Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Extreme Poverty

Let’s start by looking at the trend for extreme poverty.Question: In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…

A: almost doubled
B: remained more or less the same
C: almost halved

The correct answer is C: over the last 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved. But in our online polls, in most countries, less than 10 percent knew this.

In the year 1800, roughly 85 percent of humanity lived in extreme poverty, or what we
call Level 1. All over the world, people simply did not have enough food. Most people went
to bed hungry several times a year. Across Britain and its colonies, children had to work to eat, and the average child in the UK started work at age 10. One-fifth of the entire Swedish population, including many of my relatives, fled starvation to the U.S., and only 20 percent of them ever returned. When the harvest failed and your relatives, friends and neighbors starved to death, what did you do? You escaped. You migrated. If you could.

Level 1 is where all of humanity started. It’s where the majority always lived, until 1966. Until then, extreme poverty was the rule, not the exception.

The curve you see below shows how the extreme poverty rate has been falling since 1800. Look at the last 20 years. Extreme poverty dropped faster than ever in world history.

How old were you 20 years ago? Close your eyes for a second and remember your younger self. How much has your world changed? A lot? A little? Well, this is how much the world has changed: just 20 years ago, 29 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Now that number is 9 percent. Today almost everybody has escaped hell. The original source of all human suffering is about to be eradicated. We should plan a party! A big party! And when I say “we,” I mean humanity!

Instead, we are gloomy. On TV, we still see people in extreme poverty, and it seems that nothing has changed. Billions of people have escaped misery and become consumers and producers for the world market without the people in the world’s richest countries noticing.

Life Expectancy

Question: What is the life expectancy in the world today?

A: 50 years B: 60 years C: 70 years

Showing all the causes of deaths and suffering in one number is nearly impossible. But the average life expectancy gets very close. Every child death, every premature death from man-made or natural disasters, every mother dying in childbirth and every elderly person’s prolonged life is reflected in this measure.

Back in 1800, when Swedes starved to death and British children worked in coal mines, life expectancy was roughly 30 years everywhere in the world. That was what it had been throughout history. Among all babies who were ever born, roughly half died during their childhood. Most of the other half died between the ages of 50 and 70. So the average was around 30. It doesn’t mean most people lived to be 30. It’s just an average, and with averages we must always remember that there’s a spread.

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Hans Rosling was a medical doctor, professor of international health and renowned educator. He was an adviser to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, co-founded Médecins sans Frontières in Sweden and was one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Hans died in 2017, having devoted the last years of his life to writing this book. Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Hans’s son and daughter-in-law, were co-founders of the Gapminder Foundation, and Ola its director from 2005 to 2007 and from 2010 to the present day. After Google acquired the bubble-chart tool called Trendalyzer, invented and designed by Anna and Ola, Ola became head of Google’s Public Data team and Anna the team’s senior user experience (UX) designer.