Reasons to be cheerful. Seriously

Image of Simon Kuper

You might think things are bad: economic crisis, hunger, Israel versus Iran, Vladimir Putin, Joseph Kony, etcetera. Viewed through the prism of daily news, things do indeed suck. But if you imagined an annual “state of the world” report, the audience would be dancing the conga in the aisles. These are the best times in history, even though it won’t look that way if you’re reading this in a slum in Mogadishu. Here are some key measures of life on earth:

● Life expectancy is surging, especially in “less developed regions”, says the United Nations. In the period 1950-1955, the average person’s life expectancy at birth was 46.6 years. From 2005 through 2010, it was 67.6 years.

Aids and malaria are finally in retreat. After South Africa began taking Aids seriously, its life expectancy rebounded from 54 to 58 between 2005 and 2010 alone.

European life expectancy keeps rising despite our obesity epidemic. The average Briton can now expect to live to 80.

● Extreme poverty is falling worldwide. When the UN in 2000 set a “millennial development goal” of halving the percentage of humans living in extreme poverty by 2015, most people thought it was just pompous verbiage. Probably the drafters themselves thought so too. Yet the World Bank estimated in February that despite recession, the world hit that target five years early. In 2008, 1.29 billion people lived below the global poverty line of $1.25 a day (at 2005 prices). For the first time since measurements began, most Africans were above the line. By 2010, things had improved again.

True, the numbers remain chilling – except compared with where we came from. Almost unnoticed, the world also reached its millennial development goal of halving the number of people without access to clean water five years ahead of target, the UN said this month.

● To quote George W. Bush: “Freedom is on the march.” The demand for democracy keeps rising worldwide, and despite stumbles during the recession, the number of democracies has risen fairly steadily since 1990. Tony Judt in his new, posthumous book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, sees “a very long cycle of improvement” that began around 1776 “and that, notwithstanding everything that’s happened since, continued essentially through the 1990s: the steady widening of the circle of countries whose rulers were constrained to accept something like the rule of law”. And Judt died before seeing the Arab spring.

● As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker showed in The Better Angels of our Nature, violence has been declining for centuries. Pinker says annual deaths in battle dropped by over 90 per cent from the late 1940s through the early 2000s. “Zero,” writes Pinker, “is the number of times that any country has conquered even parts of some other country since 1975.” (Iraq didn’t successfully conquer Kuwait in 1990; it invaded it but was soon driven out.) The end of conquest is a virtually ignored milestone in history.

Indeed, it is precisely because we have grown unused to war, especially in the west, that the shock of September 11 was enough to shape geopolitics for years. In many countries in many eras, that day’s carnage wouldn’t have made the front page.

But after 9/11 President Bush did a marvellous job of discrediting war. Today we’re not that far off John Lennon’s vision of global peace. In 1982 Argentina and Britain fought a war over the Falklands; now they’re just having a silly squabble over them.

The collapse in violent crime, also charted by Pinker, still continues. For instance, the European Union’s statistical office Eurostat reported recently: “In most EU countries, crime levels have been decreasing consistently since about 2002.” American violent crime is near a 40-year low, says the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And even in Brazil’s São Paulo, homicides fell by nearly three-quarters between 2001 and 2008. In what may be a related trend, jihadist terrorism seems to be a waning fashion.

● Fertility rates are plunging almost everywhere – in Iran for instance, from seven children per woman in 1984 to 1.87 today. That benefits the planet and poor women.

All in all, life has ceased to be quite so poor, nasty, brutish and short. Oddly, though, you wouldn’t know it from watching TV news. These transformations get less nightly attention than an Italian cruise ship hitting the rocks or even a Finnish politician making a gnomic comment about Greece.

News nowadays is mostly devoted to recounting disasters. It didn’t use to be. The Ukrainian famine, the Bengal famine, the Holocaust, and China’s terrible “Great Leap Forward” happened almost unreported. Today, disasters are news partly because of improved technology and more democracy, partly because disasters make great TV – “if it bleeds, it leads” – and partly because media instinctively focus on bad news. Obviously, this focus increases the payoff from terrorism. It also misses humanity’s upward trend.

Some will say that noting this trend will only encourage complacency. In fact, it probably encourages action. It invalidates the notion that nothing can be done, that Africa is “the hopeless continent”, or that aid never works. (Aid worked against Aids and malaria.) If we can beat war, perhaps we can even stop climate change.

I’ll return to whingeing next week.

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