Good news, everybody! Seriously. Good news!
December 21, 2016 7:45 AM   Subscribe

From any perspective, the progress humanity has made in recent history is astonishing, as this fantastic analysis by Oxford economist Max Roser shows. Economically, 130,000 people have exited extreme poverty every day since 1990. In 1800 1-in-10 people were literate, now it is 85%. Child mortality has dropped a 100x in the same period, even as populations levels are expected to peak in 2075. The stats for education are no less impressive. There is a nice infographic summarizing these and other trends as well. You can put together your own interactive own charts using the amazing data gathered by Prof. Roser's Our World in Data site.
posted by blahblahblah (41 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, it's nice I was alive for peak civilization before it went back downhill. It'll make a good story for all the young cave dwellers I happen upon in my dotage.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:51 AM on December 21, 2016 [14 favorites]


Honestly, I would push back on the "peak civilization" thing - that is sort of the whole point. These trends started before the World Wars, hardly a time you would have picked to be optimistic about civilization.

It is common (and Metafilter snark is no exception) to lose sight of the macro trends because of micro concerns happening in one place. We focus on people like us, and anxiety-provoking events, but most people on the planet have had their lives improve immeasurably in the past 100 years, or even the past two decades. 130,000 people leaving extreme poverty every day is an accomplishment of incredible magnitude, as is the overall rise of democracy, increases in education, and reductions in death.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:01 AM on December 21, 2016 [34 favorites]


As my father once told me when I was in a fit of teenage angst, "When I was your age, there was no Disneyland. When your grandfather was your age, there was no polio vaccine. When his grandfather was your age, he could still legally be owned by another human being."

Things are always getting better. Even when they look like they're getting worse, there are hundreds of small things that are getting better, even if just for other people that you'll never meet. That doesn't mean you shouldn't work to make the worse things better, just that it's nice to remember the better things sometimes too.
posted by Etrigan at 8:03 AM on December 21, 2016 [18 favorites]


Things are always getting better.

Some get better, some worse. Like, we've gotten super good at genocide. Not too pleased about that.
posted by maxsparber at 8:09 AM on December 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


"Max Roser" is about as eponysterical as it gets given the delightful optimism reflected in his research.
posted by chavenet at 8:09 AM on December 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


Occasionally I tell people that I've concluded, based on my reading of various bits of history - especially social history that focuses on the lives of average people - that we, especially we in the West, live in a fantastic time and place.

I'm usually met with scorn and scoffing.

There are few narratives more powerful than "things are going to shit" and its extreme counterpart, "the end is upon us." Doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum you're on, you've got a plausible disaster scenario† at hand. Meanwhile, you can probably count on your fingers the number of people you know who died in childhood, or had their village pillaged, or starved to death.

†Mine is nuclear holocaust. We've still got enough weapons to wipe out humanity multiple times over, and we've got people stupid enough to try.
posted by clawsoon at 8:11 AM on December 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


I was just mentioning this to my son (14) last night, who was complaining that 2016 was "the worst year." I said to him that the secret to happiness (or at least not succumbing to bitterness) is to acknowledge the tough times, but also reflect on the good things that have happened, and to be as personal as possible. So we talked about some of his successes over the past year, and some things we did as a family.

I also said that in some ways 2016 was the greatest year in human history. Fewer people live in poverty. And I showed him the chart here (or one similar to it).

I then said "too bad we're going to experience Donald Trump from now on."

Happy 2017!
posted by My Dad at 8:12 AM on December 21, 2016 [7 favorites]


It's interesting that illiteracy has stayed basically constant in absolute terms; a billion illiterate people in 1820, and a billion illiterate people today.
posted by clawsoon at 8:16 AM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Can anyone weigh in on Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, where he makes the case for this being the least violent period in human history? I have not read this but wonder how his arguments have held up.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 8:19 AM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Honestly, I would push back on the "peak civilization" thing - that is sort of the whole point. These trends started before the World Wars, hardly a time you would have picked to be optimistic about civilization.

I was being a little glib for effect, and I don't really want to argue the point too vehemently since, in part I happily concede you may indeed be right and things will continue to improve, and in part because arguing too strongly against positive change isn't helpful anyway.

I will only nudge back a bit with the belief that our era of asymmetric power can make any changes more dramatic than was the case in much of the previous century. One bad government, with the right means, can ruin things for everyone, not those just within the reach of their own borders. And to provoke a unstable government? We've now seen it only takes a few dedicated individuals to draw out the most powerful nation on the earth into actions that, under the wrong guidance could be disastrous. We're really pushing boundaries that are far more fragile than they might appear and don't seem to have a good way to get out of that dynamic at this moment.

But, yes, one shouldn't just focus on the worst case scenarios either, we've done amazing things and many people still want to keep doing more of the same. There are people as dedicated to improving humanity as there are their opposites, intent on ill. To only fear that latter group and not celebrate the former would indeed be a mistake.
posted by gusottertrout at 8:23 AM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


There are few narratives more powerful than "things are going to shit"

One of the reasons I tend to push back on this messaging is that it's so frequently used to justify regression and even atrocity. "We used to live in a perfect past, when everyone knew their place." That's used to promote a whole bunch of -isms, up to and including fascism. It's lead to some of the most horrific events and governments of the past century. It is a powerful message, and not one that's frequently used to help, in my view.
posted by bonehead at 8:26 AM on December 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


Some get better, some worse. Like, we've gotten super good at genocide. Not too pleased about that.

Yes, this is not to be a Pollyanna, lots of bad stuff has happened, will happen, and will continue to happen.

At the same time, I would turn to the data. Studies of democide (genocide and other large scale mass murders by government) show they are tied to totalitarian regimes, which are dropping (here are democide levels over time).

As far as battle deaths, those remain very low. Around 30,000, compared to over 500,000 a year in the 1950s.

The number of refugees, however, is at an all-time high.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:27 AM on December 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


I mean, "things are going to shit" has been the refrain of human history and yet upward we go, slowly but surely.

Yes, we are now in the unique position where we, as humans, have to power to annihilate our civilization. But we also have the power to heal and innovate and increase happiness and safety and fulfillment. It's hard to see the good, but there it is.

Stubbornly push forward, it's working.
posted by lydhre at 8:33 AM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Obligatory Louis C.K.
posted by briank at 8:34 AM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


When viewed in relation to the history of our planet, even the last few hundred years of it, we live in very boring and uneventful times. I wonder why we have such a hard time realizing that fact.
posted by rocket88 at 8:34 AM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


It is common (and Metafilter snark is no exception) to lose sight of the macro trends because of micro concerns happening in one place.

Well, yes; that's exactly the problem. People see the small, local issues and don't perceive the larger ones. Fewer people in poverty? That's great, but the oceans are still dying. And I guarantee that the question of whether you or I happen to die from cholera or genocide this year isn't going to matter at all when the sun collapses. We're all just whistling past the graveyard.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:34 AM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Some get better, some worse. Like, we've gotten super good at genocide. Not too pleased about that.

Not necessarily. Roser's data also shows that deaths due to violence and wars may be at one of its lowest points in history.
posted by justkevin at 8:37 AM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


I suppose Aleppo is the micro while the general trend away from death by war is the macro, but, holy pete, that's cold comfort sometimes.
posted by maxsparber at 8:48 AM on December 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


Things may be looking great for humans, and the enthusiasm is noted and needed. but it's a short sighted perspective, when you consider that humans live on a planet, and that planet is running an ecosystem driven by soils, which we minimally understand, and many many species. Many of which are going extinct.

So, yay! we can make things better, but will we? Changing this extinction trajectory will mean taking money and power away from rich and powerful individuals, are we ready to do that?
posted by eustatic at 9:00 AM on December 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


The recent The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War is an amazing portrait of how life in the U.S. changed from the late 1800s to the mid 20th century: the introduction of mechanized transportation, homes with electricity and running water, communication and computing, stunning health care improvements. It's summarized in the free online Chapter 1. (Previously.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:08 AM on December 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


I think there's a tension between how relatively good things are compared to previous eras, on the one hand; and the difference between potential prosperity and actual prosperity (and distribution thereof), on the other. I mean, for most of human history you could easily die from a particularly bad cut -- now, thanks to antibiotics, this isn't a major problem. Same's true in lots of other fields: while war crimes still happen, at least now they're technically illegal, sometimes actually prosecuted, and rare enough to make the news (well, depending on who's doing them, and where...).

But the difference is that we know we can do much better than we are doing. There's enough knowledge, wealth and organizational skill to alleviate so much human suffering and damage to our planet but humans don't have the collective political will to address these problems. It's that gap between what is and what could quite feasibly be that leads to the feeling that things are really bad right now.

And, as mentioned above, there are the potential game-enders of global climate change & nuclear catastrophe: now we have the power to destroy our world.

All that being said: yes, for many, many people life is better than it was for their parents, and for their children life will probably will be better still. And that is good.
posted by tivalasvegas at 9:08 AM on December 21, 2016 [10 favorites]


now, thanks to antibiotics, this isn't a major problem

For the next five minutes.
posted by praemunire at 9:25 AM on December 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


This is the statistic that keeps me working.

It is cold comfort when you're standing quite literally knee deep in it, as I and my colleagues were as recently as a few weeks ago. But knowing the long-term trend is down is an enormous lift. It means we can matter if we work hard.

Specifically, platform blowouts and land-based spills in particular have been, for the last decade or so, considerably worse than ship-source spills in terms of frequency and and adverse effects. So we need to start bending our efforts to controlling them better, as has happened with tankers. And that's starting to happen, with reviews of response and safety plans, new regulations for tank cars, etc.. I'm hopeful the next ten years will see similar improvements there too.
posted by Anonymous 5$ Sockpuppet at 9:34 AM on December 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


I suppose Aleppo is the micro while the general trend away from death by war is the macro, but, holy pete, that's cold comfort sometimes.

Yeah I agree. In a way, we should try to take comfort in the fact that the world is objectively less violent, on a macro scale, than it has ever been before while simultaneously mustering the same level of opposition to today's violence as we would to yesterday's. In other words, it's great that the world is a better place than it was 50, 75, 150 years ago, but that does not mean that we should try any less hard to make it better in 5, 10, and 25 years from now.
posted by Aizkolari at 9:43 AM on December 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


But no one's saying we should stop trying. Noting that in general things are improving isn't a call to on our hands.

I see this on threads like this one on MeFi a lot, this reaction to pointing out positive macro trends with something like, "Oh, so everything's perfect now and we should just stop trying, huh?" It's weird how resistant people are to even acknowledging anything positive has happened. clawsoon is right above, "things are going to shit" is a powerful narrative and some people seem to actively long for things to be getting worse.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:02 AM on December 21, 2016 [16 favorites]


I suppose Aleppo is the micro while the general trend away from death by war is the macro, but, holy pete, that's cold comfort sometimes.

What is happening in Aleppo is, technically speaking (see 6.3), a "crime against humanity" and should be prosecuted.

On the other hand, exactly one hundred years ago, 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the very first day of the Battle of the Somme. By the end of 1916 Russia had lost nearly a million men. Etc.
posted by My Dad at 10:20 AM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Can anyone weigh in on Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, where he makes the case for this being the least violent period in human history? I have not read this but wonder how his arguments have held up.

The actual data he presents holds up pretty well, although his explanations for why things have changed don't particularly (a really hand-wavy "it was the Enlightenment, somehow"). Most of the criticisms I've seen of the book are based on minor details or ad hominems - "things aren't as bad as they were" is a statement guaranteed to piss off a remarkable number of people across the political spectrum. I forget if it was here on Metafilter or elsewhere, but status quo warrior is a term I've heard used. That nefarious Pinker, encouraging complacency (which, if you've read the book, he really. Fucking. Doesn't.).

The fact of the matter is that one of the ways that things have gotten better - the massive expansion of access to information, often visual, via the Internet, expanding cell networks and social media - has the side effect that most people are more exposed to bad news. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago if it didn't happen in your town or wasn't high profile enough to catch the interest of a national new service (which is 90% of bad things), you probably didn't hear about it. Now, a video of someone being awful to someone else in a city a continent away may well pop up on your Facebook feed an hour after it happens.

This is a good thing, obviously, because it can result in wider, more fine-grained pressure to force change - forty years ago the death of Eric Garner, for example, wouldn't have been national news, and wouldn't have had the same impact even if it had been, mediated through newsprint or television interviews with witnesses alone - but it also means that a lot more people experience the world as a bombardment of Horrible Stuff, and its experience, rather than abstract knowledge about statistical trends, that has deep emotional resonance. The average American news consumer has gone, over the course of a few decades, from being starved of information about crimes or disasters outside of their own immediate neighborhood (with a scattering of national information) to being bloated by the wrongs and evils of the entire globe. And a lot of people react to that with despair, or with righteous anger which is drained of any effective outlet by being constantly redirected from one Awful Thing to the next, moment by moment.

Which not incidentally also distracts attention from those areas of life that are, in fact getting worse - while global society has gotten more peaceful, more prosperous, better educated and nicer, there are specific regions - parts of Africa and the Middle East especially at this point - where things are going the other way quite rapidly. The same can be said for progress within states like the USA, where some regions are left behind or regressing despite things getting better overall if you look at stats on the national level. And there are some global challenges, like the growing antibiotic resistance of dangerous disease, global warming, and the like - that are getting worse. But that's a highly nuanced view that doesn't convey itself very clearly in a world where our media-saturated eyeballs are telling us Everything Is Going To Hell (because that's what they fuckin' see) while experts point to charts and (justifiably) cheerfully talk about how every day in every way, things are getting better and better.
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:37 AM on December 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


"the massive expansion of access to information, often visual, via the Internet, expanding cell networks and social media - has the side effect that most people are more exposed to bad news."

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, in both senses of the word "bad news". News does indeed travel faster, so any major story of woe is instantly in your feed. But it's also a matter of being exposed to fake news, whether it's misleading clickbait, or intentional propaganda. As literacy rates and access to information increase, there is an increased need for critical thinking and judgement about the flood of stories one is confronted with.
posted by jetsetsc at 12:30 PM on December 21, 2016


I'm happy to celebrate literacy, democracy, reduced war, etc., except for the fact that it the genocide rate looks to go up to 100% in the next 50 years or so, give or take a decade, because of climate change.

But hey, so far, everything's ok, said the man falling from a rooftop as he fell past the third floor.
posted by signal at 1:23 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is great news, but I'm curious to know much of "there are fewer people in extreme poverty" is driven by people moving out of extreme poverty. So how often is it the case that a person who was extremely poor ceases to be so for the foreseeable future? I realize that nothing magical happens for those people most of the time (ie. living on 1.91 per day is better than 1.90, sure, but probably imperceptibly so), but still, I hope that's happening a lot of time and it's not just poor people dying at a higher rate and fewer children born into extreme poverty (ok, that's coming out wrong, of course I want fewer children born into extreme poverty, but ideally it would be because their parents ceased to be poor and not just because poor people had fewer kids.

Again, less extreme poverty is good, regardless, but I hope that there are stories in here of individuals lives improving not just history improving.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:14 PM on December 21, 2016


how often is it the case that a person who was extremely poor ceases to be so for the foreseeable future?

If you look at the trend since 1990 (26+ years ago), the trend is declining in absolute terms. So...
posted by My Dad at 2:37 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


The fact of the matter is that one of the ways that things have gotten better - the massive expansion of access to information, often visual, via the Internet, expanding cell networks and social media - has the side effect that most people are more exposed to bad news.

The massive expansion of access to information is one of the things I credit for the much lower rates of identity-based-hate among millennials. My understanding is that the single largest indicator of identity-based-bigotry is whether you personally know a member of the identity in question.

It's why cities skew more liberal - it's way way way harder to "not know any black people" in Denver, CO than it is in Whitefish, MT.

Except now, with the internet, even if you ARE from Whitefish, you have youtube, you have online games, you have chatrooms, you have blogs. It's becoming impossible to flat-out not know racial/gender/sexual minorities any longer. And that makes people less bigoted.

We're in a transitional time, and yeah, there are a lot of dark parts - *cough* Trump *cough* - but we're increasingly expanding our in-groups to include more and more of the world.

Trump and his bigotry is horrific. But guys, a hundred years ago, it wouldn't have been.
posted by Myca at 3:06 PM on December 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


Trump and his bigotry is horrific. But guys, a hundred years ago, it wouldn't have been.

20 years ago, even.
posted by Johnny Hazard at 5:25 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Twenty years ago there were fewer black men in prison than there are now.
posted by My Dad at 5:36 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Mei's lost sandal asked about Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature. It just so happens that I finished reading it on the way to work this morning! My takeaways:

1. It is a well-written, long book. I heartily recommend it... if you have the time and patience.

2. Pinker is at his best when he sums up the research and statistics of violence over time. I learned a lot about how experiments are run in sociology, psychology and economics. He explains the numbers well and effectively drives home the point that we live in the least violent of times by most measures.

3. He strays into speculation (partly based on data) when he explains why violence is less common now. This is still fascinating reading.

4. Every now and then he complains about how political correctness has gone too far, how it is an over-correction to eliminate dodgeball from schools, and so on. This is pure opinion and I feel it detracts from the rest of the book, which is based on hard data. Thankfully, this is less than 5% of the book.
posted by Triplanetary at 7:56 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Twenty years ago there were more black men in prison as a proportion of prisoners than there are now (just under half vs. just over a third).
posted by Etrigan at 7:56 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Reading through this thread I'm struck by how intertwined are the feelings of disappointment at progress made, and the hoping for better. Increased knowledge of what we know we are capable of makes the (historically less awful) present conditions more unacceptable.

It could be that the great improvement in human condition the data shows is due in some part to not relenting on the narrative of "things are going to shit".
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:40 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


AdamCSnider and Triplanetary, is either of you a statistician or an anthropologist?

I'd be keen to hear your, or indeed anyone else's, opinions on:

(a) Cirillo & Taleb's repudiation of Pinker's stastics.

(b) Corry's assertion that Pinker promotes a distorted, outdated view of the 'Brutal Savage'.

Please excuse me if this post sounds snarky. It's jst that I read "Better Angels.." earlier this year and was initially enthused by it but following a quick consultation of wikipedia I was led to those articles and I'm now less than convinced.
posted by lovelyzoo at 1:15 AM on December 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Except now, with the internet, even if you ARE from Whitefish, you have youtube, you have online games, you have chatrooms, you have blogs. It's becoming impossible to flat-out not know racial/gender/sexual minorities any longer. And that makes people less bigoted.

But the opposite is also demonstrably true: the Internet has allowed the bigots to create their own communities and spaces that normalize their views. If you had neo-Nazi tendencies before you might just keep to yourself and grumble about the Jews, but now you can find places where those with like minds gather and discuss their hatred.

It may be becoming impossible to not know minorities any longer, but it's also becoming ever more possible to plug into bubbles that reinforce and amplify your hate because you feel like you're not alone in it anymore. The "alt right" was basically born from this, and they just got a President.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:30 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


lovelyzoo, I'm not a statistician, so the first article you link is probably not something I can comment authoritatively on, but the Corry article seems a bit ad hominemy to me. Ironically, Corry repeatedly notes Pinker's tendency to pick a few poignant details to illustrate his arguments but does the same thing here: Otzi, specific Amazonian tribes, etc. He doesn't actually seem to bring any arguments to bear against the broader trends Pinker is describing. And there's a lot of insinuations that don't bear out. For example:

Pinker also believes that civilization today is a function of upper class leadership and refinement trickling down to the lower orders. Many share this dogma, or a variation.

This is horseshit, plain and simple. I'm actually re-reading the book and, just going by the passage I'm presently reading, about revolutions in how women and children are treated, he describes these explicitly as driven by popular movements (occasionally sparked by individual thinkers or activists, but not always) of middle class and non-elite groups. He does reference the Civilizing Process of Norbert Elias, which can be interpreted as "elites transmit values to those below them on the social scale", but he's not describing declining violence there, but rather standards of politeness (which is one of several long detours off the beaten track that Pinker takes in the course of the book).

As I mentioned before, Pinker doesn't really seem to have a seriously thought out argument for why violence has declined (he does occasionally raise those other people have suggested to offer objections, but he doesn't really put anything in their place), and he certainly doesn't have the sort of nefarious "obey your betters!" agenda Corry seems to be implying. The fact that Corry references Diamond (whose been at the center of controversy for a while now) in the article hints that Pinker seems to have stepped into the longstanding (and fuckin' interminable) debate within anthopology and associated disciplines over whether Western scholars are wooly-headed romantics idealizing traditional societies or vicious imperialist apologists denigrating them - not much middle ground seems to be available, these days. Because, of course, how the citizens of the global super-society see these groups often has very real and quite possibly disastrous effects on how their inhabitants are treated.

Cirillo & Taleb's article is more interesting, and I'd be glad to get an actual statistician to look at it, if one's hanging around this thread. It didn't convince me, but that could easily be because I don't have a great understanding of that field. And it's the first that I've seen that actually tries to tackle the broad trends, instead of just picking a few of Pinker's weirder examples to attack, assigning him a nice little box as a water-carrier for imperialism or what have you, and declaring him out of bounds.
posted by AdamCSnider at 10:16 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


I do a lot of statistical work, so I think I can talk about Cirillo and Taleb, though I have only read part of Pinker's book. In fact, I was starting a really detailed write-up, but came across this Quora piece that, surprisingly, does a nice job pointing out the technical problems of the Cirillo and Taleb.

Essentially, I don't find the Cirillo and Taleb piece convincing because:

1) They don't check to see whether there has been a trend in violence since 1945 ("The Long Peace"), which is Pinker (and others) main point about the decline large scale conflict, and their main point of attack. Instead, from what I can see, they look at the distribution of warlike events over the past 2,000 years and do not attempt longitudinal analysis. Their method therefore seems flawed for addressing the concern they raise.

2) The paper is kind of sketchy in terms of the lack of transparency of their analysis and data, and their language is confrontational in a way that isn't justified by their results.

3) They only are dealing with one issue from the book, which doesn't necessarily invalidate other findings.

That said, the Pinker book does suffer from problems, including a lack of clear theorizing about causes and data selection issues (also Cirillo et al are right about fat tails and statistical methods), but I think the current draft by Cirillo and Taleb is not definitive (though it is only a draft article, and these issues may be addressed later).
posted by blahblahblah at 11:26 AM on December 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


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