Everywhere you look, it just seems like things are getting worse. A pandemic, war, the potential for famine on a colossal scale. Rampant inflation, expensive energy, a climate emergency, a world that seems divided like never before. It doesn’t seem like there’s much reason for optimism these days.
Is that really the case, though? Why do so many conclude that the world is only getting worse, believing optimism is for the naive? Well, how much time did you spend watching the news today? How much time did you spend on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, even Instagram? If you’re like most people, probably more time than you think. As it turns out, you may be afflicted by a cognitive bias known as “Mean World Syndrome.” Constant exposure to violence-related content in the media you consume has a negative chronic effect on your perception of the world – and your mental health – by slowly biasing you towards assuming the world is a dark and dangerous place.
The reality is, things are not getting worse – they’re getting better, and have been for generations. Recently, I showed you how there is no climate emergency. Today, I’ll show you how we are healthier, wealthier, and living better lives than ever before.
I bet a lot of your grandparents had multiple siblings. Perhaps as many as five or six; even ten was not uncommon. Part of the reason our grandparents and great-grandparents had so many children is because they lost so many of them (even if they were wealthy). In the early part of the 20th century, 15% of children in nations like Sweden and Canada did not live to see their 5th birthday. Today, most developed nations have infant death rates of only a fraction of one percent.
Life expectancy has commensurately risen, from about 35 years of age in 1800, to well into the high seventies or eighties today. The best news from greater life expectancy is that more of those years are healthy years; for every 4.7 years of additional life, 3.8 are healthy years. And this trend is very much still intact.
We often forget the little things that change lives. You’ve probably never heard of Karl Landsteiner. Well, he probably saved about a billion lives by his discovery of blood groups. Or how about John Enders, credited with discovering the measles vaccine? Or Howard Florey, who discovered penicillin? These scientists, and thousands more, saved billions of lives over the past century. Similar miracles have occurred in the fight against AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, even basic afflictions like pneumonia.
For most of human history, occasional famines were just a part of life. It was quite common for a multi-year drought or flood event to devastate local communities, even nations at large, where millions of people could die, occasionally wiping out major civilizations. For example, it is theorized that the primary reason for ancient Egypt’s eventual fall was because of a two-to-three-decade period of erratic flooding of the Nile river, destroying crops and starving the people dependent on them.
Unfortunately, in modern times, famines have lingered on, but usually for political reasons. Indeed, of the seventy million people who died in 20th century famines, 80 percent were victims of communist regimes, such as in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and others. Other modern famines have been due to disastrous policies to promote self sufficiency. Sri Lanka is an unfortunate modern example of this. When governments stay out of the way, farmers do what they do best: grow food.
Along with the near elimination of famine, childhood stunting has been tremendously reduced. While 13 percent of the developed world being undernourished is hardly reason to declare victory, it is a far cry better than the 35 percent who were undernourished just a half century ago – while our population grew by nearly five billion people!
Yes, there are still hungry people out there, millions of them. And the recent pandemic has seen our progress reverse for the first time in modern history. But have optimism: the trend will re-establish, and we will solve global hunger in our lifetimes – if agriculture is allowed to innovate and use all the tools it has available to it, not be hamstrung by flawed government policies.
Wealth & Inequality
We like to idealize the past. We like to pretend it was a simpler time, when we lived closer to nature. We do not have great memories. As Johan Norberg pointed out in his 2017 book, Progress: 10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future,
“In wealthy Genoa, poor people sold themselves as galley slaves every winter… In England, the poor had to work in workhouses to get relief, where they worked long hours for almost no pay. Some were instructed to crush dog, horse, and cattle bones for use as fertilizer, until an inspection of a workhouse in 1845 showed that hungry paupers were fighting over the rotting bones to suck out the marrow.”
Pleasant times, indeed.
Astonishingly, over 80% of the world’s population lived in what we now define as extreme poverty (less than $1 a day) just two centuries ago. What we have a hard time contemplating today is that this was the most common existence for most of human history. The majority has always lived tough lives – until very recently, when extreme poverty rates absolutely plummeted to below 10% today. Every second, 1.9 more people escape extreme poverty.
In the last two centuries, wealth has exploded across the world, with Gross World Product growing almost one hundred-fold since the Industrial Revolution was in place in 1820. And this is a serious underestimate of what money can actually buy today; things that did not exist in 1820. Like dental care, which consisted of a pair of pliers and wooden dentures– what we have today is exponentially better than what existed then.
The problem with wealth is that it isn’t evenly distributed. As Steven Pinker puts it in his book Enlightenment Now:
“The need to explain the creation of wealth is obscured yet again by political debates within modern societies on how wealth ought to be distributed, which presuppose that wealth worth distributing exists in the first place… Among the brainchildren of the Enlightenment is the realization that wealth is created.”
Unfortunately, over time, wealth tends to accumulate in the top echelon of society. This criticism, however, is misplaced; while this does indeed occur in capitalistic societies, it very much occurs in socialist societies, as well, as the top political leaders of communist regimes often take most of the riches. The great thing about capitalism, though, is that the top 1% often shift around, as businesses rise and fall. And, as Pinker said, wealth cannot be distributed until it is created, and there is no more successful system that we know of than capitalism for creating that.
Quality of Life
It’s easy to conclude that all our extra wealth and longevity has come at the cost of our happiness, our life satisfaction. Many of us are positively addicted to our smartphones, paying more attention to a little black rectangle than to the people in the room with us at. It might be easy to conclude that all our extra affluence has simply consigned us to a rat race of careerism, consumption, and hollow entertainment.
That conclusion is a little too cynical. The truth leaves far more room for optimism.
If time is one of our most precious commodities, then truly we are far richer than our ancestors. For those of us who have grandparents raised on a farm, we have a bit of an understanding of the toil that our ancestors faced. Farming was a backbreaking exercise of relentless work, rarely producing more than enough to survive until next year. That is precisely why people left farms in droves to work in mines and factories..
As ever, we romanticize the past, even more so the very distant past. Hunting and gathering is often thought of as a healthier, simpler life, but it was not so. While the task of hunting and foraging might have only taken a few hours a day, the rest of it was spent labouring to cook and build shelter. In fact, some ancient tribes are estimated to have spent at least eight hours a day, every day, working on preparing food alone.
While we like to complain that we work too many hours today, in 1870 the average Western European work week was 66 hours. Today, they work only 38 hours. Retirement is, for the first time in human history, an actual possibility for our seniors. Today, the average American retires at age 62. A century ago, the average American was dead at 51.
Despite our ambitions to get more “stuff”, we are spending more time in leisure than ever. Even working mothers today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960’s. Spending on necessities has declined by half in the last century, and that is ignoring the fact that we have far more “necessities” today than our grandparents could have dreamed of as children.
Travel is cheaper and more accessible than ever, allowing us to see far more of the world and visit family members living far away. We have access to food choices from any country on Earth, with grocers expanding their options from 2,200 in the 1950’s to nearly 40,000 today.
In the country, in the endless dark of the winter months, when wax was too expensive for the ordinary person, the crushing boredom of the hours is hard to fathom today. Most households lacked not only modern entertainment like Internet and television but also newspapers and books. We take for granted that the entire world is accessible to us in the palm of our hand.
It’s Time to Start Believing in a Better Future
The pandemic has created immense challenges and hardships. The cost of everything is rising and we all feel harried, stressed, and too busy. These are real concerns and should not be brushed over. Despite this, our lives are better in every measurable way than our great-grandparents ever could have imagined. We are living longer, healthier, happier, easier lives, with more access to leisure, travel, and family than ever before. Yes, things could be better, and we could certainly take time to be more grateful for the advantages we have. Yes, these gains are not evenly distributed, and many haven’t had much chance to participate in the gains of modern society. Yet, with extreme poverty rates still collapsing, there is great hope that all of these amazing achievements will find their way to everyone with time.
We would all be a little happier, a little more optimistic, if some of what’s in this post was more widespread knowledge. It’s time to start believing in a better future.