How the World is Becoming Better

Good reasons to be hopeful.

Posted Nov 23, 2018

In a previous post I suggested that, contrary to a popularly held view, the world has been dramatically improving in several important ways; we have excellent reasons not to be only sad and worried, but also happy and hopeful. But these were only five spheres of improvement out of many. Here is a sample of some more:

1. UNDERNOURISHMENT

According to Oxford economist Max Roser, although the population in the world is growing, the share of the population that is undernourished is decreasing. Since 1991, around 180 million people have escaped undernourishment. The curve here, as in many other cases, is not even, and the process has had its ups and downs. Moreover, in some regions of the world the situation is worse than in others, and in a few it is worsening. Nevertheless, on the whole, since the early 1990s, the proportion of undernourished individuals in the world has been decreasing significantly.

2. WATER

According to the World Bank, while in 2000 around 62 percent of the world population had access to safely managed drinking water, in 2015 around 71 percent of world population had access to such water. Thus, notwithstanding important challenges, on the whole there is significant progress in this sphere, too. Thanks to the dedication and persistence of many groups and agencies, there is an increase, both in rural and in urban areas, in the percentage of people who can use safely managed drinking water services.

3. HEALTH

All in all, on average, people suffer from health problems today less than they ever have in human history. This is not true of all aspects of health, but it is of many of them, and of the average rate of health in general. If to mention just a few aspects in which progress has been made: according to UNICEF, in the last 30 years the mortality rate of children under the age of five has fallen by more than half . According to the United Nations Population Fund, maternal deaths have declined by 44 percent since 1990. According to the World Health Organization, within the last few years there has been a reduction of about 40 percent in malaria cases. There are many more such examples.

4. HUMAN RIGHTS

As shown by Christopher J. Fariss, there has been gradual decrease in human rights infringement worldwide. As in other spheres, here too, we still have a long way to go, but the change (on average) and its direction are clear. As in many other spheres of improvement, here too, it is easy to miss the progress that has been made because while the world improves, our standards and expectations are raised. Sometimes our expectations are raised even more than reality improves, and then we not only miss the progress but incorrectly perceive the world as having become worse than it was.

5. DEMOCRACY

Needless to say, not any country or government claiming to be democratic is indeed so. Political systems are often considered democratic if they allow real periodic elections; limit the power of the governing bodies; allow expression of dissenting political preference and criticism; and protect a variety of other civil liberties. Political systems can be highly democratic, partly democratic, or very undemocratic. As Max Roser has shown in his Our World in Data database, there has been important progress also in this sphere within the last two centuries. The downfall of huge colonial empires greatly contributed to this process, as was the dissolution of the Soviet regimes. According to Roser, today more than half of the world's population lives in a democracy.

What are the implications of what has been presented here? Surely not that we can rest at ease. There is still a lot of work to do in order both to improve what has not been improved and to see that what has been improved does not deteriorate. We still have a long way to go. But what has been presented above does suggest that we have good reasons to be (also) glad. Many of us have the tendency only to be sorry about what is bad and deteriorating. But we should also be glad about what is good and improving. We should do both; there is no contradiction here. We should be as glad about the many important good things that are happening just as we are sorry about the bad ones that are happening.

As suggested in a previous post, a realist is a person who sees reality as it is, namely, the bad as bad, and the good as good. Many people who see and talk only about the bad like to call themselves "realists." They also like to think about those who see also the good as naïve and unrealistic. But by the criterion for realism above, which focuses on seeing things as they are, pessimists who call themselves "realists" are not so. 

Noting the many and important ways the world has improved can also give us the hope, happiness and energy needed to continue doing good work. It shows us that things can improve. We have already affected a lot of spheres in a good way; this suggests that we can continue to do so.

References

Undernourishment: Max Roser, Out World in Data — Global Number of Individuals Undernourished https://ourworldindata.org/hunger-and-undernourishment#global-number-of-individuals-undernourished accessed Nov. 4, 2018.

Water: World Bank Groups: People using safely managed drinking water services https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.H2O.SMDW.ZS accessed Nov. 4, 2018.

Under-five mortality: UNICEF Data: Under-five mortality https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-survival/under-five-mortality/ accessed Nov. 4, 2018.

Maternal deaths: United Nations Population Fund: Maternal Health https://www.unfpa.org/maternal-health accessed Nov. 4, 2018.

Malaria: World Health Organization http://www.who.int/malaria/media/world-malaria-report-2017/en/ Nov. 4, 2018.

Human Rights: Max Roser, Our world in Data — Human Rights https://ourworldindata.org/human-rights accessed Nov. 4, 2018.

Christopher J. Fariss, "Respect for Human Rights has Improved Over Time: Modeling the Changing Standard of Accountability," American Political Science Review 108(2) (2014): 297-318.

Democracy: Max Roser, Our World in Data — Democracy https://ourworldindata.org/democracy  accessed Nov. 4, 2018.