Through the web of sickening headlines and increasingly alarming news stories, it is easy to assume that the world is going down a downward spiral. Syria, Trump, the zero-tolerance policy, it is no wonder that close to two-thirds of Americans perceive the news as a “very or somewhat significant source of stress,” a stress that causes many to experience fatigue, anxiety and sleep-loss according to a survey conducted by the American Psychology Association.
Only 6% of Americans, 4% in Britain and 3% in France and Australia believe that the world as a whole is getting better. This widely clashes with reality — according to most experts, we are actually living at the best time in the history of humanity, believe it or not.
Here are six, pretty mind-blowing ways that the world is progressing that provide a refreshing break from the negative news cycles and could hopefully restore your faith in humanity.
Poverty is declining at the fastest rate in the history of humanity. In the last 20 years, extreme poverty has almost halved and, on average, 137,000 people have climbed out of extreme poverty every day since 1990. As Steven Pinker pointed out in his TED Talk: every day for the last 25 years, the news could have made the headline “137,000 people escaped extreme poverty yesterday.” Since 2008, that number has gone up to 217,000. Remember, there are a face and individual for every number in that figure.
In total, that is nearly 1.1 billion people over the last 30 years. The progress made in terms of extreme poverty over the last 100 years is probably one of humanity’s greatest achievements; a century ago more than eight people out of ten belonged to extreme poverty, in 1990 a third of the world population did and today, it is less than one-in-ten people.
Health, world hunger and water access
2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved water source since 1990, the number of undernourished people has nearly halved over the last 30 years and the global average life expectancy has made a huge leap from 48 years in 1950 to 72 years in 2016.
In addition, almost every fifth child died before turning 5 in 1960, while now, that share is down to 4.3%. In the last 25 years, child mortality has been cut in half which has saved the lives of 122 million children.
Violence, war and safety
According to Harvard professor Steven Pinker, “violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” Past societies used to be very violent compared to societies today, which archaeologists have found by studying the share of violent deaths. Here is a look at the homicide rates in Europe since 1300:
Even over a shorter time-span, violence is declining. The number of battle-deaths in state-based conflicts per 100,000 people is significantly lower than it was throughout the previous century, even if the world wars aren’t included.
Overall, saying that we are safer today than we were a hundred years ago is a massive understatement. Advancements over the last century have made us 96% less likely to die in a car crash, 95% less likely to be killed on the job, 99% less likely to die in a plane crash and 89% less likely to be killed by a natural disaster.
Education and literacy
Forty years ago, only right above half of the world could read while now, a clear majority can. Literacy has skyrocketed for decades, which makes our precise point in history very unique education-wise. Back in 1950, only 35% of people over 15 were literate and today, over 86% are.
Even though there’s still a lot of work to be done regarding gender equality in education, there is positive news that concern that aspect as well. Currently, the global average in length of education for 30-year-old men is 10 years, while for 30-year old women, it’s actually only one year less.
Freedom and human rights
Believe it or not, the majority of countries are now democracies thanks to rapid progress in recent decades. Out of the 167 countries with a population that exceeds 500,000 people, close to six-in-ten are democratic. In 1980, 37 countries were democracies, while today, forty years later, the number has grown to 97. Even though many of these democracies aren’t perfect, they show that we are making great progress towards a world where everyone is free.
So, is the effects of all of these achievements creating a happier world? Yes, there has been a positive trend in happiness and life satisfaction in the majority of the world in recent decades. In fact, happiness has increased in 86% of countries.
Why the belief that the world is getting worse is a sign of progress as well
The reasons why many are led to believe that the world is deteriorating are not a mystery. Since progress usually can’t be pinned down to one day or event in the same way as bad news can, most of the news stories are negative. Headlines and news articles use increasingly emotionally loaded language and psychologically, humans have a tendency to view the past with rose-colored glasses. We also form our world-view from what is close to our everyday reality, so it would be unreasonable to expect people to have any composite, objective view of the rest of the world when they learn about it in fragments.
However, that’s not the only reason for our misjudgments: the belief that the world is getting worse is also rooted in higher standards and lower tolerance for bad news. Our negative world-view is, therefore, a fruit of our morals becoming higher. Bill Gates summed it up well in an editorial in Time:
“There’s a growing gap between the bad things that still happen and our tolerance of those things. Over the centuries, violence has declined dramatically, as has our willingness to accept it. But because the improvements don’t keep pace with our expectations, it can seem like things are getting worse.”
For example, most people in the 1700s would perceive it as absurd to be outraged or even concerned over things that happen to strangers in distant parts of the world. Today, that is viewed as natural.
Despite our advancements, extreme poverty, child mortality and violence are still far too frequent and literacy, political freedom and water access, far too infrequent. We still have a long road ahead of us if we want to create a world we’re truly happy with. But, while the bad news shouldn’t be brushed aside with a reference to recent, larger achievements, they should be put in perspective in order to gain a more complete understanding of the world. In the midst of our struggle, it is soothing to keep in mind that we are, indeed, moving forward.
Photo: AJ Colores