Part one of this article is here: Things Aren't As Bad As You Think
Humans are funny creatures. They have difficulty looking at the big picture when they’re part of it. So we live our lives, day to day, and we look around at the news and believe that the world is a more frightening and terrible place than it used to be (except, of course, that it’s not). But take a step back and look at the accomplishments of humankind over a significant period and you’ll see that we’re actually moving very quickly in the right direction. And we’re accelerating.
It’s hard to believe right now, I know, but state oppression is fighting a losing battle. Autocracy is losing ground to democracy across the world. And while democracy may have its bad hair days, the principles of individual rights and self determination are leagues better than the systems it replaces.
In the 19th century, most of the world lived under autocratic rule. Now, more than half of the world’s population live in democracies. And 80% of those who don’t live in a single autocratic country — China.
We tend to get caught up in modern health scares while forgetting the incredible progress humanity has made in the past two centuries. In 1800, 4 out of every 10 children born in the world would die before they reached the age of five. By 1990, improvements in diet, sanitation and medical care had reduced it to 6.5%. And progress is still continuing apace: since then, that figure has more than halved to 3% in 2016.
Global life expectancy has doubled over the last hundred years. And while overpopulation has very definite risks, the statistics show that as poverty decreases in a country, so does the birth rate. As countries get richer and improve their quality of life, the population starts to level out. And the rate of change is increasing too: it took the UK 95 years to reduce its reproduction rate from 6 to 3 children per woman when our quality of life improved from the mid 19th century. South Korea, making the same reduction more than 100 years later, only took 18 years.
The Our World In Data statistics that much of this article is based on predicts a global population peak by 2070. In fact, there may never be as many children on the planet as there are today.
Speaking of poverty, we’re spectacularly bad at recognising the improvements being made. Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 130,000 every single day. Put in other terms, in 1950 75% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 2015 it had fallen to less that 10%.
Literacy levels have over the past 200 years. In 1800 there was a 9 in 10 chance that you wouldn’t be able to read. Today 85% of the population (aged 15 or older) can read and the number continues to grow as most of the illiterate population are in the older generations.
Meanwhile, education levels continue to rise as better educated younger generations gradually succeed their parents and grandparents. As population growth levels out, quality of education improves. The Our World in Data study predicts that by 2100 almost no one on the planet will be without formal education.
These positive statistics in no way diminish the importance of challenges that face humanity. There is urgent action we need to take on environmental destruction and climate change, we need to find alternative energy supplies as we rapidly approach (or have possibly passed) peak oil, and ensuring supplies of food and fresh water for our population is going to need inspired planning and innovation.
But the point is that these things are challenges, different to those our species has faced in the past but not impossible to overcome. Humans succeed because they adapt, and in the information age our rate of adaptation has increased exponentially.
There is reason to be optimistic. If we can avoid the short-termism that comes from exposure to a media driven by the mantra ‘bad news sells’, we can better tackle the challenges facing us.
NOTE: If you want more lovely data on this, the statistics and charts in this article come from the Our World In Data study, which can be found here: ourworldindata.org