Im­prov­ing with age

Be­yond the head­lines, life on Earth is get­ting bet­ter ev­ery day

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Mar­ian Tupy

Hu­man­ity is bet­ter off to­day than it has ever been. That may sur­prise you be­cause, af­ter all, we are con­stantly bom­barded by bad news: There is a drawn-out civil war in Syria, con­tin­ued strife in Egypt, Ethiopian chil­dren are forced to work to sur­vive, and women from In­dia to Saudi Ara­bia are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing fre­quent vi­o­lence and wide­spread op­pres­sion. Even in the United States, some Amer­i­cans re­main trapped in poverty.

In spite of all the neg­a­tives, life for most of hu­man­ity is still bet­ter than ever.

Through­out his­tory, life was very dif­fi­cult. Those with ail­ments spent much of their lives in ag­o­niz­ing pain. Fam­i­lies lived in bug-in­fested dwellings that of­fered nei­ther com­fort nor pri­vacy. Many worked in the fields from sun­rise to sun­set, yet hunger and famines were com­mon­place. Trans­porta­tion was prim­i­tive, and most never trav­eled be­yond their na­tive vil­lages or near­est towns. Ig­no­rance and il­lit­er­acy were rife.

Peo­ple also died young. The av­er­age global life ex­pectancy of 30 years did not change from the Stone Age un­til 1900. Even in the rich­est coun­tries, life ex­pectancy at the start of the 20th cen­tury rarely ex­ceeded 50 years. Av­er­age global in­come per per­son re­mained stag­nant from the time of Cae­sar Au­gus­tus to the time of Napoleon Bon­a­parte.

In­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and glob­al­iza­tion have been trans­form­ing our lives, mostly for the bet­ter, since the 1800s. Av­er­age life ex­pectancy in the world has more than dou­bled to 68 years, and per-capita an­nual in­come has in­creased more than ten­fold, to $14,000.

It is not only in­come and life ex­pectancy that are im­prov­ing, as Har­vard pro­fes­sor Steven Pinker wrote: “Vi­o­lence has been in de­cline for thou­sands of years, and to­day we may be liv­ing in the most peaceable era in the ex­is­tence of our species.”

If any­thing, the speed of hu­man progress is ac­cel­er­at­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Charles Kenny of the Center for Global De­vel­op­ment, some “4.9 bil­lion peo­ple — the con­sid­er­able ma­jor­ity of the planet — [live] … in coun­tries where GDP has in­creased more than five­fold over 50 years.”

This ac­cel­er­a­tion has also led to a sub­stan­tial re­duc­tion in the world’s poor. Ac­cord­ing to re­search by the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, “be­tween 2005 and 2010, the to­tal num­ber of poor peo­ple around the world fell by nearly half a bil­lion … . Poverty re­duc­tion of this mag­ni­tude is un­par­al­leled in his­tory.”

More chil­dren in poor coun­tries, in­clud­ing girls, at­tend schools at all lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion. In Afghanistan, for ex­am­ple, the pri­mary-school en­roll­ment rate for girls rose from zero in 2001 to 79 per­cent in 2010. While still low, the num­ber of fe­male par­lia­men­tar­i­ans world­wide in­creased from 11 per­cent in 1990 to 19 per­cent in 2012.

Our lives are not only longer, but also healthier. The global preva­lence rate of peo­ple in­fected with HIV-AIDS has been sta­ble since 2001, and deaths from the disease are de­clin­ing in most coun­tries ow­ing to the in­creas­ing avail­abil­ity of an­tiretro­vi­ral drugs. In wealthy coun­tries, some can­cer rates have started to fall. That is quite an ac­com­plish­ment, con­sid­er­ing that peo­ple are liv­ing much longer and that the risk of can­cer in­creases with longevity.

Then there are the ev­ery­day im­prove­ments we of­ten take for granted. Our dwellings are larger and, in many ways, of bet­ter qual­ity. Work­ers work in safer en­vi­ron­ments, are more pro­duc­tive, and tend to work fewer hours. That leaves more time for leisure and travel. We have ac­cess to a greater ar­ray of prod­ucts that are usu­ally cheaper and of higher qual­ity. To top it all off, hu­mans are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing more po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic free­dom.

The list of ad­vances could go on, but the point is that hu­mans have made in­cred­i­ble progress over the past 200 years. Un­for­tu­nately, there is a gap be­tween re­al­ity and pub­lic per­cep­tion. What we read in the news­pa­pers and see on the news of­fer im­por­tant glimpses into the ev­ery­day strug­gles of peo­ple around the globe. But it is crit­i­cal to put things into per­spec­tive: Never be­fore have so many peo­ple en­joyed so much peace and pros­per­ity.

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