Why Things Are Better Than You Think

The average life expectancy across the world today is 70. Actually, it’s better than that: it’s 72.

This is one of those questions where the better educated you are, the more ignorant 1800 you seem to be. In most countries where we tested, members of the public just about beat chimps, who could be expected to guess correctly 33 percent of the time. But in our more highly educated audiences, the most popular answer was 60 years. That would have been correct if we had asked the question in 1973 (the year 200,000 people starved to death in Ethiopia). But we asked it in this decade, more than 40 years of progress later. People live on average 10 years longer now. We humans have always struggled hard to make our families survive, and finally we are succeeding.

When I show this amazing graph, people often ask, “What is the most recent dip there?” and they point at 1960. If you don’t know already, this is a great opportunity for me to attack the misconception that the world is getting worse.

There’s a dip in the global life expectancy curve in 1960 because 15 million to 40 million people—nobody knows the exact number—starved to death that year in China, in what was probably the world’s largest ever man-made famine.

The Chinese harvest in 1960 was smaller than planned because of a bad season, combined with poor governmental advice about how to grow crops more effectively. The local governments didn’t want to show bad results, so they took all the food and sent it to the central government. There was no food left. One year later, the shocked inspectors were delivering eyewitness reports of cannibalism and dead bodies along roads. The government denied that its central planning had failed, and the catastrophe was kept secret by the Chinese government for 36 years. It wasn’t described in English to the outside world until 1996. (Think about it. Could any government keep the deaths of 15 million people a global secret today?)

“It is hard to see any of this global progress by looking out your window. It is taking place beyond the horizon.”

The misconception that the world is getting worse is very difficult to maintain when we put the present in its historical context. We shouldn’t diminish the tragedies of the droughts and famines happening right now. But knowledge of the tragedies of the past should help everyone realize how the world has become both much more transparent and much better at getting help to where it’s needed.

More Improvements

Is the world in your head still getting worse? Then get ready for a challenging data encounter. We have 16 more improvements to show you. For each, we could tell a similar story to those we told about extreme poverty and life expectancy. For many, we could show you that people are consistently more negative than the data says they should be. (And where we can’t, it’s because we haven’t asked these questions yet.)

We can’t fit all these explanations into this excerpt, so just the charts appear on the next page, starting with eight terrible things that are on their way out, or have even already disappeared. Then, we look at eight wonderful things that have gotten better.

It is hard to see any of this global progress by looking out your window. It is taking place beyond the horizon. But there are some clues you can tune into, if you pay close attention. Listen carefully. Can you hear a child practicing the guitar or the piano? That child has not drowned or died of starvation and is instead experiencing the joy and freedom of making music.

The goal of higher income is not just bigger piles of money. The goal of longer lives is not just extra time. The ultimate goal is to have the freedom to do what we want. Me, I love the circus and playing computer games with my grandchildren and zapping through TV channels. Culture and freedom, the goals of development, can be hard to measure, but guitars per capita is a good proxy. And boy, has that improved. With beautiful statistics like these, how can anyone say the world is getting worse?

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.