Is the World Getting Better or Worse?

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”The progress that we have made as species in improving our circumstances gives hope that we possess the ability to tackle our contemporary challenges.” Kristian Roed Nielsen

Text by Kristian Roed Nielsen, post doc researcher at Misum specialized in sustainable consumption, sustainable innovation, crowdfunding and behavioural science and policy

All things considered, is the world getting better or worse? If you were to read the papers and peruse the latest headlines you would be hard pressed to believe in anything but a slow and gradual decline. Many indeed engage in nostalgia about the past and bemoan our fall from grace blaming a variety of undefined groups from the lazy youth, to the elite, the unemployed, or the foreign. Even in academia – where all things should be treated with reasoned scepticism – I cannot escape the sense of dread about the future that many of my colleagues feel. In the end very few people think that the world is getting better – and if you are one of those in tiny minority who argues that the world has improved vastly – be prepared for a bombardment of what can politely be called scepticism. We are for some reason willing to accept bad news on whim, but remain strongly critical of good news. That the world is increasingly poorer, more violent, and even dumber seems for many as a fact – I will try to convince you otherwise.

”We are for some reason willing to accept bad news on whim, but remain strongly critical of good news.”

In an event-obsessed world, the positive developments that our species have made in ensuring richer, more peaceful, and less oppressive world is often lost to us due to its slow pace (Roser 2018a). Instead our attention is drawn to the steady stream of single news events like terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Single events thus become our barometer for measuring the state of the world and we lose sight of the bigger picture. But let us have a closer look at a period of time that we often have a positive association with: the booming post-WWII world.

If you were born in 1950 you would, looking at the then present day statistics, face a 72 percent chance of being born into extreme poverty, your child(ren) would face a one-in-five chance of dying before reaching age of five, and you would most likely live in autocratic or colonial political regime. You would also in all likelihood be illiterate, not vaccinated, and live in an exceptionally violent time – oh, and because of that probably live to an age of around 48. Now let us compare with 2014. There is now a 9,6 percent chance that you are born into extreme poverty, your child(ren) would face a one-in-twenty chance of dying before reaching age of five, and you would most likely live in a democratic political regime. You would in all likelihood be literate and if in the majority have a lower secondary education or above. You would be vaccinated and live in one of the most conflict free times in human history. You could now expect to live to an age of around 71,4 year.

Now – and I for some reason always have to say this – my argument should not be mistaken as blind optimism. I am well aware of the enormity of the challenges that we as a society face. The very progress that we have made has undeniably challenged our planets ability to sustain the current equilibrium we have so long enjoyed (Rockström et al. 2009). Challenges like climate change, loss of biodiversity, and interference with the nitrogen cycles have already crossed their “safe operating space” and thus require “factor 10 or more improvements in environmental performance, which can only be realized by deep-structural changes in transport, energy, agri-food and other systems” (Geels 2011, p.24). We face a situation where we need to make better use of our increased welfare, for example, by using the vast resources and increasingly educated global body to find ways to decouple economic growth from CO2-emissions. However, we also need to restrict and rethink our current consumption levels and find alternative means of ensuring that these positive trends continue without compromising the welfare of future generations.

”I believe we should look at history with clear eyes to understand how far we have come in solving previously thought intractable problems.”

These challenges are massive, but the progress that we have made as species in improving our circumstances gives me hope that we possess the ability to tackle these challenges. Some say we should look to grassroots organisations for hope and inspiration – I believe we should look at history with clear eyes to understand how far we have come in solving previously thought intractable problems. In the words Max Roser (economist and researcher at Oxford University), who inspired this blog-post, in a “perverse way the histories of decline give us comfort. They allow us a perspective of helplessness and are absolving us of our personal responsibility. We need to know what we achieved over the course of history to understand that we can achieve more” (Roser 2018a).

Kristian Roed Nielsen, post doc researcher at Misum specialized in sustainable consumption, sustainable innovation, crowdfunding and behavioural science and policy.

Follow Kristian on Twitter: @RoedNielsen

References

Geels, F.W., 2011. The multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions: Responses to seven criticisms. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 1(1), pp.24–40. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2210422411000050.

Rockström, J. et al., 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), pp.472–475. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/461472a.

Roser, M., 2018a. The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it. Our World in Data. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts [Accessed May 1, 2018].

Roser, M., 2018b. Our World in Data. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org