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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
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:
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
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:
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:
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
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
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.”