An ever improving world
By Carmel Fisher
29 September, 2017
We’ve just had a week focused on the present not the future; on New Zealand not the world at large; and broadly speaking, on negative rather than positive issues.
This week is no different to most weeks. This is how life is these days, with our human biases leading us to emphasise current affairs and matters that affect us personally.
A recent survey by online publisher Our World in Data found this short-term and proximate focus to be a global phenomenon.
Survey respondents were asked “all things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse?”
Very few people thought the world is getting better. Swedes were the most optimistic with 10 percent of respondents seeing an improvement; in the US it was only 6 percent, and in Germany just 4 percent felt good about the world’s progress.
The researchers concluded that the question of how the world has changed requires both a global and historical perspective.
They sought to convince people their perceptions about the world are wrong since “knowing we have come a long way is a necessary condition for self-improvement”.
Their summary of “The World as 100 People over the last two centuries” used poverty, literacy, health, freedom, population and education as markers of global living conditions.
The study shows remarkable progress; completely at odds with the majority of people who don’t know that the world is getting better.
In 1820, the vast majority (95 percent of the world population) lived in conditions that we would call extreme poverty today. Since then, increased productivity, economic growth and technology have led to a significant improvement.
Today, fewer than 10 percent of the world’s population lives a subsistence lifestyle.
If you were aged over 15, living in 1800, there was a 90 percent chance that you weren’t able to read. Today more than 8 out of 10 people are able to read.
Today there are 4.6 billion people older than 15 years who are literate. In 1800 there were fewer than 100 million people with the same skill.
In 1800, nearly half of the world’s newborns (43 percent) died before their fifth birthday. Today child mortality is close to 4 percent; that is ten times lower than two centuries ago.
The study’s most interesting conclusions related to knowledge and education.
Projections supplied by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) said that by 2100, there will be almost no one without formal education and more than 7 billion minds will have benefited from at least a secondary education.
Given the importance of education for improving health and productivity, ending poverty and improving living standards generally, this projection is very encouraging.
The publishers noted our ignorance of these important global developments is partly due to the media being obsessed with single, negative events without a historical perspective.
For example, we would surely be interested in a media headline that read “The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday”. Especially if it featured every single day since 1990!
The publisher concluded by saying it’s vital for us to know our history so that it can be a source of encouragement.
“The group of people able to work together today is a much, much stronger group than ever there was on this planet. The last 200 years has brought us to a better position than ever before to solve the world’s problems.”
Now that’s a far better read than anything else I’ve seen in the last week.