Give Thanks! The World Isn't Going to Hell in a Handbasket

While I was reading a book called Rational Optimist, I read this article about negative news being bad for you and had an epiphany. My increasing pessimism about the world not only makes my life more stressful, but is the exact opposite of reality.  

Though the headline will not sell nearly as many newspapers, every meaningful statistic tracked over a long enough time span reveals an amazing fact: the world and the human race is experiencing a constant rise in prosperity, health, morality, and anything else you want to measure.  In order to help us all give thanks, I offer you some of the statistical hope that I found.

Artificial Light

One of the things that enables us to develop, grow and improve our lot in general is the ability to continue to do work (or leisure-work like reading a book) even after the sun has gone down.  Tracking the cost of that work in meaningful terms represents how able we are to develop at our own pace rather than the one dictated by the sun.  Check out this dramatic improvement in the cost of artificial light in terms of work time at the average wage:

  • A CFL Today: 0.5 seconds of work
  • Filament in 1950: 8 seconds
  • Kerosine Lamp in 1880s: 15 minutes
  • Tallow candle in 1800s: 6 hours
  • 1750 BCE: 50 hours

Poverty

It may seem a little ridiculous to spend all that time on light when people are suffering in real, oppressive poverty.  The key poverty measure for me is the extreme poverty that threatens someone's existence.  That poverty (measured in terms of a dollar/day in 1985) is also on the decline.

  • 1950s 36% of the world's population was in extreme poverty
  • Today: less than half - less than 18% are in extreme poverty
  • At the current rate of decline, there will be no extreme poverty in 2035!

The American Poverty Line

My own country (the United States of America) sets an income amount below which a person is considered "below the poverty line" and in need of assistance.  The lot of that group has been improving until today they have more than food, water, and shelter.

  • 99% of those below the poverty line in the USA have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator.
  • 95% have a television
  • 88% have a telephone
  • 71% have a car
  • 70% have air conditioning
  • Rewind to the 1800s, and one of the richest men in history, Cornelius Vanderbilt, had NONE of those things.

Global Hunger

Though the global population has increased from three billion to over seven billion since 1960, we have been able to continue to produce enough food for no one to be hungry (we have a distribution problem that causes hunger).  The amazing thing is that if we had not increased our efficiency in that time, we would have needed to begin farming an additional area equal to the continent of South America minus Chile.  Instead, our efficiency per acre has increased at a rate that has kept up with demand resiling in no need tot increase the overall acres farmed since the 60s.  But what about hunger?  Good news there: look at the change in those who are so hungry they may not survive:

  • 19% of the world population in 1990
  • 12% of the global population in 2010

Health

Since the 1800s, life expectancy has increased six times and the two most at risk groups (Children and Seniors) are the ones who have benefitted the most.

  • Infant mortality has dropped by 1/3 since 1950
  • Disability rates for those over 65 fell from 27% to 19% since 1982
  • Death from stroke (a leading cause among the older population) fell 70% since 1950

Morality

Maybe we are healthier, wealthier, and better fed, but what about the "moral bankruptcy" touted by your local television anchor and newspaper editorial?  This is a little more difficult to ascertain as the nuances of morality change over time and people are reluctant to fess up to moral problems in a survey.  There is, however, something that is wrong in all cultures and is easily measurable: homicide.  Lest you think the ages past before the internet, violent video games, and mega-cities was safer, here is one last statistic:

  • Homicide was 10 times more common in the 1600s than it is today 

Why is it Improving?

I hope you will not be surprised by my answer: God.  The Bible makes it clear that since the moment of the first sin, God has been working to reconcile the world to him and set things right.  When Jesus left, he made it clear that a major part of God's plan for this vision of reconciliation is humanity.  God is going to use us to bring about his work in the world.  The final part of the Bible ends with a brilliant vision of the future with a new Jerusalem descending and the world being transformed into a place where there is "no more death, mourning, crying, or pain." (Rev 21:4b)  No matter what the headlines say, we are well on the way to the New Jerusalem and have a lot to be thankful for this year!