Which statement do you agree with most?
A: The world is getting better.
B: The world is getting worse.
C: The world is getting neither better nor worse.
“Things are getting worse” is the statement about the world that I hear more than any
other. And it is absolutely true that there are many bad things in this world.
The number of war fatalities has been falling since the Second World War, but with the Syrian War, the trend has reversed. Terrorism too is rising again.
Overfishing and the deterioration of the seas are truly worrisome. The lists of dead areas in the world’s oceans and of endangered species are getting longer.
Ice is melting. Sea levels will continue to rise by probably three feet over the next 100 years. There’s no doubt it’s because of all the greenhouse gases humans have pumped into
the atmosphere, which won’t disperse for a long time, even if we stop adding more.
The collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2007, which no regulators had predicted, was caused by widespread illusions of safety in abstract investments that hardly anyone understood. The system remains as complex now as it was then and a similar crisis could happen again. Maybe tomorrow.
“It is easy to be aware of all the bad things happening in the world. It’s harder to know about the good things: billions of improvements that are never reported.”
In order for this planet to have financial stability, peace and protected natural resources, there’s one thing we can’t do without, and that’s international collaboration, based on a shared and fact-based understanding of the world. The current lack of knowledge about the world is, therefore, the most concerning problem of all.
I hear so many negative things all the time. Maybe you think, “Hans, you must just meet all the gloomiest people.” I decided to check.
People in 30 countries were asked the question at the top of the chapter: Do you think the world is getting better, getting worse or staying about the same? The majority said they think the world is getting worse. No wonder we all feel so stressed.
Statistics as Therapy
It is easy to be aware of all the bad things happening in the world. It’s harder to know about the good things: billions of improvements that are never reported. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about some trivial positive news to supposedly
balance out the negative. I’m talking about fundamental improvements that are world-changing but are too slow, too fragmented or too small one-by-one to ever qualify as news. I’m talking about the secret, silent miracle of human progress.
The basic facts about the world’s progress are so little known that I get invited to talk about them at conferences and corporate meetings all over the world. They sometimes call my lectures “inspirational,” and many people say they also have a comforting effect. That was never my intention. But it’s logical. What I show is mostly just official UN data. As long as people have a world view that is so much more negative than reality, pure statistics can make them feel more positive. It is comforting, as well as inspiring, to learn that the world is much better than you think. A new kind of happy pill, completely free online!
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.
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.
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.
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?
The Negativity Instinct
In large part, it is because of our negativity instinct: our instinct to notice the bad more
than the good. There are three things going on here: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad, it’s heartless to say they are getting better.
Warning: Objects in Your Memories Were Worse Than They Appear
For centuries, older people have romanticized their youths and insisted that things ain’t what they used to be. Well, that’s true, but not in the way they mean it. Most things used to be worse, not better. But it is extremely easy for humans to forget how things really did “used to be.”
Beyond living memory, for some reason we avoid reminding ourselves and our children
about the miseries and brutalities of the past. The truth is to be found in ancient graveyards and burial sites, where archeologists have to get used to discovering that a large proportion of all the remains they dig up are those of children. Most will have been killed by starvation or disgusting diseases, but many child skeletons bear the marks of physical violence. Hunter-gatherer societies often had murder rates above 10 percent, and children were not spared. In today’s graveyards, child graves are rare.
8 Good Things Increasing
We are subjected to never-ending cascades of negative news from across the world:
wars, famines, natural disasters, political mistakes, corruption, budget cuts, diseases, mass layoffs, acts of terror. Journalists who reported flights that didn’t crash or crops that didn’t fail would quickly lose their jobs. Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page, even when they occur on a dramatic scale and impact millions of people.
And thanks to increasing press freedom and improving technology, we hear more about more disasters than ever before. When Europeans slaughtered indigenous peoples across America a few centuries ago, it didn’t make the news back in the Old World. When central planning resulted in mass famine in rural China, millions starved to death while the youngsters in Europe waving communist red flags knew nothing about it. When in the past whole species or ecosystems were destroyed, no one realized or even cared. Alongside all
the other improvements, our surveillance of suffering has improved tremendously. This
improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite.
At the same time, activists and lobbyists skillfully manage to make every dip in a trend appear to be the end of the world, even if the general trend is clearly improving, scaring us with alarmist exaggerations and prophecies. For example, in the U.S., the violent-crime rate has been on a downward trend since 1990. Just under 14.5 million crimes were reported in 1990. By 2016 that figure was well under 9.5 million. Each time something horrific or shocking happened, which was pretty much every year, a crisis was reported.
The majority of people, the vast majority of the time, believe that violent crime is getting worse.
No wonder we get an illusion of constant deterioration. The news constantly alerts us to bad events in the present. The doom-laden feeling that this creates in us is then intensified
by our inability to remember the past; our historical knowledge is rosy and pink and we fail to remember that, one year ago, or 10 years ago, or 50 years ago, there was the same number of terrible events, probably more. This illusion of deterioration creates great stress for some people and makes other people lose hope. For no good reason.
8 Bad Things Increasing
There’s something else going on as well. What are people really thinking when they say the world is getting worse? My guess is they are not thinking. They are feeling. If you still feel uncomfortable agreeing that the world is getting better, even after I have shown you all this beautiful data, my guess is that it’s because you know that huge problems still remain. My guess is you feel that me saying that the world is getting better is like me telling you that everything is fine, or that you should look away from these problems and pretend they don’t exist, and that feels ridiculous and stressful.
But it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made. People often call me an optimist, because I show them the enormous progress they didn’t know about. That makes me angry. I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious “possibilist.” That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with
conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having
a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.
When people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing we have tried so far is working and lose confidence in measures that actually work. I meet many such people, who tell me they have lost all hope for humanity. Or, they may become radicals, supporting drastic measures that are counterproductive when, in fact, the methods we are already using to improve our world are working just fine.
Take, for example, girls’ education. Educating girls has proven to be one of the world’s best-ever ideas. When women are educated, all kinds of wonderful things happen in societies. The workforce becomes diversified and able to make better decisions and solve more problems. Educated mothers decide to have fewer children and more children survive. More energy and time is invested in each child’s education. It’s a virtuous cycle of change.
Poor parents who can’t afford to send all their children to school have often prioritized the boys. But since 1970 there has been fantastic progress. Across religions, cultures and continents, almost all parents can now afford to send all their children to school and are sending their daughters as well as their sons. Now the girls have almost caught up: 90 percent of girls of primary school age attend school. For boys, the figure is 92 percent. There’s almost no difference.
There are still gender differences when it comes to education among the poorest people
in the world, especially when it comes to secondary and higher education, but that’s no reason to deny the progress that has been made. I see no conflict between celebrating
this progress and continuing to fight for more. I am a possibilist. And the progress we have made tells me it’s possible to get all girls in school, and all boys too, and that we should
work hard to make it happen. It won’t happen by itself, and if we lose hope because of stupid misconceptions, it might not happen at all. The loss of hope is probably the most devastating consequence of the negativity instinct and the ignorance it causes.
How to Control the Negativity Instinct
How can we help our brains to realize that things are getting better when everything is
screaming at us that things are getting worse?
Don’t Censor History
When we hang on to a rose-tinted version of history, we deprive ourselves and our children of the truth. The evidence about the terrible past is scary, but it is a great resource. It can help us to appreciate what we have today and provide us with hope that future generations will, as previous generations did, get over the dips and continue the long-term trends toward peace, prosperity and solutions to our global problems.
Expect Bad News
Something else that helps to control the negativity instinct is to constantly expect bad news.
Remember that the media and activists rely on drama to grab your attention. Remember
that negative stories are more dramatic than neutral or positive ones. Remember how
simple it is to construct a story of crisis from a temporary dip pulled out of its context of
a long-term improvement. Remember that we live in a connected and transparent world
where reporting about suffering is better than it has ever been before.
When you hear about something terrible, calm yourself by asking, if there had been an
equally large positive improvement, would I have heard about that? Even if there had been hundreds of larger improvements, would I have heard? Would I ever hear about children who don’t drown? Can I see a decrease in child drownings or in deaths from tuberculosis out my window, or on the news or in a charity’s publicity material?
Keep in mind that the positive changes may be more common, but they don’t find you. You need to find them. (And if you look in the statistics, they are everywhere.)
This reminder will give you the basic protection to allow you, and your children, to keep watching the news without being carried away into dystopia on a daily basis.
Bad and Better
Still, the solution is not to just balance out all the negative news with more positive news. That would just risk creating a self-deceiving, comforting, misleading bias in the other direction. It would be as helpful as balancing too much sugar with too much salt. It would make things more exciting, but maybe even less healthy.
A solution that works for me is to persuade myself to keep two thoughts in my head at the same time.
It seems that when we hear someone say things are getting better, we think they are also saying “don’t worry, relax” or even “look away.”
But when I say things are getting better, I am not saying those things at all. I am certainly not advocating looking away from the terrible problems in the world. I am saying that things can be both bad and better.
Think of the world as a premature baby in an incubator. The baby’s health status is extremely bad and her breathing, heart rate and other important signs are tracked constantly so that changes for better or worse can quickly be seen. After a week, she is getting a lot better. On all the main measures, she is improving, but she still has to stay in the incubator because her health is still critical. Does it make sense to say that the infant’s situation is improving? Yes. Absolutely. Does it make sense to say it is bad? Yes, absolutely.
Does saying “things are improving” imply that everything is fine, and we should all relax and not worry? No, not at all. Is it helpful to have to choose between bad and improving? Definitely not. It’s both. It’s both bad and better. Better and bad at the same time.
That is how we must think about the current state of the world.