This might seem like an audacious statement to make in light of the numerous tragedies and disasters that have churned out with shocking regularity (to say nothing of the persistent and shockingly normalized prevalence of poverty, hunger, disease, and political oppression).
But as The Atlantic points out in great detail, by almost every measure — from crime rates to income levels — 2015 was the best year in human history for the average person. Beginning with what was arguably the most high profile problem of 2015, violence, one finds that from gun crime to terrorism, humans are harming one another far less than they historically have.
Despite its epidemic of mass-shooting events, the country is still far safer than it was in the past. The latest FBI statistics, reported this September, suggested that the trend toward lower rates of violent crime in the United States that began in the early 1990s continued at least through 2014: There were nearly 3,000 fewer violent crimes that year than the year before and more than 600,000 fewer than in 1995—that’s a 35 percent decline over the period. The latest data from the UN suggests that this is part of a global trend—to take one category of violent crime, homicide rates have droppedby an estimated 6 percent in the countries for which data was available between 2000 and 2012.
…Across the globe, the numbers of ongoing wars and battle deaths are still far below their levels of the 1970s and 1980s.
Furthermore, terrorism, war, and murder together remain a minor cause of death worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that 119,463 people died in incidents of “collective violence and legal intervention”, such as civil war, and 504,587 died from episodes of “interpersonal violence”, such as homicide, in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. In the same year, according to the Global Terrorism Index, 11,133 people died in terrorist attacks—suggesting terrorism accounted for about 1.8 percent of violent deaths worldwide. And for all that terrorism deaths have increased since 2012, they remain responsible for perhaps three hundredths of one percent of global mortality. All collective and interpersonal violence together accounted for around 1.1 percent of total deaths in 2012. Rabies was responsible for three times as many deaths as terrorism that year. Stomach cancer killed more people than murder, manslaughter, and wars combined.
So while terrorism has continued to spike since 2010, in relative and overall terms, it is far less deadlier and likelier than it used to be.
The same goes for the more widespread scourges of malnutrition and disease (key data bolded by me):
There were fears of drought across the Sahel causing a famine this year—especially in conflict zones such as South Sudan. While the risk of major food shortages in 2016 is high, the fear hasn’t materialized yet, at least. Famine deaths are increasingly rare and increasingly limited to the few areas of the world suffering complete state collapse. Related to that, the proportion of the world’s population that is undernourished has slipped from 19 percent to 11 percent between 1990 and today.
Or look at disease: Through the course of November 2015, only four cases of Ebola were confirmed in the three West African countries at the epicenter of the 2014-2015 outbreak. Roughly 11,315 people were either known or believed to have died in that epidemic worldwide, but compared to a 2014 Center for Disease Control forecast that, absent intervention, there might be as many as 1.4 million Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone by mid-January 2015, the world got off lightly, with total cases resulting from the outbreak standing at around 29,000 today. An Ebola vaccine that underwent trials in Guinea this spring proved 100 percent effective, suggesting future outbreaks of the disease should be far less deadly. The world has also seen progress toward a partially effective malaria vaccine this year.
The rollout of older vaccines over the past several years has also saved more lives than ever before this year, since vaccination protects for life, or at least multiple years. In August came news that there had not been a single case of polio detected in Africa in over 12 months, meaning the disease is now known to exist only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What used to be a global killer, with 350,000 cases as recently as 1988, is on the verge of extinction. And just since 2000, worldwide cases of measles have dropped by more than two-thirds, saving more than 17 million lives—largely thanks to increased vaccination rates.
Meanwhile, the U.N. reported this year that global child mortality from all causes has more than halved since 1990. That means 6.7 million fewer kids under the age of five are dying each year compared to 1990. Nearly 7 million families avoided the pain of burying their child in 2015 who would have gone through it if the world hadn’t seen two and a half decades of historically unprecedented progress against childhood illness. 2015 also saw the lowest-ever proportion of kids out of primary school according to the U.N.—less than one in 10. The number of kids out of school has fallen from 100 million in 2000 to a projected 57 million in 2015.
There is a lot more encouraging information that I will leave you to check out for yourself, but the bigger picture can be summed up thusly:
[T]he world is better-educated, better-fed, healthier, freer, and more tolerant—and it looks set to get richer, too. In October, the IMF forecast 4.0 percent growth for emerging and developing countries for 2015—slower than the 7-8 percent that they managed through much of the last 15 years but nonetheless considerably ahead of population growth. The World Bank declared in September that, for the first time ever, less than 10 percent of the global population lived in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 per day. That is down from 37 percent as recently as 1990. There are a lot of reasons to think the poverty measures the World Bank creates are flawed. That said, the decline certainly reflects an underlying reality: Many of the poorest countries in the world, and many of the poorest people in them, have seen dramatic income gains over the last few years.
While none of these developments are a cause for complacency — a point I can never stress enough in these optimistic posts — they do show that for all the daunting challenges that remain ahead, and for all the suffering that remains in the world, there is a clear trajectory towards a better life for the majority of our species. It is far from inevitable, and it can easily be reversed, but given how far we have come and how much we have been able to accomplish despite the circumstances, we can certainly keep the momentum going on all fronts.
What are your thoughts?