As 2016 comes to a close, here’s something to keep in mind: Life on Earth is pretty darn good, at least compared to decades and centuries past.
There are notable exceptions of course; Aleppo comes to mind. But, by several metrics, living conditions around the world are the best they have ever been — even if most of us don’t perceive it that way.
Late last year, YouGov, an internet-based research firm, surveyed more than 18,000 people around the world and asked them if they believed the world was getting better or worse. In the U.S., only 6 percent saw an improving world. People in China had the most optimistic outlook, with 41 percent saying things were getting better.
Why do people have such negative perceptions of what is happening globally when research and data point to long-term improvements?
“I do not think they are the only ones to blame, but I do think that the media is to blame for some part of this,” wrote economist Max Roser, founder and project director of the online publication Our World in Data. “This is because the media does not tell us how the world is changing, it tells us what in the world goes wrong.”
“One reason why the media focuses on things that go wrong is that the media focuses on single events and single events are often bad — look at the news: plane crashes, terrorism attacks, natural disasters, election outcomes that we are not happy with. Positive developments on the other hand often happen very slowly and never make the headlines in the event-obsessed media.”
To counter the misperception that the world is getting worse, Roser chose datasets highlighting six measures of well-being: poverty, literacy, health, freedom, fertility and education.
The percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has been dropping for decades. Last year, 9.6 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 per day. In 1950, three-quarters of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. In 1980, 44 percent did. The decrease in extreme poverty is even more remarkable given the rapid rise in global population.
With regard to literacy and education, the literacy rate has risen from 36 percent in 1950 to 85 percent in 2014. The number of people with an education is projected to grow substantially by 2100 with a nearly 10-fold increase in the number of people worldwide with post-secondary degrees.
In the United States, there has been a lot of concern about crime and immigration. Americans think both are getting worse. They are not.
Likewise, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. has dropped since 2005 and has leveled off at about 11 million people.
Economically, there is a lot of good news too. Unemployment has dropped significantly in the last five years, per capita gross domestic product has grown, and the demand for goods and services has increased.
Too many people — in the world, the U.S. and Maine — live in poverty and need better access to education and health care. Keeping in mind past successes will better enable policymakers ease these problems, if they have the will.
“Knowing that we have come a long way in improving living conditions,” Roser advises, “and the notion that our work is worthwhile is…a necessary condition for self-improvement.”