The World is Getting Better
By Ryan Allis
My grandmother Eva Allis was born in 1904 in Pennsylvania. She was 34 when she had my dad in 1938. And my dad was 46 when he helped bring me into the world in 1984.
When Eva was born at the beginning of the 20th century, global life expectancy was 32, 19.5% of infants died before they reached their first birthday, and the average person globally made $2,000 per year (in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation).
Now let’s fast forward a little over a century to today. As of 2013, global life expectancy is 70, infant mortality is 3.6%, and the average person globally makes $10,070 per year (in today’s dollars).
Since the beginning of the 20th century, global life expectancy has increased by 118%, infant mortality has declined by 81%, per person income has improved by 403% (in real dollars), all while human population has increased by more than 4x from 1.7 billion to 7.1 billion.
As a species, we’ve made immense progress over the last century. We’ve made this progress during a period in which we saw the Green Revolution in agricultural productivity, the invention of personal computing, and the creation of the internet.
Let’s compare 1900 with 1980 and 2012 across eight metrics to see how our species and our planet has fared.
We’ve made immense improvements in the measures of of health (1, 2), economics (3, 4), and education (5, 6). However we’ve got work to do on the environmental measures (7, 8) in order to reach the goal of a world with sustainable prosperity for every person. Fortunately, for the first time in human history, a world in which every person has access to food, water, shelter, healthcare, and education is in reach. This goal of sustainable prosperity is not only within reach, it is amazingly within reach during our lifetime.
I’ll discuss the above measures of human progress below and argue that the rapid advances in markets, technology and public awareness that are currently taking place will allow us to move to a carbon neutral world by 2040 in which we have both environmental sustainability and shared human prosperity in which every person has access to opportunity and basic human needs like food, water, shelter, healthcare, and education.
A Rapid Decline in Infant Mortality
Infant mortality is usually defined as the number of infants who are born who do not make it to the age of 1. If you die before you reach age 1, you definitionally don’t have the chance to live a long and happy life.
In 1900, the infant mortality rate in the United Stares was 160 deaths per 1000 births (16%).. Globally the average infant mortality rate from countries that provided data at that time was approximately 19.5% according to a survey of available data by Charles Kenny, the author of Getting Better.. In reality the global average for infant mortality was likely a bit higher, perhaps as much as 25% to 30% as the countries in which infant mortality was being recorded in 1900 were the more advanced countries.
By 2012, the infant mortality rate globally fell to 3.69%. From 1900 to 2012, infant mortality fell 81% globally (from 195 deaths per 1000 to 36 deaths per 1000) as improvements in in immunizations and antibiotics, increased food supplies and distribution, better nutrition, safer water supplies, and improved sanitation have spread.
A Rapid Decline in Poverty
The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living under $1.25 per day. There are now 1.2 billion people living under $1.25 per day (in constant 2005 dollars). This figure has dropped rapidly, down from 1.9 billion people in 1980. In 1980, 42.6% of world population was living in extreme poverty (1.9 billion / 4.45 billion total world population). Today, just 16.9% of world population is living in extreme poverty (1.2 billion / 7.1 billion total world population). We’ve seen both a percentage basis and absolute decline. Seeing this continued and very rapid decline in just one generation within the context of human history is part of what makes me excited and optimistic.
The cover article of The Economist in the first week of June 2013 discussed this rapid decline in poverty.
“Poverty’s scourge is fiercest below $1.25: people below that level live lives that are poor, nasty, brutish and short. They lack not just education, health care, proper clothing and shelter—which most people in most of the world take for granted—but even enough food for physical and mental health. Raising people above that level of wretchedness is not a sufficient ambition for a prosperous planet, but it is a necessary one. The world’s achievement in the field of poverty reduction is, by almost any measure, impressive.” – The Economist, June 1, 2013
The data show that global life expectancy and income have dramatically improved in the last century while extreme poverty has rapidly declined, even as the number of people on the planet increased by 4x. Competitive markets, specialization, engines, energy, medical science, and computerization have greatly improved global productivity and in turn the real living standards of our species over the last century.
Below you can see Gross National Income globally (essentially the same as Global GDP) in constant 2000 dollars to allow comparison across time. Per person income has been going way up and poverty has been greatly declining since 1900.
You can see how even major events like the Great Recession of 2008-2009 only barely affected the continued march of rising global incomes. In 2012, the Global GDP was $70 trillion (in 2012 dollars).
The Most Peaceful Time in Human History?
In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard professor Steven Pinker makes the case that we may be living in the most peaceful time in human history, at least since the advent of agriculture and the beginnings of more densely populated cilivilizations 12,000 years ago. After a tumultuous 20th century which saw events like WWI, WWII, the Holocaust, the Sino-Japanese war, the Korean War, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Vietnam war, the Cambodian Genocide, the Gulf War, the Bosnian War, and the Rwandan genocide, it seems that over the last quarter century since the fall of the USSR and the beginning of the widespread use of the Internet we’ve entered a time of substantially less deadly conflict between and within nations, even including events from terrorism.
By the mid-1990s global trade was greatly expanding, creating interconnections that increased human understanding and reduced the likelihood of armed conflict as the calculus changes and populations realize they are usually better off pursuing peace than warfare. The 1990s also brought us the World Wide Web, providing a way to share information with people anywhere in the world. The Internet has just begun to create an interconnected web of humanity which no “Berlin Wall” could stop. Today in 2013, 35% of us are on the internet. We are on track to reach half of humanity on the internet by 2016 and nearly all of humanity on the internet by 2030. In the next 15 years, the number of people on the internet will triple from 2.5 billion today to 7.5 billion.
Globalization combined with the global expansion of information sharing via the Internet so far has coincided with a trend in the reduction of violence. As Facebook, Twitter, and internet-enabled smartphones is reaching mass global distribution, humanity has finally found a tool through which it could spread information and understanding across cultures, greatly reducing the likelihood of popular support for armed conflict except in the most egregious situations.
Another example of our newly interconnected species was shown during the Arab Spring of 2011. In this new time period of empowered and connected citizens, only governments that truly work for the benefit of its people will survive. In mid-2011, Saudi Arabia’s government even went to the lengths of paying $130 billion to provide for two months of extra civil servent salaries and building 500,000 units of low-income housing in order to gain greater legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens.
Here is a chart of battle deaths per conflict per year by each of the last six decades, according to Steven Pinker from 1950-2005. While it’s important to point out that Pinker’s chart may not include the full impact of the 2003-2011 Iraq War or the 2011-2013 Syrian civil war, the overall trend still holds.
And here’s a chart showing deaths from war per 100,000 people per year declining from 1946-2008.
Today with global per capita income at $10,070 (up from $700 in 1800 and $2000 in 1900 in today’s dollars) and a connected network of 2.5 billion humans in every country in the world, we may have surprisingly created, after a tumultuous 20th century, a foundation for a long time of relative peace.
Increasing Access to Education
Today in 2013 we have access to Wikipedia, Khan Academy, EdX, Coursera, SkillShare, and iTunes University. Fifteen years ago none of these resources for self-directed learning existed.
Today 35% of the world has access to the internet. It must be a top priority (along with moving to a clean energy economy) of every national, state, and city government to reach universal access to the internet by 2030. Imagine a world with 7.5 billion people with access to the educational power of the internet.
Since the mid-19th century, global adult literacy rates have greatly improved, from an estimated 10% in 1850 to 84% today in 2013. Ensuring that all people can read and write should also be a primary goal of every developing country leader. Without the ability to read or write, you cannot fill out a job application or participate in the global economy.
Here’s what UNESCO has to say about the progress we’ve made over the last 150 years.
“In the mid-nineteenth century, only 10% of the world’s adult population could read or write. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, UNESCO estimates that over 80% of adults worldwide can read and write at some minimum level. This unprecedented social transformation occurred despite the world’s population quintupling from about 1.2 billion in 1850 to over 6.4 billion [by 2006]… Literacy today, in its many manifestations, has become a vital set of competencies and practices, interwoven in the fabric of contemporary societies.” – UNESCO Education for All Monitoring Report
Improved Conditions Enabling A Historic Rise in Global Population
“O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!” ― William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Modern humans (homo sapiens) have been around for about 200,000 years. It took us 190,000 years, from 200,000 BC until 10,000 BC to reach 15 million people. With the advent of agriculture and the growth of cities and civilization starting in Mesopotamia and then expanding outward, human population reached it’s first major tipping point, growing from 15 million in 10,000 BC to 1 billion by the year 1800.
In the 19th century, human population grew 60% from 1.0 billion to 1.6 billion. Then, in the 20th century, human population skyrocketed nearly 300% from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion. Today in 2013, population has reached 7.1 billion and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.
Only through the progress of medical science and the development of advanced agriculture and the industrial revolution which brought together both energy and engines has this immense growth been possible over the last two hundred years. And with greater population comes the ability for scientists to finally have the economic incentive to solve rare diseases and the ability for economies of scale to enable complex supply chains that bring every good to your local markets, greatly expanding choice.
Let’s take a look at population growth over the last 12,000 years.
Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley Brad DeLong shares why he has a strong preference to live in the present time in his book Slouching Toward Utopia, The Economic History of the 20th Century.
“Suppose that you stuffed me and my family into a time machine, sent us back a century to 1890… I would want, first, health insurance: the ability to go to the doctor and be treated with late-twentieth-century medicines. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was crippled by polio. Without antibiotic and adrenaline shots I would now be dead of childhood pneumonia. The second thing I would want would be utility hookups–electricity and gas, central heating, and consumer appliances. The third thing I want to buy is access to information–audio and video broadcasts, recorded music, computing power, and access to databases. None of these were available at any price back in 1890.”
I could not buy a washing machine… I could not buy airplane tickets… I could do nothing for medical care. And I could do nothing for access to information, communications, and entertainment technology save to leave the children home with the servants and go to the opera and the theater every other week. How much are the central heating, electric lights, flouridated toothpaste, electric toaster ovens, clothes-washing machines, dishwashers, synthetic fiber-blend clothes, radios, intercontinental telephones, xerox machines, notebook computers, automobiles, and steel-framed skyscrapers that I have used so far today worth–and it is only 10 A.M.?”
So Why Do People Think The World is Getting Worse?
In 1798 Thomas Malthus made a famous prediction in An Essay on the Principle of Population that world population would level off due to famine. At the time the population was just under 1 billion people. Unfortunately for Malthus, he didn’t properly take into account the impact of the Industrial revolution and the agricultural revolution in expanding the food production capabilities of the 19th and 20th centuries and advancements in medical science (like penicillin) greatly expanding our life expectancy.
Today, I find the same principle often holds–those predicting doom are either doing it for the sake of selling news or are doing it because they aren’t factoring into their models how rapidly the combination of the market system, specialization, and investments in technology are creating solutions to the major challenges facing humanity.
News publishers know that the human brain is instinctually structured to pay more attention to bad news and danger. Our brain’s amygdala developed on the grasslands of Eastern Africa 50,000 years ago to ensure that information connected to possible danger was processed and remembered with much higher priority than information connected to opportunity and safety. The early homo sapiens who paid attention to and remembered danger were those who prosperous and reproduced, creating an evolutionary selection for those with amygdalas that easily recalled danger. Peter Diamandis writes about this principle extensively in his 2012 book Abundance.
Further, sociologically, we place way more attention than is appropriate on very low risk, yet worrisome events, especially if they are close to us. For example, each year in the United States, around 50,000 people die in car accidents while about 500 people die in plane accidents. Yet it’s the plane crashes that we fear. Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely writes about these types of irrational, yet common perspectives in his 2008 book Predictably Irrational.
What About The Environment?
“The juggernaut of technology-based capitalism will not be stopped. It’s momentum is reinforced by the billions of poor people in developing countries anxious to participate in order to share the material wealth of the industrialized nations. But its direction can be changed by mandate of a generally shared long-term environemtnal ethic. The choice is clear: the juggernaut will very soon either chew up what remains of the living world, or it will be redirected to save it.” – E.O. Wilson, The Future of Life, p. 156
Unless we make pretty rapid changes to a clean energy economy and away from fossil fuels over the next 20 years, we risk much of the progress we’ve made since 1900.
The earth’s environment is not an “issue delinked from human progress.” The Earth is the place on which nearly all human progress has taken place. As the noted biologist E.O. Wilson says, “…the planet… is a little sphere with a razor-thin coat of life too fragile to bear careless tampering.”
Yet even E.O. Wilson himself sees technology, science, and human progress as part of the solution to a sustainable future, not as part of the problem. He says in The Future of Life (2002), “Science and technology also promise the means for raising per-capita food production while decreasing materials and energy consumption, both of which are preconditions for successful long-term conservation and a sustainable economy.”
Perhaps, then, it is the discovery of petroleum in 1859 in Edward Drake’s steam engine well in Pennsylvania that has in part led to humanity having such high-standards of living today–standards of living that for once allow us to afford to invest in creating a carbon neutral world by 2040 that is prosperous for all of us, unlike the low carbon and low living-standard world of 1840 that was brutish, difficult, and short, with low literacy rates, a lack of sanitation, no electricity or sewage removal, and high infant mortality. Historically, fossil fuels have been a great thing for humanity. Now that we know that the continued use of fossil fuels will threaten the progress they have so far enabled, we must use our wealth and scientific energy to move toward clean energy as quickly as possible.
Moving to a Clean Energy Economy Is Essential For Continued Progress
As the chart at the beginning of this section shows, while humanity has made immense progress in health, education, and economic measures, we are getting a failing grade in the realm of moving away from using carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are increasing the surface temperature.
The science is simple. Increased CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere and increased heat in the atmosphere raises the surface temperature, disrupting weather patterns and raising sea levels.
This chart shows the correlation between increasing CO2 parts per million and increasing surface temperatures.
We passed 400 PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in a May 2013 measurement at the Mauna Loa Observeratory. The safe level is 350 PPM. It’s clear that if we go above 450 PPM we will see major disruptions to global climate and potentially trigger systemic effects that accelerate carbon dioxide (such as the release of greenhouse gas methane from the melting of the Siberian permafrost or the desertifcation of the Brazilian rainforests). The goal should not be to stay under 450 PPM, however. The goal should be to return to 350 PPM as quickly as possible. To do this, we must reduce our annual carbon output from 37 gigatons to under 5 gigatons over the next two decades.
There are organizations that are attempting to spread doubt about the need to move away from a fossil fuel based economy. A site that does a great job providing a rebuttal to the major arguments related to the correlation between CO2 and surface temperature is called Skeptical Science.
We need to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, invest in companies and institutions researching synthetic algae, biofuels, wind, solar, and fusion power, tax carbon dioxide emissions, and invest in new carbon capture technologies like Bioenergy Carbon Capture & Storage (BECCS).
On the topic of biodiversity, the World Wildlife Fund has been tracking the populations of 2,688 species of animals since 1970. Their Living Planet Index shows a 28% decline in the populations of these species from 1970 to 2008. As we create a prosperous world without poverty, we must develop cleanly and sustainably to stop the destructions of habitats. This is not only the right thing to do, it’s in our own best interest as many species of plant and animal life may prove essential to medical advancements and the full, complex ecosystem of millions of species provide essential services in keeping our planet in balance.
What About Income Inequality?
I have been studying extreme poverty and equality since age 17 in an AP Macroecomics class in 2001. My high school economics teacher Robert Fletcher, amazingly, taught economics from a human perspective rather than a mathematical perspective. Professor Fletcher shared with me in 2001 that at the time, 22% of the world lived on under $1.25 per day. Ever since, I’ve been passionate about the topic of reducing poverty and increasing global access to entrepreneurship.
Following that class, I majored in economics at the University at North Carolina, took five trips to East Africa to invest in tech and solar companies, visited the Kibera slums of Narobi, visited the Kakuma refugee camp near the South Sudan/Kenya border with the United Nations Foundation Global Entrepreneur Council, and took the Business, Government, and International Economics (BGIE) class as part of the first year MBA program at Harvard Business School.
Through these explorations, I’ve found that what really matters much more than disparity between incomes is ensuring that no one is living in extreme poverty. Let’s take two countries. Imagine in Country A, the bottom 25% makes $15 per day and the top 25% makes $150 per day. Now imagine Country B in which the bottom 25% makes $2 per day and the top 25% makes $8 per day. There is, obviously, a lot less income inequality in Country B, yet in Country B everyone is worse off than in Country A. I find that some inequality of results is okay as long as there is socioeconomic mobility and access to opportunity.
I’m not saying tracking income inequality is useless or that at times an extremely high gini coefficient is never a factor in social unrest. I am instead saying that we should focus our policy and concerns first on reducing poverty levels, which across the world have been rapidly decreasing since 1900. In 1980, 42.6% of the world lived on under $1.25 per day (in today’s dollars). Today in 2013, 17% of the world lives on under $1.25 per day. We have work to do, but we are making substantial progress and as noted above, have the opportunity to end extreme poverty while moving to a sustainable energy sources in our lifetime.
What About Happiness?
Some may ask, even if we are now living in the most economically prosperous time in human history with low infant mortality, high literacy rates and long life expectancies, are we actually happier that before? This is a valid question. A 2010 study by Princeton researchers Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, showed that emotional well-being increases with income up to $75,000, but did not rise further after reaching $75,000.
To be clear, I’m not talking about people making $75k earning more. I’m talking about the positive impact of hundreds of millions of families coming out of poverty in the last 100 years. The average person’s income globally increased from $2000 in 1900 to $10,070 in 2012. There’s a big difference in what is possible for your life and how well you can take care of your family when you’re earning $35 per day compared to $8 per day (the average in 1900). Reducing death and disease and incomes rising sufficiently to enable access to food, water, shelter, sanitation, healthcare, and electricity increases quality of life.
Back in 1900, life expectancy at birth was 32. There was no anti-bacterial medication, penicillin, or anesthesia. Women of childbearing age knew that each pregnancy might kill them. Mothers knew they were likely to lose a child before age 5. Many died from the common cold, flu, typhoid from unclean water, and spoiled food. We as a species have made a lot of progress since 1900.
Other Measures of Human Progress
Today, there are a number of organizations that have worked to document this global rise in life expectancy, living standards, and the reduction in poverty and have created holistic measures of human progress including the:
- Social Progress Index (SPI) – Started by Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter and launched in 2013 at the Skoll World Forum for Social Enterprise in Oxford, England.
- United Nations Human Development Index – Created by the United Nations in 1990. It measures progress using three key measures, years of schooling, life expectancy, and gross national income.
- Legatum Prosperity Index – Started by the hedge fund and think tank based in Dubai.
- Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness – The government of Bhutan began measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH) for their natio in 1972, to complement traditional Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measures that they felt overemphasized economic progress.
Other Challenges We Face
Through a very tumultuous 20th century, we made tremendous progress across major measures of human progress like life expectancy, infant mortality, per person income, the reduction of poverty, literacy, and access to the internet.
In addition to environmental challenges, our species does face some other real challenges (from highly unexpected black swan events that together aggregate into real risk or even expected challenges) that require substantial focus in order to not destabilize the great progress our species has been making. Here’s are just a few additional examples.
- Nuclear Proliferation– There are still about 17,200 nuclear bombs in the world, down from about 70,000 in 1987 . One hundred B83 nuclear explosions would end human civilization as we know it. Do we really need 17,000?
- Solar flares – In 1859, a large solar flare from the sun took out part of the American telegraph system. If a similar sized solar flare happened today on the sun, it could take out the electrical grid for weeks, causing quite a bit of chaos as credit card machines, ATMs, heating/cooling, food, supply chains, and the internet went down for a time. Our global production system is so distributed today that losing electricity over a large area for more than a few days would pose a major challenge to the progress of our species.
- Cyber Hacking – The large majority of hackers (computer programmers) are working to build solutions to human challenges and make the world a better place. However, it is now possible in an interconnected world to use hacking to reduce rather than advance human progress. As an example of the power of sophisticated computer hacking, in 2010, the U.S. government partially disabled a uranium enrichment facility in Iran through the use of introducing a computer virus known as Stuxnet. To say the least, the cyber security industry will be a growing industry in the 21st century.
Fifty examples of possible risks to our continued progress can be found from the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2013 Report. There are indeed a number of reasons to be cautious about what the 21st century will bring. However, in general the data show that our species has made immense progress in the last century and that today we are by far living in the most prosperous time in human history.
Giving Our Parents A Report Card
On net, our world is undoubtedly getting better. I give our parents in the Baby Boomer Generation (and Gen X) a grade of B in guiding human progress during their lifetimes. However, we have a lot of work left ahead for Gen Y to achieve the new manifest destiny of a world that is both environmentally sustainable and prosperous for every human being, particularly on the essential move away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.
Returning to the chart from earlier in the section, here’s the “progress report” grades I’d give our parents over the last 32 years.
We’re Living in an Amazing Time Filled With Opportunity
After millennia of very gradual improvements in living standards, it’s stunning to observe what happened to both human population and standards of living between 1800 and 2010 as we made rapid advanced advances in food production, sanitation, healthcare, and economic models. Below is a chart showing the per person income (in 2005 dollars) in gray graphed against the increase in billions of people on the planet in black.
Whenever you read a news article that leaves you feeling down about the world, come back to this below chart. Don’t miss the reality of immense human progress due to the anecdotes of daily depressing news.
I believe the early 21st century (now) is the the best time in human history to be an innovator and entrepreneur globally. Not only is life expectancy, per capita income, and literacy rates the highest in human history, the cost of starting a new company much lower than ever before (you can start a new company with a $300 incorporation fee and a $700 laptop) and the size of global market makes almost any niche able to achieve economies of scale.
For Additional Reading & Watching:
- Abundance by Peter Diamandis
- The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
- Getting Better by Charles Kenny
- The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
- The Commanding Heights by Daniel Yergin
- The Future of Life by E.O. Wilson
- Sex At Dawn (Chapters 11-14) by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha
- The History of the World in Two Hours by The History Channel
- Understanding The Science for Tomorrow: Myth vs. Reality by Jeffrey Grossman
- The Earth Dashboard (well-sourced and with more statistics)
To end, I’ll leave you with my TEDx talk from December 2012 in Boston in which I make the above arguments in a 17 minute format visual format.
I very much welcome your comments and feedback below, particularly any questions about data validity or sources or additional areas of substantiated concern. I am working on making this article better before the publication in book format and would love to incorporate your thoughts in the final version.