“Any comfortable American who is cynical of progress – or the competent decency of modern civilisation – hasn’t pondered how life was for our ancestors. Any day that cossacks haven’t burned your home should start out a happy one, overflowing with optimism.”
– M. N. Plano
It’s a feature of any generation to believe that the present is never as good as the past. Indeed, the last few years have seen many rise to power on the back of this dangerous fallacy. Doom mongers and eschatologists would have us believe that we are hurtling towards a post-apocalyptic future fuelled by a more violent, divided and psychopathic society.
Now I’m not naturally given to optimism but after reading Johan Norberg’s book ‘Progress’ there are some inescapable truths that would suggest that far from living in end times, we’ve actually never had it so good.
For example, if you were a 10 year old living 150 years ago, you would probably have already experienced the death of more than one immediate family member already. You would have been sent to work in horrific conditions pretty soon after that and your average life expectancy would suggest you’d only have another 20 miserable years left on the planet.
In 1900, average world life expectancy was 31 years old, by 2016 it was 71. Remarkably, the increase in life expectancy has occurred in only the last four generations of roughly 8,000 generations of homo sapiens. In anthropological terms, if you’re reading this you’ve not just won the lottery, you’re winning it every day.
For the majority of human existence, people lived truly wretched lives as hunter gatherers but in the 19th Century the Industrial revolution gave rise not just to huge population growth but to a concomitant economic prosperity as Norberg points out: “Between 1820 and 1850, when the population grew by a third, workers’ real earnings rose by almost 100 per cent” and in the 20th Century, the advent of open markets and free trade did not just confine this wealth to the West: “Since 1950, India’s GDP per capita has grown five-fold, Japan’s eleven-fold and China’s almost twenty-fold.”
Indeed, as a recent article points out the amount of people living in extreme poverty is plummeting by an average of more than 100,000 people per day:
There were nearly 1.1 billion people on earth in 1820, with about 1 billion of those individuals living in what is considered extreme poverty, according to World Bank economists Francois Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson. By the 1990s, the world’s population exploded to over 7 billion, with 2 billion living in extreme poverty.
From 1990 to 2015, the number of people worldwide in dire poverty shrank to 750 million. Put differently, that figure has, on average, fallen by 137,000 people every day over the last 25 years.
In terms of violence, it is a commonly held belief that the 20th Century was the bloodiest on record but when taking into account huge population increases, this simply isn’t true. For example, the Mongol conqueror Timur Lenk killed proportionally almost as many as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao combined in central Asia in the 14th Century. The latest US figures, for 2013, show that murder rates are lower now than in the early 1960s. In the same year, homicides in Japan hit a post-war low. In England and Wales the level of violence has dropped by 66 per cent since the latest peak in 1995.
In fact, as Yuval Noah Harari points out, our mortality would seem to be very much in our own hands. In many tragic cases, quite literally:
“In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.”
In education, the increases in provision and access have facilitated a simply astonishing rate of improvement: from 1900 to 2015, rates of global literacy increased from 21 percent to 86 percent of the global population. This rise has mainly occurred in countries that have rejected authoritarian regimes and the superstitious dogma of religion for the liberal democratic values of equality, humanism and personal liberty. Further good news in terms of education is that current rates of growth could possibly see us turn our attention to solving seemingly intractable problems provided certain political movements are challenged sufficiently as Norberg illustrates:
If annual global economic growth remains around two percent per head, the average person in 100 years’ time will be around eight times richer than today’s average person. With those resources, the level of scientific knowledge, and the technological solutions that may then be at our disposal, many of the problems that intimidate us today will be much easier to handle—from adapting to warming to taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Perhaps our current apocalyptic malaise is a result of the fact that when extreme poverty is off the table, humans have more time to address social injustice and inequality and although there is still quite a way to go, the gains over the last 100 years have been nothing short of remarkable. The fact that a black man can now marry a white man in many Western societies is testament to how far we’ve come. The other major factor is the rise of social media and a 24 hour news culture that is predisposed to report what’s going wrong as opposed to what’s going right. What Norberg’s book shows is that progress is not dramatic and therefore often not news-worthy.
Although there are many challenges that we are right to be worried about, for example ongoing geopolitical tensions, a worrying trend in mental health and the disappearance of jobs due to automation, the recent past suggests that we always find solutions. We are less aware of progress than we are of disasters because progress is a glacial process that often happens under the radar and is so complex that it resists simplistic narratives. As Bill Hicks reminds us, modern media is often based on sensationalism and scare tactics but when you take a wider historical viewpoint, there’s never been a better time to be alive.