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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Reasons to be cheerful

In a time of widespread violence and disease, good news is no news

The Times carried my article arguing that things are still going well for the world as a whole even in a month of war, terror and disease. I have illustrated it with two superb charts from ourworldindata.org, a website being developed by the talented Max Roser.

 

Is this the most ghastly silly season ever? August 2014 has brought rich pickings for doom-mongers. From Gaza to Liberia, from Donetsk to Sinjar, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse — conquest, war, famine and death — are thundering across the planet, leaving havoc in their wake. And (to paraphrase Henry V), at their heels, leashed in like hounds, debt, despair and hatred crouch for employment. Is there any hope for humankind?

Consider the litany of horror that faces the world. A religious war between militant Islam and its enemies is flaring all across Eurasia, from Pakistan through Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan to Nigeria. In Ukraine a tinpot tyrant has deliberately loosed a war of conquest and reconquest. In West Africa a vicious pestilence spreads ever faster.

Think only of how often you have seen images of dead children this summer: strewn across a cornfield in Ukraine, decapitated on a street in Iraq, blown apart on a beach in Gaza, wounded in a hospital in Syria, being buried in Liberia. The fate of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria is hardly any less horrible. Man is a wolf to man.

In the world of money you can find plenty to cry about too. Argentina has defaulted on its debt. Britain’s national debt has doubled in four years. The Eurozone is in permanent recession and teeters on the brink of its next crisis. Stock markets are wobbling.

All true and all horrible. But the world is always full of atrocity, violence, death and debt. Are things really worse this year or are we journalists just reporting the clouds in every silver lining? Remember the media does not give a fair summary of what happens in the world. It tells you disproportionately about the things that go badly wrong. If it bleeds, it leads, as they say in newspapers. Good news is no news.

So let’s tot up instead what is going, and could go, right. Actually it is a pretty long list, just not a very newsworthy one. Compared with any time in the past half century, the world as a whole is today wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, safer, more peaceful and more equal.

The average person on the planet earns roughly three times as much as he or she did 50 years ago, corrected for inflation. If anything, this understates the improvement in living standards because it fails to take into account many of the incredible improvements in the things you can buy with that money. However rich you were in 1964 you had no computer, no mobile phone, no budget airline, no Prozac, no search engine, no gluten-free food. The world economy is still growing every year at a furious lick — faster than Britain grew during the industrial revolution.

Here's Max Roser's chart of the decline in the price of light over two centuries:

light

The average person lives about a third longer than 50 years ago and buries two thirds fewer of his or her children (and child mortality is the greatest measure of misery I can think of). The amount of food available per head has gone up steadily on every continent, despite a doubling of the population. Famine is now very rare. The death rate from malaria is down by nearly 30 per cent since the start of the century. HIV-related deaths are falling. Polio, measles, yellow fever, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid, typhus — they killed our ancestors in droves, but they are now rare diseases.

We tell ourselves we are miserable, but it is not true. In the 1970s there was a study that claimed to find that people grew less happy as they got richer, but it was based on faulty data. We now know that on the whole people are more satisfied with life as they get wealthier, a correlation that holds between countries, within countries and within lifetimes. Anyway, it’s better to be well fed, healthy and unhappy than hungry, sick and unhappy. Here's Roser's chart of happiness data:

happinessEducation is in a mess and everybody’s cross about it, but consider: far more people go to school and stay there longer than they did 50 years ago. Besides, through a mysterious phenomenon called the Flynn effect, IQ scores keep going up everywhere, especially in those topics that have least to do with education, probably thanks to better food, richer upbringing and so forth.

The air is much cleaner than when I was young, with smog largely banished from our cities. Rivers are cleaner and teem with otters and kingfishers. The sea is still polluted and messed with in every part of the world, but there are far more whales than there were 50 years ago. Forest cover is increasing in many countries and the pressure on land to grow food has begun to ease.

We think we are getting ever more selfish, but it is not true. We give more of our earnings to charity than our grandparents did. Violent crimes of almost all kinds are on the decline — murder, rape, theft, domestic violence. So are capital and corporal punishment and animal cruelty. We are less prejudiced about gender, homosexuality and race. Paedophilia is no more prevalent, just hushed up less.

Despite all the illiberal things our governments still try to do to us, freedom is on the march. When I was young only a few countries were democracies; the rest were run by communist or fascist despots. Today there’s only a handful of the creeps left — they could all meet in a pub: fat Kim, Castro the brother, Mugabe, a couple of central Asians, the blokes from Venezuela and Bolivia, the Belorussian geezer. Putin’s applying for membership. The Chinese one no longer shows up.

The weather is not getting worse. Despite what you may have read, there is no global increase in floods, cyclones, tornadoes, blizzards and wild fires — and there has been a decline in the severity of droughts. If you got the opposite impression, it’s purely because of the reporting of natural disasters, which has become a lot more hysterical. Besides, thanks to better infrastructure, communications and technology, there has been a steep decline in deaths due to extreme weather.

Globally, your probability of dying as a result of a drought, flood or storm is 98 per cent lower than it was in the 1920s. As Steven Pinker documented in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the number of deaths in warfare is also falling, though far more erratically. The ten years 2000-10 was the decade with the smallest number of deaths in warfare since records began in the 1940s. That may not last — indeed, it is looking like this decade may be worse. But it may be better.

 

Here's Goklany's data on global deaths from extreme weather:

extreme weather

 

As for inequality, the world as a whole is getting rapidly more equal in income, because people in poor countries are getting richer at a more rapid pace than people in rich countries. That has now been true for two decades, but it has accelerated since the great recession. The GDP per capita of Mozambique is 60 per cent higher than it was in 2008; that of Italy is 6 per cent lower. A country like Mozambique has been out of the headlines recently and now you know why: things are mostly going right there.

Writing my book The Rational Optimist in the middle of a great recession that seemed to be bringing the world economy to its knees was brave to the point of foolhardiness. But if anything I was too cautious. The world bounced back from that recession far faster than I expected and the pace of innovation and improvement redoubled.

Britain, too, did better than I feared. We are growing faster than any other major economy, we have seen the unemployment rate defy even the most cheery forecasts in its rate of fall and we have kept the country safer from terrorism than was true for most of my life. Technologies that seem indistinguishable from magic keep falling cheaply into our hands.

Of course, like anybody I can still talk myself into gloom. Scotland could break away. Militant Islam could tear our communities apart. European bureaucrats could strangle innovation even more than they do already. When asked what I most worry about, I always reply “bureaucracy and superstition” because these are what brought down previous civilisations in Ming China or Abbasid Arabia.

Be warned that being cheerful guarantees you will never be taken seriously. The philosopher John Stuart Mill said: “Not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”