Picture this: You are sitting around the picnic table on July 4, celebrating Independence Day You're feeling all gooey with love of country and basking in the spirit of American patriotism, thankful that you live in the good ole' U.S. of A.
Then, without warning, one of your friends or relatives brings the mood crashing down by bringing up the one thing you really don't want to discuss – politics.
The back-and-forth turns ugly in an instant. Who's to blame? Who did what first? How's the other guy any better? The "silver lining" in this conversation is that everyone agrees in the end on one thing: The world is certainly worse off than it was 50 years ago.
In fact, a recent study shows that 94 percent of Americans believe, all things considered, that the world is either not getting any better or becoming worse. So with a shrug and a nod, the conversation ends as you wallow in another hot dog and try to avoid the rotten tomatoes.
But that's not the discussion you need to have while you're celebrating freedom and liberty. The trick to lifting the mood away from despair and back toward good spirits is this: mention that not just America, but the entire world is in fact getting better.
It's true. Consider this: The number of people living in "extreme poverty" has plunged in the last 200 years. Researchers define extreme poverty as living on less than $1.90 per day, a figure that includes non-monetary forms of income and is adjusted for inflation as well as different price levels in different countries.
The improvement in living conditions is astronomical, according to Max Roser, an economist from the University of Oxford:
In 1820, only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living, while the vast majority of people lived in conditions that we would call extreme poverty today. Since then, the share of extremely poor people fell continuously. More and more world regions industrialized and thereby increased productivity, which made it possible to lift more people out of poverty: In 1950 three-quarters of the world were living in extreme poverty; in 1981 it was still 44%. For last year research (2015) suggests that the share in extreme poverty has fallen below 10%.
This number by itself is amazing, but considering that the population has increased seven-fold over the past 200 years, this reduction is amazing:
A seven-fold increase in the world population would have been enough to drive everyone into extreme poverty. Yet, the exact opposite happened. In a time of unprecedented population growth our world managed to give more prosperity to more people and to continuously lift more people out of poverty. Increasing productivity was important because it made vital goods and services less scarce: more food, better clothing, and less cramped housing. Productivity is the ratio between the output of our work and the input that we put in our work; as productivity increased we benefitted from more output, but also from less input – weekly working hours fell very substantially.
At the same time as this miraculous decrease in extreme poverty, health has also seen an astonishing improvement over the past 200 years. In 1800, 43% of all children — close to one of every two people born — died before the age of 5. Now that number is 4.3 percent. The reduction in infant mortality rates can be credited not only to medicine but also to a free-market economy. Better productivity led to much better living conditions, better sanitation, and healthier diets. The combination of these three things gave children a much better chance of warding off infectious diseases and other ailments.
The development of germ theory — the theory that states diseases are caused by microorganisms — was also paramount to survival:
The germ theory of disease laid the foundation for the development of antibiotics and vaccines, and it helped the world to see why public health is so very important. Public health mattered hugely: Everybody benefits from everybody else being vaccinated, and everybody benefits from everybody else obeying the rules of hygiene.
Improvement in the world's education infrastructure is arguably the most important change to have occurred in the last 200 years. The expansion of access to education enabled more people to go to school, and studies in the sciences and economics catapulted our understanding of how to improve our lives.
Think of it, without education, great minds go to waste. The next Einstein may be out there, but we are limiting our intellectual capital when much of the world is prevented from learning.
Sure 50 years and 200 years are different time frames. So, why are we unable to see that the world is getting better, even in the last 40 years? It's easy to listen to media and hear only stories of how bad things are going in the world. But, the media, understandably, only report the news of the moment, not developments over time. It takes a while to measure massive success, but only a second to witness something go terribly wrong and assume that it's a forewarning.
Sure, the world still has problems and we are still a long way from fixing them all. But little by little, when we keep improving, we get to the point where the masses are educated, no one lives in extreme poverty, and everyone lives a healthier existence. To get there starts by acknowledging the direction we've been heading.
For our history to be a source of encouragement we have to know our history. The story that we tell ourselves about our history and our time matters. Because our hopes and efforts for building a better future are inextricably linked to our perception of the past it is important to understand and communicate the global development up to now.