HOW PROGRESS CHANGES THE WORLD.
A statistics report.HOW PROGRESS CHANGES THE WORLD. Reading time: approx. 20 min.
A journey through time
The key witnesses
The world in five statistics
PROLOGIt’s Friday – the worst day of this bad week. It’s Friday – the worst day of this bad week. The alarm clock rings for the fifth time. In my dreams, I was wandering through a green, peaceful world. The unread e-mails have piled up throughout the week. On my way to the office, I cross the main square in my small town. The old fountain by the town hall was built 500 years ago, and at its center stands a patron saint armed with a bow and arrow. She is supposed to protect the inhabitants of the city from hardship. She looks proud and adventurous, her hands reaching up to the sky. She is an optimist. A little heroine standing tall in the marketplace. She has seen the advent of democracy, the invention of electricity, the automobile, and the Internet. I wonder if she knows how we will bring about our own demise? Would she warn us if she could? Was everything better in the past? How are things supposed to be? Is this a rational thought or more of a feeling?
Bad news rains down on me as soon as I open a newspaper or read the news online. I can’t even handle the alarmism of social media. It’s time to take a step back. When I arrive at the office, I take a look at some statistics. I look back 90 years to 1929. And 30 years back to 1989. And at the year 2019. What do the figures, data, and facts say about the state of the world? How has our global quality of life changed in the last 30 years as a result of globalization, digitalization and automation? After checking a few statistics about key progress data, I can venture a more objective look at the parameters of general prosperity, and whether it relates to poverty, life expectancy, crime or climate.
So, where are we right now? And what can we expect for the future? Was everything better in the past?A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME
TIME TRAVEL 2019
The present, 2019.Things don’t seem particularly rosy. When I think about last week’s news, I can’t seem to remember a worse year. You only have to look back on what’s happened so far.
FEBRUARY The US and Russia both withdraw from the INF treaty with effect from July 31 2019.
JUNEWorld's hottest June since weather recording, on average 0.1 °C hotter than the previous record holder June 2016.
AUGUSTForest fires destroy rainforest in Brazil across an area larger than Europe, more than 471,000 hectares.
TIME TRAVEL 1989
We are traveling back to 1989.I only have vague recollections of this period; I was attending elementary school in Berlin at the time. The mass demonstrations in the German Democratic Republic are becoming a peaceful revolution. The power of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany regime is crumbling. The wall falls. Things are good in Germany, then. These events dangerously undermine the power structure of the East-West powers.
MARCH 24The Exxon Valdez oil tanker strikes a reef off the southern coast of Alaska, resulting in the biggest oil spill in history. There are about 37,000 tons of crude oil.
APRIL 15Sheffield faces the biggest disaster in European sporting history: 96 people are crushed to death.
JUNE 04In Beijing, the Chinese military massacres students protesting in Tiananmen Square.
TIME TRAVEL 1929
We are traveling back to 1929.The First World War has been over for more than ten years, but the world is in crisis. Black Thursday at the New York Stock Exchange is destabilizing the global economy. The dramatic fall in share prices leads to a global economic crisis. Many Germans are also dissatisfied with their economic situation. An increasing number of people are turning to extreme parties – a disastrous move.
JANUARY 15Unemployment rate in Germany exceeds two million.
MAY 01Riots erupt during the May rallies in many German cities, killing nine people.
OCTOBER 24 Black Thursday at the New York Stock Exchange; the Great Depression begins.
THE KEY WITNESSES
THE KEY WITNESSES
MICHEL SERRESWhat exactly was better in the past? Nothing, according to philosopher Michel Serres in his polemic “C’était mieux avant!” (“It was better before”). The 20th century was the first “in which the horrors of the battlefield caused more deaths than the evil of microbes,” writes Serres. He was not a statistician but a very watchful contemporary. Born in 1930, Serres experienced almost the entire period of this analysis himself. And yet, he says, life has become better. He does not substantiate this statement so much with facts as with descriptions of his personal experiences: with the happiness of being able to wear a fresh shirt every day rather than wearing one that was washed just a few times a year. And above all with the happiness of 70 years of peace – an exceptional situation in European history. To the pessimists, he asks: “Have our detractors forgotten something?”
HANS ROSLING“This is data as you have never known it: It is data as therapy.” Hans Rosling, Factfulness. Cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker, and health researcher Hans Rosling in particular, have undertaken pioneering work in this area. They show that not everything used to be better. And that the prospects in many areas are even optimistic. They achieve this with statistics. Rosling knows the world from his own point of view. As a doctor in Africa and Asia, he often had to decide: Is it better to help a sick child or use resources for prevention? His numerical view of the world helped him make this decision. When he researched what could help a midwife in Tanzania, he found that it wasn’t better drugs that were crucial to her work, but a simple flashlight that could prevent her from treading on snakes at night. Rosling died in 2017 but the Gapminder Foundation continues his work.
STEVEN PINKER“I’ve come across records that show things are getting better and better for people. Nobody seemed to know because it wasn’t reported.” – Steven Pinker. The psychology professor at Harvard University writes bestsellers with statistics, making him an international celebrity in the field of science. Over 3.4 million viewers watched his TED talk, which asked: “Is the world getting better or worse?” Pinker’s answer is that the world is clearly getting better. But why can’t we see it? He believes there is a contradiction: While people generally feel they are doing better, they assume the opposite is true for society. Pinker calls this an optimism gap. People believe that teenage pregnancies, crimes and drugs are a problem, but not so much in their immediate environment. Pinker shows that better medical care leads to a longer life. For decades, healthier food and better education have helped to make mankind smarter and smarter. For Pinker, it’s simple – he considers health, life expectancy and peace to be universal measurable indicators: “All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.”
THE WORLD IN FIVE STATISTICS
THE WORLD IN FIVE STATISTICS
STATISTIC 1: IS VIOLENCE CONSTANTLY INCREASING?The world seems to be becoming more insecure. Says my gut feeling. What about science? 10,000 years ago, people had no fixed homes. According to everything we know, there was no concept of government or anything similar, and our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not an especially peaceful group. For indigenous people who rely / relied on hunting, archaeologist Lawrence Keeley determined that the likelihood of a man dying at the hand of another is still dramatically higher in these traditional societies. By contrast, the smallest bar on the chart shows the statistics for modern societies in Europe and the United States in the 20th century. Even though it includes all deaths from the two world wars, the numbers are still small.
If you exclude the two world wars, murder kills more people than war. But even in peaceful times, people have become more civilized. The picture is similar for crime. In the Middle Ages, there were still about 100 murder victims per 100,000 inhabitants. That number has also fallen. In 2018, there were 0.47 cases of murder per 100,000 inhabitants in Germany. In 1989 there were 1.3 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Germany. This is the picture in most countries of the world – people are no longer quite so ready to kill each other. All things considered, the world has become a more peaceful place. “It should force us to ask not just, why is there war? But also, why is there peace? Not just "What are we doing wrong?", but "What did we do right?" Because we did something right, and it would certainly be good to find out what it is.
STATISTIC 2: HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE LIVING IN POVERTY?The world has always been divided into rich and poor. Our gut feeling is that poverty remains an invincible monster. The statistics show the opposite. Poverty has decreased worldwide. Still, some regions of the world are particularly badly affected by poverty. The number of people living in poverty is especially high in southern Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 85% of the world's poor live in these areas. But there is also positive news: In India alone, there were 217 million fewer poor people in 2016 than ten years ago. This fact is backed up by figures from the UN. This graph shows how many US dollars per capita are available to parts of the population. There is also a line for extreme poverty. In 1929, large sections of humanity lived near this threshold, especially in India and China. But conditions have changed: the trend in the statistics demonstrates this. In the early 1990s, the top of the poverty curve exceeds the 10-dollar line.
Now the majority of the world’s population lives above the poverty line. They are not rich, but they have around $10 a day.
STATISTIC 3: ARE WE LIVING LONGER?“Great-grandmother didn’t forget to tell her daughter, my grandmother, how cold the mud floor used to be in the winter. But today even the people in Afghanistan (...) live much longer than the Swedes did in 1863.” (Hans Rosling, Factfulness, 77) Looking at life expectancy in relation to income shows clear leaps. This is the view of the Gapminder project, founded by Hans Rosling, which collects and provides data on worldwide living conditions. I have selected ten countries, across the continents and the borders of rich and poor. Even in the poorest countries, such as the Central African Republic and Somalia, income has jumped. The bubbles representing China and India in particular are rising.
Life expectancy has increased in all countries over the last 90 years. The situation has also improved for almost all the other indicators as well.
STATISTIC 4: ARE POPULATIONS INCREASING?When in the year 8,000 BC the first farmers began to cultivate the land, 5 million people lived in the world. Their numbers grew slowly over 8,000 years. Population experts estimate that the global population was about one billion people in the year 1800. Then something happened that is closely related to what we call progress. Over the next 130 years, the number of people doubled: By the end of 1929, the global population exceeded two billion. And then five billion were added in less than 100 years. There are indeed a lot more of us today. In 2017, there were 7.6 billion people on earth.
The current UN forecast does not anticipate another population explosion. It predicts a global population of approximately 11 billion people by the year 2100, meaning that the curve will flatten out considerably. Afterwards, the experts even expect a slow decline in population. To understand the reason, we need to take a look at the evolution of birth rates: While there were still 5 births per woman in 1929, there are only 2.5 births today. This decrease is happening on all continents.
STATISTIC 5: CLIMATEWe have now arrived at the trigger for my Friday foray into statistics: My attempt to understand climate change in just a few hours. Impossible, of course. It’s clear that the growing prosperity of mankind has also led to an increase in resource consumption. We fly from Berlin to Barcelona for €12, without paying the ecological costs associated with it. The statistics confirm that human activity has led to about 1 degree of global warming compared to pre-industrial times. According to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this will reach 1.5 degrees by 2052 or earlier if no action is taken. Decisive countermeasures are needed to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that are harmful to the climate. Global greenhouse gas emissions have increased again since the beginning of the 21st century, mainly due to the economic rise of China and other emerging countries.
But that’s no reason for the rest of us to relax: Despite a decline in CO2 emissions from European countries, our CO2 emissions per capita are still well above the global average. Changing people’s behavior in a sustainable way will be an art of the future.
The world is not on the brink.Humanity has never had it as good as it does today according to the statistics. Hans Rosling writes: “It is hard to see any of this global progress by looking out your window. It is taking place beyond the horizon.” (Rosling, Factfulness, 82). Fortunately, we have data from there. The bad things behind the horizon are getting less and less: There is less and less forced labour, less HIV infections and less death penalties in the world. The number of people killed in plane crashes is decreasing, as are the number of nuclear weapons. The rate of smallpox infections and disasters are decreasing. (Rosling, Factfulness, 78/79). It goes without saying that there are huge challenges ahead when it comes to climate protection. This issue has been neglected, most of all by us middle-aged, well-fed adults. We owe it to the following generations to act decisively here.
But good things are on the rise: There is an ever increasing number of nature reserves around the world, and the proportion of adults who can read has been rising rapidly for decades; increasing numbers of girls have access to education just as an increasing number of children are vaccinated; the right of women to vote is protected, while the list of protected species is only increasing. (Rosling; Factfulness, 81). Steven Pinker says: “We will never have a perfect world. And it would be dangerous to seek one. But there’s no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”
On my way home, I nod to the statue in the fountain. This Friday, it’s a good thing that she’s standing there and warning us.
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Viking
Hans Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Flatiron Books