It’s not hard to get pessimistic about the state of our world. It’s easy to long for the “good old days”, where our society was more cohesive, our world more peaceful, our problems less acute, our leaders more virtuous, our union more perfect, and our discourse more civil. Now this is obviously a romantic view of the past, but it’s an easy trap to fall into.
Today, in these weeks sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’d like to take a step back and reflect on how much better life is today than in these “good old days”. The world today is, historically speaking, absolutely marvelous, and it’s progressing at a rate undreamt of years ago. In the early 1980s, extreme global poverty was over 40%. Now it’s under 10%. More than half the world’s population is now in the global middle class, which means they have some disposable income and aren’t struggling to survive. In the time you’ve spent reading this article, 33 people have escaped extreme poverty, and 164 will have left poverty to join the global middle class. This is unlike anything in history, and there’s a word for it- miraculous.
The same goes for war. While violence persists in many parts of the world, the scope of war is in decline. Despite a recent spike, the death rate from war was 1.4 per 100,000 people globally in 2014. This is dramatically lower than it was 50 or 100 years ago. The way war is fought has also become more focused. No longer is war massive armies fielded by great powers slaughtering each other by the millions. In advanced countries, war means counter-insurgency operations and pin-prick strikes. This is not to downplay the bravery of modern soldiers or the risks they face, but war is much less of a threat today than ever before. In the 73 years since the end of World War 2, there has been direct conflict between the world’s great powers once. In the context of seemingly constant warfare in the early 1900s and the 1800s, that is almost unthinkable. Conflict has also become geographically limited, as war has virtually disappeared from North America, Western Europe, East and Southeast Asia, and increasingly, Latin America. War seems to have been confined to a belt of countries between Nigeria and Pakistan, a representation of backwardness much of the world is progressing beyond.
These are not cherry-picked data points. On almost every level, from HIV/AIDs to economic freedom to deforestation to infant mortality, the world is progressing in the right direction at a rate that boggles the mind.
What about closer to home? In America, our progress is also unbelievable. The poor in America today likely have a car, access to the internet, and live with air conditioning. 92% of Americans own a mobile phone. John D. Rockefeller, the 19th century oil tycoon and the richest American in history, had none of these. Crime has dropped precipitously, which includes gun violence. America is a safer and richer country than it has ever been before, and these advancements are not secluded to the ultra-rich.
That is not to say there are not real challenges we have to solve and more progress to be made. On a social level, loneliness and spiritual decay are resulting in serious real-world negative consequences, from drug epidemics to an increase in suicide. Our mass shooting problem is getting worse. Environmentally, climate change is a problem. Globally, autocracy seems to be on the rise, and many of these autocrats are coming to power through democratic means. However there is a big difference in saying there are problems to solve, but in general, life is comparatively fantastic; and saying we teetering on the edge of collapse, with the world around us on fire, as we eye down the approaching crisis of “late-stage capitalism”. The average standard of living today is better than the wealthiest people just a century ago. The world is getting materially better, and it’s getting better really, really fast.
The plenty and peace of the modern world is a miracle unimageable for our forefathers. In a world prone to pessimism, about today and tomorrow, we ought to take on some historical context and remember that.
However, there is something on the horizon that does scare me. We are approaching a technological revolution which will redefine human existence on a level hitherto inconceivable. We’re going to discuss this on Monday. I’ll see you then.