For most Americans, these feel like bleak times. We have a massively unpopular, scandal-plagued president whose aides are being convicted of serious federal felonies. Overt, old-fashioned racism is publicly visible and powerful in a way it wasn’t only five years ago. More than 200 admired, powerful men have been accused of sexual misconduct or assault.
This is all real, and truly alarming. But it would be a mistake to view that as the sum total of the world in 2018. Under the radar, some aspects of life on Earth are getting dramatically better. Extreme poverty has fallen by half since 1990, and life expectancy is increasing in poor countries — and there are many more indices of improvement like that everywhere you turn.
But many of us aren’t aware of ways the world is getting better because the press — and humans in general — have a strong negativity bias. Bad economic news gets more coverage than good news. Negative experiences affect people more, and for longer, than positive ones. Survey evidence consistently indicates that few people in rich countries have any clue that the world has taken a happier turn in recent decades — one poll in 2016 found that only 8 percent of US residents knew that global poverty had fallen since 1996.
It’s worth paying some attention to this huge progress. The people benefiting aren’t missing it — 50 percent of Chinese respondents in the 2016 poll said they knew poverty had fallen — and you shouldn’t either. Nothing’s permanent, and big challenges like climate change and the potential collapse of liberal democracy remain, but the world is getting much, much better on a variety of important, underappreciated dimensions.
1) Extreme poverty has fallen
This is probably the most important chart on this list. The extraordinary rate of economic growth in India and China — as well as slower but still significant growth in other developing countries — has led to a huge decline in the share of the world population living on less than $1.90 a day, from nearly 35 percent in 1987 to under 11 percent in 2013.
That’s a low bar for what counts as poverty, and some development experts argue we should be using a global poverty line of $10-15 a day instead. But that very debate is a sign of the tremendous progress made in recent decades.
2) Hunger is falling
This map shows changes to the Global Hunger Index — a measure of undernutrition calculated by the International Food Policy Research Institute — between 2000 and 2017. In countries marked red, hunger has increased. In countries marked orange or tan, it’s decreased, and in countries marked green it’s decreased by one half or more. So it’s encouraging to see how much of the globe is orange, tan, or green, and especially encouraging that a few extremely populous countries like China and Brazil fall into the green category.
3) Child labor is on the decline
Any amount of child labor is too much child labor, and the world didn’t meet the International Labor Organization’s goal of eliminating the “worst forms” of child labor by 2016. But the rate of decline — approximately a 40 percent reduction from 2000 to 2016 — is nontrivial and worth celebrating.
4) People in developed countries have more leisure time
5) The share of income spent on food has plummeted in the US
One reason the huge amount of economic progress made globally in recent decades gets ignored is that living standards for the median American have been fairly stagnant. One exception to that pattern, however, is the fact that cheaper food has freed up Americans to spend more on other expenses. “Between 1960 and 2007, the share of disposable personal income spent on total food by Americans, on average, fell from 17.5 to 9.6 percent,” the USDA notes, and the ratio has stayed at that low level since.
6) Life expectancy is rising
The increase in human life expectancy is a pretty recent phenomenon; lifespans fell in Europe from 1850 to 1870, and a slower pace of public health improvements (driven by imperial neglect among other factors) meant that Africa’s takeoff started later. But lifespans have doubled or more the world over since.
And the increase has persisted in more recent decades. Female and male life expectancy both increased by more than six years between 1990 and 2016, and the gains were biggest in poor countries in Africa and Asia. Inequalities remain (lifespans in Africa are still a shocking 16.3 years shorter than in Europe) but the gap is slowly closing.
7) Child mortality is down
Child mortality has fallen by more than half since 1990. If you look at developing regions, the gains are even more impressive. In Africa, 17 percent of children died before reaching age 5 in 1990. By 2015, that was down to 8 percent.
In the world’s second-largest country, India, child mortality fell by 69 percent in that timespan, or over two-thirds. In China, the most populous, it fell by 83 percent. These are truly massive numbers that have helped drive the broader improvements in life expectancy.
8) Death in childbirth is rarer
Maternal mortality declined by 43 percent between 1990 and 2015, according to the World Health Organization. You can see the drop has been especially dramatic in African countries.
9) People have been getting taller for centuries
This chart, taken from economist Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, tracks the height of male skeletons found in Europe across nearly 2000 years, and compares those data points to recent, more complete height data in the US and Sweden. For nearly two millennia, male heights were stable, but upon the advent of the Industrial Revolution, they began to shoot up. There are many determinants of human height, but nutrition and overall living standards are crucial ones. We happen to be living in the first couple centuries of human existence to see huge advances in living standards, which shows up in height data, among many other places.
10) More people have access to malaria bednets
Malaria is still one of the world’s biggest killers, particularly in tropical regions. It’s treatable, but far more effective than treatment is prevention through insecticide-treated bednets. Access to those has grown substantially in recent years, as this chart from the World Health Organization shows. Charities like the Against Malaria Foundation have been very effective at bednet distribution.
11) Guinea worm is almost eradicated
Guinea worm is a nonfatal but debilitating parasitic infection, and as recently as 1986, millions of people got it annually. There is no vaccine or cure. Guinea worms grow in your body cavity, then work their way out of your body, often through your leg or foot. Once the worm’s exposed, it needs to be gradually coaxed out of your body in a sterile environment. If, to relieve the pain, you place your foot in water with a worm exposed, the worm will burst and send millions of larvae into the water supply. If people drink the water later, then they’re at risk of getting the worm.
But despite the lack of a modern medical treatment for the condition, it’s almost gone, due to a coordinated international eradication campaign spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center.
12) Teen births in the US are down
We don’t know exactly why the teen birth rate has fallen so fast — by more than half between 2007 and 2016 — though as Vox’s Sarah Kliff has explained, there are a number of plausible factors. Everything from increased access to IUDs and Plan B to the show 16 and Pregnant could have played some role. But the trendline is dramatic and hugely encouraging.
13) Smoking is down, too
We’ve come a long way from 1955, when 45 percent of Americans reported smoking in a given week to Gallup, to 2018, when a mere 16 percent do (which is itself a big drop from 21 percent in 2014). And with the FDA poised to ban cigarettes with addictive levels of nicotine, traditional cigarettes could soon be a thing of the past in the US.
The next frontier in the battle against smoking, then, is in the developing world, where progress has been harder.
Peace and security
14) In the long term, homicide rates have fallen dramatically
The past was a quite violent place. As research from criminologist Manuel Eisner shows, homicide in European countries has been on the decline for centuries. Eisner estimates that in the 1200s and 1300s, Europe had an average homicide rate of about 32 per 100,000. By the 1900s, that rate had fallen to about 1.4 per 100,000.
15) In the short term, they’re down in the US, too
The US has historically been an outlier among rich countries, with an unusually high homicide rate. We still have a much higher rate than Western European countries do, but it has declined sharply in recent decades, as sociologist Kieran Healy’s chart above shows. There were some spikes in the homicide rate in 2015 and 2016, but it’s falling again, and even in 2016 it was lower than any year from 1965 to 2007.
16) Violent crime in the US is going down
Of course, other violent crimes are also serious, but they have been decreasing steadily in the US since the early 1990s, as part of the overall dramatic decline in crime rates.
17) We’ve rapidly reduced the supply of nuclear weapons
World nuclear weapons stockpiles peaked in 1986 at an astonishing level of 70,300 warheads, and the period since then has seen a sharp decline in US and Russian stockpiles, and, thus, the overall global total. There have been some lapses in the international nonproliferation regime, with Pakistan and North Korea developing weapons, but South Africa and post-USSR Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all voluntarily gave up their arms.
Government and social services
18) More people in the world live in a democracy now
As recently as 1993, most people lived in autocratic states; in the 1970s and 1980s, autocracies outnumbered democracies by a considerable margin, and only about a third of the world’s population enjoyed democratic government. Soviet bloc countries were uniformly dictatorial, but the US didn’t make democracy promotion a particular priority in the Cold War either, allying with brutal dictatorships, from South Korea to Chile to Greece.
But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communist dictatorships almost all vanished, and most of the Eastern European ones were replaced with democratic systems. US-backed military governments in Latin America lost power, and a number of African dictators fell.
Some scholars have expressed concern that we’re entering a “democratic recession”; Freedom House, a pro-Western democracy promotion group, argues, “Democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe.” But while vigilance in the face of authoritarian threats is totally reasonable, it remains the case, as political scientist Daniel Treisman told my colleague Sean Illing, that, “the proportion of democracies worldwide is at or near an all-time high.”
19) More people are going to school for longer
We still have a lot to do to improve access to education, but even in developing countries like China and India, average years of schooling have been growing swiftly.
20) And literacy is, predictably, up as well
Increased access to education has, unsurprisingly, coincided with increased literacy. A lot of progress has also been made by reducing racial gaps in literacy. In 1870, 79.9 percent of African-Americans aged 14 or older were illiterate, and by 1952 that number had only fallen to 10.2 percent. But by 1979, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, the illiteracy rate was down to 1.6 percent.
21) Moore’s law isn’t quite over yet
Moore’s law — the empirical observation, first made by Intel’s Gordon Moore, that the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every two years — has fueled the extraordinary growth in computing power over the past half-century. And while some analysts argue that that the pattern identified by Moore has broken down because of physical limitations on how many transistors can fit on a chip, decades of exponential progress is extraordinary, even if the trend doesn’t continue — and optimists in the industry argue that computing power can continue to grow exponentially.
22) Access to the internet is increasing
At this point, internet use is fairly universal in developed countries — which occurred very, very rapidly, as this chart emphasizes — and while it’s less prevalent in developing countries and the world at large, the trendlines are going in the right direction.
23) Solar energy is getting cheaper
Climate change is one big area where we’re not making progress, and things are getting considerably worse. There’s no sugar-coating that. One bright spot is the declining price of solar power, which is fueling a rapid increase in adoption. Solar and wind are now cheaper per megawatt hour than gas or oil, though better batteries are needed if the two are to become primary sources of energy.
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