Getting So Much Better All the Time

In my previous post, I cited some facts from Johan Norberg’s recent book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, showing that in many ways, life on Earth is better than ever. On average, we humans have more food to eat, better access to clean water, and better sanitation. We live much longer lives, and there is a lot less extreme poverty in the world than there used to be, despite there being many more of us around. But what about violence, the environment, and inequality? It turns out there is good news on these fronts as well.

It’s true that we can all easily call to mind ample evidence of violence depicted on the nightly news or social media. This ease is one of the reasons we think we live in violent times. But there’s a strong bias for sharing bad news: If it bleeds, it leads, as the saying goes. It just isn’t newsworthy to point out that most people were not murdered last night, or that most parts of the world are not war zones.

Yet the numbers are clear. The homicide rate in the most advanced European countries five centuries ago was 30 or 40 per 100,000 people per year, which was an improvement at the time but still high by our standards. The rate today in the United States, much more violent than contemporary Europe, is less than 5 per 100,000. War has also been declining drastically over the past several hundred years, with the 20th century’s two World Wars being dramatic exceptions. But since 1953 and the end of the Korean War between the U.S. and China, there has not been a single war between great powers. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the great powers were almost constantly at war.

The environment is also doing better in many ways, and it’s no coincidence. The relative peace and growing prosperity of the past six decades have allowed many of us to start paying more attention to the state of the natural world. According to the EPA, total emissions of six leading air pollutants in the United States have been reduced by more than two-thirds since 1980. The ozone layer is recovering, rivers and lakes have come back from the dead in many places, and deforestation has stopped in wealthier countries thanks in part to new farming techniques that produce more food per acre of land.

As the poorer parts of the world get richer, they’ll be able to afford to pay more attention to the kinds of environmental problems we’re concerned with. But first, they’ll want to deal with indoor air pollution, attributable to the burning of wood, dung, charcoal, and coal to cook their food. By one estimate, this kills 3.5 million people a year, or one person every ten seconds. Safe water and proper sanitation are also clearly at the top of the list.

Even carbon dioxide emissions are starting to come down in the richest parts of the world. But while developing countries are adopting greener technologies faster than the industrialized countries did, this catching up process cannot take precedence over their more immediate problems. They must be allowed and encouraged to grow their way out of poverty, which will have the added benefit of increasing their ability to adapt to the effects of whatever climate change cannot be avoided.

Thankfully, due to the globalized trade and economic growth discussed earlier in Norberg’s book, many of the poorer parts of the world are in fact catching up. As another sign of growing equality, Norberg helpfully reminds us that not so long ago, people faced official discrimination everywhere on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. This has all changed for the better in much of the world.

Have we solved all our problems? Of course not. And there’s no guarantee that we will continue to improve our circumstances, either. But if we fail to appreciate what we’ve already accomplished and why, we will surely falter. Read Progress for many, many more examples of just how far we’ve come.