Reasons to be happy – the real state of the world

Assembly – Reasons to be happy – the real state of the world  – Bradford Grammar School, 13 Jan 2017

What a depressing day – It’s Friday 13th, the days are short, the weather is terrible and term has just started again!  In the wider world, Trump is about to take over at the White House and there is great uncertainty over what exactly Brexit means.  There’s a crisis in Syria and Yemen, suicide bombs and terrorist attacks, and climate change looming over us.  Indeed, virtually every headline shouts out ‘crisis’!

But stop! Shouldn’t we look at these developments in context?  What’s the real state of the world?  If you look at the facts about the world socially, economically, and in most respects, environmentally, I want to show you that there are reasons to be satisfied, and – as befits the theme of the week – even happy.  And I need the help of some of you to do so.

So, let’s look at the direction the world is going in terms of just two aspects – health and violence.

Let’s start with the basics – how long are we living for?  Life expectancy is going up and up, as Hans Rosling is keen to point out.

In 1800, the global life expectancy at birth was between 20 and 30. In 1900 this had crept up to 31, by 1950 it was 48, but what is it today?

68 years old.  And this is a global average!  Even for those who survived the dangerous first few years of life, in 1845, a five-year old in the UK could expect to live until they were just 55, but a five-year old today – someone just starting Clock House – can expect to live until they are 82.  Surely this is a reason to be cheerful?

How many babies are living into childhood?

In 1800, 43% of children died before their fifth birthday.

How has this changed over time?  Well, thanks to healthcare, scientific improvements and so on, by 1900 this had fallen to 36%.

By 1950 it was 22%.

But how about 2015?

The answer is 4%

How about access to education?

Back in 1800, only one in eight people around the world could read and write.  This meant that an almighty 88% couldn’t read or write.

By 1900 it had barely decreased – it was still high at 79%

By 1950 it had nudged downwards to 64%

So what was it in 2014?

The answer is 17% – and it’s dropping fast!

But how often do these statistics make the headlines?  Very rarely.  Why not?  Good news does not sell papers, good news does not entice you to click the hyperlink, good news does not make you watch, well, the news.

One reason why we do not hear about how global living conditions are improving in the media is that these are the slow processes that never make the headlines. The media is overly obsessed with reporting single events and with bad news and does not nearly pay enough attention to the slow developments like these that reshape our world.

Max Roser points out that a media that would report global development could have had the headline “The number of children dying globally fell by 455 since yesterday” and they wouldn’t have this headline once, but every single day over these more than 2 decades.

Good news does not sell papers, good news does not entice you to click the hyperlink, good news does not make you watch, well, the news.

How about the way that we die?  Steven Pinker is a Canadian writer who has noticed more slow-burning good news.

How many people will meet their death in a violent manner?  Let’s start with murder.  You’d have thought that this is an ever-present threat.  But we live in an increasingly peaceful world.  Even at its peak, in tribal societies, your chance of being murdered in any one year was only 0.7%.

By 1800 the world average was 0.003%, by 1950 it was 0.001%, and it has fallen slightly since then. All these figures are over-represented by a Lego man.

So there is less murder nowadays – a reason to be cheerful!  Here is a list of other things which are getting rarer and rarer in the world:

Wars? Rarer? Surely some mistake?

Year 7s and 8s – you will all recognize this man from Geography and History – Otzi the Iceman.  How did he die?

Otzi the Iceman – Source: Thilo Parg [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, and 120 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, both from Wikimedia Commons

From an arrow.  DNA analysis found traces of blood from two other people on one of the arrowheads he was carrying, blood from a third on his dagger, and blood from a fourth on his cape.  He belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighbouring tribe.  So how many people will meet their death from conflicts and wars nowadays compared to tribal societies?

In tribal societies the rate was, on average, 14%.  NB this includes civilian casualties.

In the early 1600s the rate was about 1%

It did peak again in the first half of the 20th Century – don’t forget, 100 Old Bradfordians died in WW1 – the worst war was WW2 – and the chance of someone dying from this was 1.5%

But how about today? There has been a tenfold increase in war deaths globally since 2005 – but what is the total chance of being killed in a war today – or of being a civilian victim?

It’s actually about 0.003%

The world has always been a violent place.  It is still a violent place – but it is much, much, less violent that it used to be.  The twentieth century was a violent century – more people died in wars in that century than in any previous century.  But most of those deaths occurred in the first half of that century – in one of the two world wars.  Since then, what Pinker refers to the ‘Long Peace’ has spread over the world.

Since 1950 – in the lifetime of everyone here, one number stands out clearly in the history of war: Zero.

How many nuclear weapons have been used in conflict?  Zero.

How many western European countries have fought each other?  Zero.

How many major developed countries have fought each other?  Zero.

How many developed countries have expanded their territories by conquering another country?  Zero.

How many states have disappeared through conquest?  Zero.

You might say – well how about other forms of conflict in recent decades?  There may not have been a world war, but how about civil wars?  Genocides? Terrorism? Surely they are in the news so they must be on the rise!

No.  Deaths from civil wars, genocides and terrorism have all fallen over the past twenty years.  In 1950 the average armed conflict killed 33,000; in 2015 it killed about 4,000.  Terrorist attacks hit a natural barrier beyond which they sow the seeds of self-destruction as potential converts are more exposed to being hurt.

It’s not just violence that is decreasing – tolerance is increasing.  In every issue touched by the human rights revolution of recent decades – interracial marriage, the empowerment of women, the tolerance of homosexuality, the punishment of children, and the treatment of animals – the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than the liberals of just a few decades ago.

But why are these trends happening?

Why are we getting healthier?

  • Government investment in healthcare, sanitation, clean water, schools and science
  • Trade and aid, both of which spread wealth around
  • Private enterprise pushing the boundaries of medical endeavour
  • Individual actions and breakthroughs – we are indeed standing on the shoulders of giants

Why are we getting less violent?

  • Countries are becoming less warlike.  The move to democracies has helped in this: since 1900, democracies have been less than twice as likely as non-democracies to engage in militarized disputes.
  • Strong governments and law enforcement mean that mankind’s baser instincts are held at bay.
  • Belonging to groups of countries like the United Nations and, yes, the EU, means that we are bound by more ties which we don’t want to destroy by fighting.
  • Being wealthier means that there is more at stake – more to lose – if we were to go to war.  Trading with other countries means that we have more to lose – no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war with each other.
  • Social norms in developed countries have evolved to incorporate the conviction that was is inherently immoral because of its costs to human well-being and that it can only be justified when it is likely to prevent even greater costs to human well-being.

There is now more empathy for human life than ever before – thanks to reading and writing, we know more about other people.  So thank you, TV, radio, publishing, travel and thank you, the Internet. Education saves lives.  We have enlarged our ‘empathy circle’.  It is so much harder to kill or hurt someone when you know them, or even know about them.

Similarly, being exposed to more ideas saves lives.  Education saves lives.  The more you learn, the fewer mistruths and inaccuracies you will hold about ‘other’ people.  So read, read, read.  And think, think, think.

We believe that the world is going to hell in a handcart because the media tells us that it is.  David Hume says we are laboring under a “false sense of insecurity”.  But keep your wits about you.  Look wider, look further back, read, listen and ponder the facts.  Let’s try to avoid the state of worry and terror that many people live in today.

Caveat

Avoid the complacency trap – ‘now I know that life in most of the world is getting better, I can sit back and let progress happen’.  Well, progress is built on many small acts, and sitting back would be to avoid your responsibility as a member of society.

Be aware – declines in violence are caused by political, economic and ideological conditions that take hold in particular cultures at particular times.  If the conditions change, these trends could reverse.

I hope I haven’t belittled the victims of violence and ill health who can be found across the globe and particularly in developing countries – there is still work to be done!

There are still threats to humanity – especially with regards to the environment – and especially climate change – that we should be turning our attention to.

Conclusion

I could go on about how the world is progressing in other areas like reductions in poverty… but you get the picture.  So what can you take away from today?

Understand what has led to the declines and it will guide you towards what might work in the future.

Be open to facts, not rhetoric.

Read widely and not just fiction – don’t just trust the first thing you find online – be aware of ‘fake news’ – and be willing to pay for good journalism and writing, whether that is via a magazine or newspaper subscription or via licence fees and taxes

Try to see the big picture – try to set the most recent disaster on the news in context.

Finally, I would say not so much ‘don’t worry, be happy’ as ‘worry less, be slightly happier about the state of the world’.

Thank you.

Source for Pinker: Pinker, S (2011): The Better Angels of Our Nature

Source for Max Roser statistic: Max Roser (2016) – ‘Child Mortality’. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality/ [Online Resource]

Credit also due to http://www.gapminder.org

Author: alcockblog

Optimist, Geography teacher, teaching and learning champion, interested in progress, social and environmental sustainability and outdoor learning. Father, orienteer, fell runner. @DavidAlcock1

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