If you watch the news, it seems like the world is in bad shape. In a survey by YouGov, 71% of respondents agreed with this sentiment and said they thought the world was getting worse, while only 5% thought it was getting better. “If it bleeds, it leads,” reflects what the media often covers because it’s human instinct to pay attention to scary events, negative information and potential threats. This instinct once helped keep our ancestors alive. But are things as bad as most people think they are?
In his book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argues that in almost every category you can measure, including health, prosperity, safety, peace and happiness, people around the world are much better off today than they have ever been.
In the mid-18th century, the world average for life expectancy was less than 30 years. Today that number is over 70 years. Pinker writes, “In the richest country two centuries ago (the Netherlands), life expectancy was just forty, and in no country was it above forty-five. Today, life expectancy in the poorest country in the world (the Central African Republic) is fifty-four, and in no country is it below forty-five.” Child and maternal mortality rates have also dropped dramatically. Pinker states that in the 1700s, “a third of children born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; today that fate befalls 6 percent of the children in the poorest parts.”
Hunger and famine still exist, but not at the staggering levels of the past. From 1921-22, a famine in Bolshevik Russia took approximately 5 million lives. And during the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-61, over 30 million are estimated to have starved to death. Today the average person in China consumes 3,100 calories a day; The average is 2,400 in India and 2,600 in Africa. Stunted growth and undernourishment in children are also declining in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Because of laws, building codes, railings and caution signs, the world is substantially safer than ever before. In the past 90 years, the likelihood that you will fall to your death has declined by 72%. The number of deaths by fire or water have declined by almost 90%. At the turn of the century, you were 37 times more likely to be killed by lightning than you are today.
Quality of life has also improved. In 1870, the average employee in the United States and Western Europe worked over 60 hours a week, versus 40 hours today. Housework has gone from 58 hours a week in 1900 to 16 hours in 2011. In 1920, the average person spent over 11 hours a week doing laundry. In 2014, that dropped to 1.5 hours. Technology, like the modern washing machine, has provided us with time we otherwise wouldn’t have to spend with our children, read, pursue hobbies or start a new business. And not only do we have more time to spend as we choose, we also have more disposable income. In 1929, people spent over 60% of their income on necessities, but today it’s around 30%.
According to Pinker, one of the best measures of human progress is education and this is where we’ve seen the most dramatic improvement. Ninety percent of girls and 92% of boys attend primary school worldwide. The literacy rate for young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 is over 90%. Pinker found, “In many Middle Eastern and North African countries, more than three-quarters of the people over 65 are illiterate, whereas the rate for those in their teens and 20s is in the single digits.”
When it comes to health, prosperity, safety, peace and happiness, the world is getting better. He writes, “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow.” But Pinker also concedes there are still many areas that need improvement, including inequality, suicide rates, and climate change. There has also been a significant increase in the number of deaths caused by accidental drug overdoses.
He argues that we have the best chance of working collaboratively to solve problems when we have an accurate picture of what the real problems are. And while we have a lot to be grateful for and optimistic about, this doesn’t mean we should simply lie back and relax. Things may be better than ever, but there’s still more work to do.
Melissa Brown is a web developer at SimpleDzn.com and former business professor at the University of Alaska. She can be reached at email@example.com. This column is brought to you as a public service by the UAF Department of Applied Business.