Joe Schlesinger: You do know, right, the world is getting better

Today's world seems beset by violence, poverty and dejection. But lift your eyes, Joe Schlesinger writes. By almost any measure — life expectancy, literacy, global nutrition and especially the role of women — the trend line is upwards.

By almost any measure — life expectancy, literacy, global nutrition, war deaths — the trend line is up

Shot by Pakistan's Taliban for advocating education for girls, Malala Yousafzai not only survived but became the inspiration for a global movement. She spoke at the UN in July. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

A gloom has befallen our times. The world seems beset by violence, poverty, joblessness and environmental degradation.

This has led many to believe that the present is not as good as the past and that the future — their future — will be no better.

But the facts tell a different story. It isn't just that the world is in better shape than it seems to be. In fact, by almost all measures mankind appears to be better off than it ever was.

Take the issue of violence. As we watch tens of thousands slaughtered in places such Syria and Iraq, and before that Rwanda and Congo, we feel our planet is an irretrievably violent place.

But according to Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, mankind is less murderous than it ever was, a decline the Canadian-born scientist traces over the ages in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Even for the 20th century as a whole, with its two world wars, revolutions, genocides and man-made famines, the violent death rate, according to Pinker, was down to three per cent — a marked decline from the 15- and 10-per-cent rates that he documents for prehistoric times and the Middle Ages.

In the 21st century, for all the violence that we see on the nightly news, he puts that rate down to a fraction of one per cent so far. To be precise, 3/100th of one per cent.

If you don't believe it, ignore the figures. Just take a look at what we all know about what happened in the past half-century or so.

In Europe, where nearly 100 million died in two World Wars, there is now peace. No more murderous dictators, no more wars, concentration camps or gulags.

The lives of Europeans are vastly more secure than they were in the mid-20th century.

Look around

Or go to Asia. Yes, there is still a war in Afghanistan and problems of all sorts in other countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka. But if you look at the region as a whole it's come a long way in the past half-century.

China now produces about 830,000 college graduates every year. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Where not so long ago millions died of violence and starvation in wars, revolutions and the break-up of European colonial empires, there are now independent countries, many of them largely peaceful and prospering.

In China and India, millions died in misery in the 20th century. Today these two countries, which between them account for more than a third of the world's population, have emerged as rising economic powers.

When I reported from China in the early seventies it was mired in poverty, purges, destructiveness and the chaos of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.

To go back and see it now, as I did recently, is a shock. China's middle class, by its standards, is now said to number some 300 million people, equivalent to the entire population of the U.S.

In South America, the often murderous dictatorships of colonels and generals that once ran so much of the region are gone.

Democracy is the new norm. And with it, many of the countries have experienced considerable economic growth over the past 20 years. (In Brazil, the middle class created by this growth is now rebelling against the system's failure to keep up with its rising expectations.)

Leading indicators

  • Nearly a billion people have escaped 'extreme poverty' over past 20 years. (UN)
  • New HIV infections among children in the seven most affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa have been reduced by 50 per cent. (WHO)
  • The world's 'undernourished population' fell from 23.2 percent in 1990-92 to 14.9 percent in 2010-12. (UN)
  • Since 2001, the average number of wars each year has been half that of the 1990s.
  • The number of battle deaths per conflict is 76 per cent lower than the pre-1990 average. (International Relations and Security Network)
  • The rates of violent crime and property crime in Canada are at their lowest levels since 1998. (Statistics Canada)
  • Gun homicide rate in U.S. has dropped 50 per cent since 1993. (Pew Research)
  • More than a third of babies born today will live to be 100. (U.K. Office of National Statistics)
  • Dementia rates in Britons over 65 have dropped by 25 per cent over past two decades, part of a broad trend. (Cambridge Institute of Public Health)

As for North America, for all our current economic problems, we are still ahead of the pack.

The U.S. continues to be the world's dominant military and economic power, its dollar and government bonds a "safe haven" for investors even in the midst of a global recession.

As for Canada, we rank high not just on the list of the world's richest industrial countries but also for the quality of life we enjoy.

Living longer

There is more, a lot more, to the gains humanity has made in these last few decades.

For one, we all live longer. Babies born today can expect to live two decades longer than the world average of those born in 1950.

In Canada, our life expectancy has risen from the late fifties a century ago to 81 for a child born today.

Mankind is also better educated.

Illiteracy has been halved since 1970. Eighty-five per cent of the world's adults can now read and write. According to UNESCO, the percentage of children attending primary school has increased from 80 to 90 per cent since the beginning of the 21st century.

But perhaps nothing has more long-term significance than the rise in the rights and roles of women.

In developed countries, women have made great strides on all fronts, and now outnumber men at universities in many countries; quite a few are earning more than their spouses.

Women still earn less than men as a group. (In Canada, the gender income gap stands at 18 per cent. The difference is compounded by the "glass ceiling" that women bump up against in higher echelon jobs and corporate boardrooms.)

Still, in the developed world at least, there is definitely a momentum towards gender equality. There is even speculation about the "end of men."

That is not the case in the developing world, though. In most of Africa as in parts of Asia, there has been little change in the status of women. And in many societies rape and other forms of abuse are still endemic.

But there is progress. In India, where a particularly gruesome case of gang rape and murder raised widespread protests, the government passed a law in March that considerably toughened the country's penalties for rape and other forms of sexual abuse.

A London man enjoys the July sun. Nearly a third of British children born today will live to be 100, a new study says. (Neil Hall / Reuters)

Women in developing countries are also clearly making progress on the economic front. More and more of them can now work outside their households and earn their own money, an empowerment that is almost certain to bring about better legal and political protections.

The road to humankind's further progress on all these fronts won't always be easy. (Witness the tragic sweatshop fire in Bangladesh in April, though it, too, has brought about pressure on the government there for tough reforms.)

Inevitably, there will be bumps in the road everywhere, Canada included.

The greatest danger to the march forward, though, is that it could be brought to a halt by a devastation of the environment that, as some predict, could spell the end of humanity. But doomsday predictions have been made throughout the ages and humans are still here. 

With mankind having overcome so many enormous obstacles over the millennia to get this far, there is good reason to expect that we and future generations will also find ways of continuing to make life on this planet ever better.