Don’t forget to remember


Written by Niel Fourie

The news of the day is characterised by bleak predictions of where the world is heading, cynicism about the institutions of modernity and nostalgia for an idyllic past. If the general media is your main provider of information, you may indeed envision the future as a valley of tears.

This dreary outlook on life is nothing new. In the 20th century, we learned that overpopulation, resource shortages, pollution and nuclear war would be the end of us. That list has since been expanded upon to include the lingering threat of nanobots, robots, unstoppable viruses, corrupt politicians, terrorism and artificial intelligence. It is no surprise, then, that in a recent poll 15% of people worldwide stated that they believe the world will come to an end before they get older.

Despite this woeful outlook, the world has made staggering progress. And all of us are recipients of the bounty. The shocking part is that almost everyone is oblivious to it, and even fewer celebrate it. It’s not that the information is unavailable, it’s just that pessimism has been equated with moral seriousness, and our psychological bias is firmly rooted in the belief that ‘bad is stronger than good’, and the rationalisation that suffering is fate. 

Let’s take a moment to screen through a few snippets of big-picture data about the headway we’ve made – just as a reminder that we may, in fact, be living in the best of times.

Economist Max Roser noted that if news outlets truly want to report the changing state of the world, they could run the headline 

GRAPH:  In the mid-19th century, it took 25 people a full day to harvest a ton of grain; today, one person can do it in six minutes.

Since 1960, the amount of land used to grow food increased by around 12%, but the amount of food that was grown increased by more than 300%. The world needs less than a third of the land it did before to produce a given amount of food.

In two hundred years, the rate of extreme poverty in the world has collapsed, from 90% to 10%, with almost half that decline occurring in the last 35 years.

In 1820, more than 80% of the world was totally unschooled; today, more than 80% benefit from basic education. IQ scores have been rising for more than a century, in every part of the world, at a rate of about three IQ points per decade. (An 11-point increase in IQ, it’s estimated, would accelerate a country’s GDP growth rate enough to double wellbeing in just 19 years.)

There is not a single country in the world where infant or child mortality is not lower than it was in 1950. In sub-Saharan Africa, the child mortality rate has fallen from around one in four in the 1960s to less than one in ten today. The global rate has fallen from 18% to 4%. 

In 1919, an average American wage-earner had to work 1,800 hours to pay for a refrigerator; today, it’s less than 24 hours. The amount of time that people lost to housework fell almost fourfold, from 58 hours a week in 1900 to 15 hours today.

In 1900 women could vote in only one country: New Zealand. Today they can vote in every country in which men can vote, bar one: Vatican City. Women make up almost 40 per cent of the labour force worldwide and more than a fifth of the members of national parliaments.

In the richest country two centuries ago (Netherlands), the average life expectancy was just 40 years, and in no country was it above 45. Today, life expectancy in the poorest country in the world (Central African Republic) is 54, and in no country is it below 45. Life expectancy in Kenya increased by almost 10 years in the last decade alone.

Diseases that are not obliterated are being decimated. In the last 20 years, the number of deaths from malaria fell by 60%. The overall control of infectious disease has saved the lives of more than 100 million children since 1990. 

Progress is not utopia. It is imperative for us to strive to continue advancing our quality of life. But while we do, let’s not forget to remember that so many of our problems pale in comparison to those of our forebears. And when you open a news site, remind.