Monday, 3 August 2020

There has never been a better time to be a member of our species

The prophets of doom have a long history. They all share one thing in common: whenever they have put a date to their prophecies, they have been wrong. Yet this unrelieved history of failure has not dampened the enthusiasm that so many have for tales of imminent doom. If these were just fairy tales, and seen as such, they would be no problem. Unfortunately, all too many people are prepared to suspend their critical faculties, to ignore evidence and reason, and prefer the horror story.

But the real story is one of progress and development. There has never been a better time to be a member of our species. No matter what metric of human welfare one selects, the result is the same. We live longer. We are wealthier. We are better educated. We are less violent. Yet whenever these facts are pointed out, many people will dismiss them out of hand. They simply are not prepared to look at life expectancy, homicide rates, literacy rates, poverty indexes, etc. It is as though empirical evidence is a closed book. But that empirical evidence exists and it shows a consistent trajectory.

Before the Industrial Revolution, life expectancy around the globe was around thirty years. Today, there are no countries in the world with life expectancy at the levels of the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since the beginning of the twentieth century global life expectancy has more than doubled. Today the country with the lowest life expectancy is the Central African Republic with fifty-three years. The people of Japan live a further thirty years. This one measure alone speaks volumes about the progress our species has made in the last two hundred years, a mere moment in the history of our species. It shows that we are thriving as never before.

And all these people are far better educated than ever before. In the past only tiny wealthy minorities had access to any education to speak of. Two hundred years ago, only twelve percent of the world's population were literate. Today almost the mirror image is the case with only fourteen percent of the world's population being illiterate. This dramatic change has enabled more and more of the world's ever increasing population to have access to the knowledges that enable people to survive and thrive.

All these people are far less violent than ever before. Homicides account for less than one percent of all deaths. Whilst this may sound to modern ears as very high, it is tiny in historical terms.  In fourteenth century Europe, homicide rates were in the range of thirty to fifty per hundred thousand people. Today, the same countries have homicide rates of less than one per hundred thousand. Whilst the decline in homicides has been a global phenomenon, it has been very uneven, with some countries still having rates of up to thirty per hundred thousand, such as South Africa and some Latin American countries. Yet, everywhere the trend is the same. People are increasingly less violent.

And all these people are wealthier than ever before. Today there is far less poverty than at any time in history. At the beginning of the nineteenth century over eighty percent of the world's population lived in poverty. Today, the situation has completely reversed with ten percent living in poverty. A great deal of this reduction in poverty has occurred in just the last generation, taking a billion people out of poverty. Most of them being people of China, a country that has not only made massive strides in eradicating poverty, but as also simultaneously massively increased its middle class.

Another measure of progress is the fact that global average fertility per woman is now down to two and a half children. When it reaches two point two, global population will stabilise and lower than that and it will decline. This measure of fertility has halved in the last fifty years alone. Its reduction is due to social and economic development. When women have access to education and incomes, they naturally have fewer children: children who receive better care. Improving women's access to education and economic opportunities is precisely what all the over-population doom-mongers would be doing if they properly understood how we achieve progress.

Our species is thriving as never before. We live longer, healthier lives. We are better educated and wealthier than ever before. We are less violent. Fewer people die in natural disasters than before. Fewer people die in wars or from famines. Whatever metric one chooses, if one looks at the empirical evidence, one finds progress, and substantial progress at that.

The website Our World in Data provides a convenient and easily accessible source for empirical data on all these metrics and many others.

The history of the past two centuries show that we have the capacity to make the world a better place for all of us. Notwithstanding all the horrors of those centuries, our species has progressed and life has become much better, better than any of our grandparents could even have dreamed of. I, for one, fully expect this progress to continue.