology.

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