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How humanity is winning the war on child mortality, in one chart

In the 1950s, more than 20 million children died each year. We’ve since cut that figure by two-thirds.

Children get vaccinations in a refugee settlement in Dadaab, Kenya.
Children get vaccinations in a refugee settlement in Dadaab, Kenya.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

These days, it can sometimes feel like everything is getting worse. We’re faced every day with the problems we haven’t solved yet and new ones that we’re creating, and the barrage of bad news can be dispiriting.

But last week, I got a reminder that things are not as bleak as they seem — that some things have in fact gotten vastly better. Our World in Data, a nonprofit that publishes interactive data visualizations and research about how the human condition has changed over history (and one of my favorite place on the internet), tweeted out an animated chart that served as powerful notice of how human lives have in fact improved over recent decades.

The graph shows worldwide annual deaths by age group, from 1950 through this decade. It’s a staggering reminder of how bad things were not too long ago — and how much progress we’ve made since.

Here’s the chart:

Here’s what we’re looking at: In the early 1950s, more than 20 million children died every year. Now child deaths are much rarer. Ninety-seven million children were born in 1950; 141 million were born in 2015 but only 6.3 million children died in 2015. Most people today live long lives.

That’s an amazing achievement, and a reminder of how awful the world used to be, how quickly it has improved, and, yes, how much we still need to do. Even better, that gain in lives has been accompanied by similar gains in living conditions. Far more people are literate. Far fewer live in extreme poverty. Fewer go hungry. Most people have access to the internet — something not even the richest among us enjoyed in 1950.

One of the reasons I like Our World in Data is that it offers reminders that, quite recently, things were really bad. Most of the people who died in 1950 were children. In many countries, most families buried at least one child. That’s not in the Victorian era — that’s not long before many of us were born. Those moving numbers on that graph reflect millions of lives and millions of people able to reach more of their potential.

Our World in Data has its critics — mostly people who disagree that we’ve made meaningful progress and find charts of it misleading. There’s lots worth discussing about which indicators are most meaningful and whether we’re too quick to pat ourselves on the back. But lately, I mostly see the opposite problem — we’re entrenched in such gloom about our future that we struggle to notice when things have concretely, dramatically improved.

I often feel like our society doesn’t really believe we’re up for hard challenges, and I hear people doubt that there’ll be any civilization worth fighting for if rising sea levels start to cancel out this progress. I think that looking at, and really thinking about, these historical trends and how much we’ve achieved is an important antidote to that.

I’m not saying that since many things have gotten better, everything will definitely keep getting better. While Our World in Data is an uplifting read on the whole, it doesn’t depict things uniformly trending better (and it’d be dishonest if it did). I’m horrified at the latest reports on how far we have to go if we’re to address climate change before we hit several degrees of warming and warming-induced famines. I think it’s very plausible that we’ll lose some of the gains we’ve made.

The World Health Organization estimates that climate change will cause 250,000 deaths a year between 2030 and 2050. Some estimates have argued that if past emissions trends continue all the way to 2100, climate change would eventually cause 1.5 million deaths a year. That’s sickening and scary, and it’s obviously morally urgent to turn things around before it happens.

But the world we had in the 1950s — with 14 million more unnecessary child deaths a year than we see today — was worth fighting for. If things get that bad again, it’ll still be worth fighting for.

So I think it’s worth taking a moment to take pride in the progress we’ve made against childhood deaths, to figure out how to keep making progress, and to remember that this isn’t the first moment in history that humans have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges.


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