Contrary to Popular Opinion, the World is Becoming a Better Place

It is common for people to claim the world is becoming a worse place to live. But there is a good argument that, notwithstanding the presence of some awful things, that for most people the world appears to be a better place to live today than in most periods from the past. Technology allows us to tackle diseases once thought unconquerable; globalisation, for all its flaws, has increased wealth, knowledge and opportunity; and wars, totalitarian regimes and extreme poverty, which represent the greatest attacks on well being, are in decline.

The number of countries at war is declining

War is one of humankind’s great evils, unleashing death, terror, and destruction. Since the year 2000 fewer countries are at war. This reflects the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the US as the world’s only military superpower.

Chart by Dr M Marshall, Center for Systemic Peace. Used with permission

The Number of Democracies is Growing

More people live in countries where they are free from autocratic rule and have a say in their government.

Chart by Dr M Marshall, Center for Systemic Peace. Used with permission

The Number of People Living in Extreme Poverty is Declining

Poverty is one of the greatest blights on human well being. It sees 8 million children dying each year from treatable or preventable diseases; 1 billion people malnourished; over 1 billion people without access to clean drinking water. It eats away at human dignity. But as terrible as these statistics are, poverty is in decline.

There are a number of measures we can use as poverty indicators: income, child mortality; length of life; and more. On almost every indicator we pick, the last forty years have seen massive improvements.

Health is improving

Length of life is a good indicator of health outcomes and the data show a dramatic improvement in average lifespans. The trend even holds true for least developed nations, represented by the red line on the chart.


Progress is Not Guaranteed

I am excited about the advances being made in human well being, but with two caveats. First, while things are improving when the world as a whole is considered, there are groups of people, such as those displaced by war, for whom life now is worse than it was in the past.  Second, future progress is by no means guaranteed. Arguably the greatest threat is the unsustainable pressure we are placing on the environment. And developments in China will also have a massive impact.

Nonetheless, things have been getting better which gives me grounds for hope.

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Byron Smith
11 years ago

These are some important metrics. As you note at the end of the post, however, there are other metrics that point to more worrying conclusions: declining biodiversity, soil fertility, fresh water availability, ocean pH, Arctic sea ice and global primary production; rising atmospheric CO2, CH4, NOx, rate of biome change, numbers of invasive alien species, microbial resistance, particulate pollution, eutrophification; positive global energy flux and so on. And outside of ecology and the earth/life sciences more generally, the last few decades have seen rising inequality, more firearms, more corporate regulative capture (corruption), more land grabs, rising incommunicable diseases and fewer… Read more »

Byron Smith
11 years ago
Reply to  Scott

Corruption – it is difficult to define and measure. But one of the most respected bodies conducting research into corruption is Transparency International. Here are the results of a recent survey of 100,000 people worldwide. Only a tiny handful of countries have more people who think corruption is decreasing than increasing. I would content that the core indicators of human well being cannot be easily separated from ecological well being, and there is almost not a single indicator improving at a global level on that front (perhaps stratospheric ozone depletion is almost the only one). In other words, I’m… Read more »

Byron Smith
11 years ago
Reply to  Scott

I agree with everything you’ve just said. I think we’ve reached a shared understanding.

Byron Smith
11 years ago
Reply to  Scott

PS Thanks for the link. Likewise.

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