The question is about how the world has changed, and so we must take a historical perspective. And the question is about the world as a whole; thus, the answer must consider everybody. The answer must consider the history of global living conditions — a history of everyone.
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To see where we are coming from, we must go far back in time. Thirty or even 50 years is not enough. When you only consider what the world looked during our Life is great and getting better, it is easy to make the mistake of thinking of the world as relatively static — the rich, healthy, and educated parts of the world here and the poor, uneducated, sick regions there — and to falsely conclude that it always was like that and that it will always will be like that.
But take a longer perspective, and it becomes very clear that the world is not static at all. The countries that are rich today were very poor just very recently and were in fact worse off than the poor countries today. To avoid portraying the world in a static way — the North always much richer than the South — we have to start years ago, before the time when living conditions really changed dramatically.
These poverty figures take into non-monetary forms of income — for poor families today and in the past, this is very important, particularly because of subsistence farming.
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The poverty measure is also corrected for different price levels in different countries and adjusted for price changes over time inflation — poverty is measured in so-called international dollars that s for these adjustments. The first chart shows the estimates for the share of the world population living in extreme poverty.
Inonly 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 continually. More and more world regions industrialized and thereby increased productivity, which made it possible to lift more people out of poverty: Inthree-quarters of the world was living in extreme poverty; init was still 44 percent.
For last year, the research suggests that the share in extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent. That is a huge achievement — for me, as a researcher who focuses on growth and inequality, maybe the biggest achievement of all in the past two centuries. In a world without economic growthsuch an increase in the population would have resulted in less and less income for everyone; a sevenfold increase in the world population would have been enough to drive everyone into extreme Life is great and getting better. Yet the exact opposite happened.
In a time of unprecedented population growth, our world managed to give more prosperity to more people and to continually lift more people out of poverty. Increasing productivity was important because it made vital goods and services less scarce: more food, better clothing, less cramped housing. Productivity is the ratio between the output of our work and the input that we put into our work; as productivity increased, we benefited from more output but also from less input — weekly working hours fell very substantially.
Economic growth was also so very important because it changed the relationship between people.
In the long time in which people lived in a non-growth world, the only way to become better off was if someone else became worse off. Economic growth changed that: Growth made it possible for you to be better off when others become better off. The ingenuity of those who built the technology that increased productivity — the car, the machinery, the communication technology — made some of them very rich, and at the same time it increased the productivity and the incomes of others.
It is hard to overstate how different life in a zero-sum and a positive-sum economy are.
Unfortunately, the media is overly obsessed with reporting single events and with things that go wrong and does not nearly pay enough attention to the slow developments that reshape our world. With this empirical data on the reduction of poverty, we can make it more concrete what a media that would report global development would look like. Newspapers could and should have run this headline every single day since The chart below shows the share of Life is great and getting better world population that is literate over the past two centuries.
In the past, only a tiny elite was able to read and write. It was in the past two centuries that literacy became the norm for the entire population. Inonly every 10th person was literate, in it was every third, and now we are at 85 percent globally. Inthere were million people in the world who could read and write; today there are 6. The historical estimates suggest that the entire world lived in such conditions; there was relatively little variation among different regions, in all countries of the world, more than every third child died before it was 5 years old.
It would be wrong to believe that modern medicine was the only reason for improved health. Initially, rising prosperity and the changing nature of social life mattered more than medicine.
It was improvements in housing and sanitation that improved our chances in the age-old war against infectious disease. Healthier diet — made possible through higher productivity in the agricultural sector and overseas trade — made us more resilient against disease.
Surprisingly, improving nutrition and health also made us smarter and taller. But surely science and medicine mattered as well. A more educated population achieved a series of scientific breakthroughs that made it possible to reduce mortality and disease further. Particularly important was the discovery of the germ theory of disease in the second half of the 19th century. In retrospect, it is hard to understand why a new theory can possibly be so important. But at a time when doctors did not wash their hands when switching from postmortem to midwifery, the theory finally convinced our ancestors that hygiene and public sanitation were crucial for health.
The germ theory of disease laid the foundation for the development of antibiotics and vaccines, and it helped the world to see why Life is great and getting better health is so very important. Public health mattered hugely: Everybody benefits from everybody else being vaccinatedand everybody benefits from everybody else obeying the rules of hygiene. With these changes, global health improved in a way that was unimaginable to our ancestors.
Inchild mortality was down to 4. You have to take this long perspective to see the progress that we have achieved. Political freedom and civil liberties are at the very heart of development — as they are both a means for development and an end of development. Journalism and public discourse are the pillars on which this freedom rests, but qualitative assessments of these aspects bear the risk that we are mistakenly perceiving a decline of liberties over time when in fact we are raising the bar by which we judge our liberty.
Quantitative assessments can therefore be useful when they help us to measure freedom against the same yardstick across countries and over time. There is just no way around that. In this analysis, I will rely on the Polity IV index, as it is the least problematic of the measures that present a long-term perspective.
Again, I want to give a time perspective to drive home just how much political freedom has changed over the past years. The chart shows the share of people living under different types of political regimes over the past two centuries. Throughout the 19th century, more than a third of the population lived in colonial regimes, and almost everyone else lived in autocratically ruled countries. The first expansion of political freedom from the late 19th century onward was crushed by the rise of authoritarian regimes that in many countries took their place in the time leading up to the Second World War.
In the second half of the 20th century, the world has changed ificantly: Colonial empires ended, and more and more countries turned democratic. The share of the world population living in democracies Life is great and getting better continually — particularly important was the breakdown of the Soviet Union, which allowed more countries to democratize. Now more than every second person in the world lives in a democracy. The huge majority of those living in an autocracy — four out of five of those who live in an authoritarian regime — live in one country, China.
Human rights are similarly difficult to measure consistently over time and across time. The best empirical data shows that after a time of stagnation, human right protection improved globally over the past three decades.
The world population was around 1 billion in the year and has increased sevenfold since then. But this increase of the world population should evoke more than doom and gloom. First of all, this increase shows a tremendous achievement.
It shows that humans stopped dying at the rate at which our ancestors died for the many millennia before. In pre-modern times, fertility was high — five or six children per woman was the norm.
What kept the population growth low was the very high rate at which people died; that, in turn, meant that many children were dead before they reached their reproductive age. The increase of the world population followed when humanity started to win the fight against death. Global life expectancy doubled just over the past years. Population growth is a consequence of fertility and mortality not declining simultaneously.
The fast population growth happened when fertility was still as high as it was in the unhealthy environment of the past, but mortality has already declined to the low levels of our time.
Proof that life is getting better for humanity, in 5 charts
What we have seen in country after country over the past years is that once women realize that the chances of their children dying has declined substantially, they adapt and chose to have fewer children. Population growth then comes to an end. This transition from high mortality and fertility to low mortality and fertility is called the demographic transition.
In those countries that industrialized first, it lasted at least from the midth century to the midth century — it took 95 years for fertility to decline from more than six children to fewer than three children per woman in the UK.