A History of Human Progress

It goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of folks. People can be forgiven for thinking that the world is going to hell in one way or another, but as economist Max Roser of Our World in Data points out in Vox.com, there has never been a time more worth celebrating in terms of moral progress. From poverty to literacy, the world is improving in so many areas, even if there is still quite a way to go.

Let’s start with one of the most consequential and long-running scourges of the human condition: poverty. For as long as we’ve been around, the vast majority of us have endured without financial or material security. With a lack of income typically comes a greater likelihood of disease, early mortality, and illiteracy, to say nothing of the emotional and psychological stresses. The more economic opportunity and access to wealth people have, the more dignified and prosperous a life they can live. As Roser points out, only over the last two centuries have vast swathes of humanity been able to enjoy the freedom and comfort that financial security brings:

In 1820, only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living, while the vast majority of people lived in conditions that we would call extreme poverty today. Since then, the share of extremely poor people fell continually. More and more world regions industrialized and thereby increased productivity, which made it possible to lift more people out of poverty: In 1950, three-quarters of the world was living in extreme poverty; in 1981, it was still 44 percent. For last year, the research suggests that the share in extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent.

That is a huge achievement — for me, as a researcher who focuses on growth and inequality, maybe the biggest achievement of all in the past two centuries. It is particularly remarkable if we consider that the world population has increased sevenfold over the past two centuries — switch to the “Absolute” view in the visualization below to see the number of people in and out of poverty. In a world without economic growth, such an increase in the population would have resulted in less and less income for everyone; a sevenfold increase in the world population would have been enough to drive everyone into extreme poverty. Yet the exact opposite happened. In a time of unprecedented population growth, our world managed to give more prosperity to more people and to continually lift more people out of poverty.

Seeing this progress visualized is even more powerful:


Courtesy of Vox.com / OurWorldInData.org

Increased productivity also means more goods and services — such as food, clothing, housing, medicine — from less time, effort, and resources. Thus greater wealth also meant more leisure and recreation, and with that, more art, caregiving, invention, volunteering and other pro-social activities. This subsequently has created a virtuous cycle wherein human relations are increasingly less predatory and beggar-thy-neighbor:

Economic growth was also so very important because it changed the relationship between people. In the long time in which people lived in a non-growth world, the only way to become better off was if someone else became worse off. Your own good luck was your neighbor’s bad luck. Economic growth changed that: Growth made it possible for you to be better off when others become better off. The ingenuity of those who built the technology that increased productivity — the car, the machinery, the communication technology — made some of them very rich, and at the same time it increased the productivity and the incomes of others. It is hard to overstate how different life in a zero-sum and a positive-sum economy are.

Roser invokes an alternative headline to the usual doom and gloom of news today: “The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday” — which could have run every single day over the last thirty-six years.

Here are some of the other key areas in which astounding dramatic progress has been made:

In 1820, only every 10th person was literate, in 1930 it was every third, and now we are at 85 percent globally. Put differently, if you were alive in 1800 there was a nine in 10 chance that you weren’t able to read; today more than eight out of 10 people are able to read. And if you are young, chances are much higher, since many of today’s illiterate people are old.

If you think science, technology, and political freedom are important to solve the world’s problems, and you think that it helps to read and write in order to use such tools, then look at the figures in absolute numbers. In 1800, there were 120 million people in the world who could read and write; today there are 6.2 billion with the same skill.

On health (bolding mine):

In 1800, the health conditions of our ancestors were such that around 43 percent of the world’s newborns died before their fifth birthday. The historical estimates suggest that the entire world lived in such conditions; there was relatively little variation among different regions, in all countries of the world, more than every third child died before it was 5 years old.


Healthier diet — made possible through higher productivity in the agricultural sector and overseas trade — made us more resilient against disease. Surprisingly, improving nutrition and health also made us smarter and taller.

But surely science and medicine mattered as well. A more educated population achieved a series of scientific breakthroughs that made it possible to reduce mortality and disease further. Particularly important was the discovery of the germ theory of disease in the second half of the 19th century. In retrospect, it is hard to understand why a new theory can possibly be so important. But at a time when doctors did not wash their hands when switching from postmortem to midwifery, the theory finally convinced our ancestors that hygiene and public sanitation were crucial for health.

The germ theory of disease laid the foundation for the development of antibiotics and vaccines, and it helped the world to see why public health is so very important. Public health mattered hugely: Everybody benefits from everybody else being vaccinated, and everybody benefits from everybody else obeying the rules of hygiene.

With these changes, global health improved in a way that was unimaginable to our ancestors. In 2015, child mortality was down to 4.3 percent — a hundredfold lower than two centuries ago. You have to take this long perspective to see the progress that we have achieved.


Progress in the area of political freedom and civil liberties is more difficult to quantify compared to straightforward measurements of death rate and educational attainment. Nevertheless, far more people live in countries where they are free to express themselves, assemble, and participate in politics than ever before. Throughout history, democratic and republican systems of government did not even exist conceptually in most human societies, let alone in practice. Now, there are few places in the world where these ideals are not aspired to — hence why even the most odious and iron-fisted autocracies feel compelled to at least pander to democratic principles.

Throughout the 19th century, more than a third of the population lived in colonial regimes, and almost everyone else lived in autocratically ruled countries. The first expansion of political freedom from the late 19th century onward was crushed by the rise of authoritarian regimes that in many countries took their place in the time leading up to the Second World War.

In the second half of the 20th century, the world has changed significantly: Colonial empires ended, and more and more countries turned democratic. The share of the world population living in democracies increased continually — particularly important was the breakdown of the Soviet Union, which allowed more countries to democratize. Now more than every second person in the world lives in a democracy.

The huge majority of those living in an autocracy — four out of five of those who live in an authoritarian regime — live in one country, China.

Human rights are similarly difficult to measure consistently over time and across time. The best empirical data shows that after a time of stagnation, human right protection improved globally over the past three decades.


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Population growth is perhaps one of the most feared developments in the 21st century, and a common trope in many dystopian science fiction narratives. But while it is normally framed in problematic terms, an expanding population is resounding proof that humanity has succeeded in overcoming the once insurmountable barriers of disease, poor sanitation, ceaseless war, widespread infrastructure, and agricultural limitations that had constantly kept human population (and for that matter flourishing) in check.

And while most envision this as too much of a good thing — a guarantee of a future crowded to the point of collapse — all evidence points to the opposite problem: a human population that, while projected to growth by another two billion or so, is also rapidly stabilizing, if not ultimately shrinking.

What we have seen in country after country over the past 200 years is that once women realize that the chances of their children dying has declined substantially, they adapt and chose to have fewer children. Population growth then comes to an end. This transition from high mortality and fertility to low mortality and fertility is called the demographic transition. In those countries that industrialized first, it lasted at least from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century — it took 95 years for fertility to decline from more than six children to fewer than three children per woman in the UK. Countries that followed later sometimes achieved this transition much faster: South Korea went from more than six children per woman to fewer than three in just 18 years; Iran even achieved it in just 10 years.

Just as countries went through this transition, so is the world going through this transition. Global fertility has more than halved in the past 50 years, from more than five children per woman in the early 1960s to below 2.5 today. This means the world is well into the demographic transition, and global population growth has in fact peaked half a century ago.

Now that we see fertility declining everywhere, we come to an end of population growth: The global population has quadrupled over the course of the 20th century, and will not double anymore over the course of this century. And at the end of the century, the United Nations expects a slow annual population growth of 0.1 percent, whereas the demographers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASU), near Vienna, expect an end of population growth around the year 2075.

Finally, we come to education, a factor that will be integral to our species’ continued survival in the face of pressing challenges like climate change; indeed, it contributed to many of the other aforementioned examples of progress. As seen above, a literate populace, let alone an educated one, is a novel concept in human history; knowledge was always limited to a very small class of nobles, government officials, and clergy, and few believed that needed to change. As with all the other progress in our history, only beginning in the 19th century did we see the emergence of public education both as an ideal and a policy, and the trend is constantly improving (gripes about mass ignorance notwithstanding).

The younger cohort today is much better educated than the older cohorts. And as the cohort size is decreasing, schools that are already in place can provide better for the next generation.

The visualization below shows the projection of the IIASA for the size and the educational composition of the world population until 2100.

With today’s lower global fertility, the researchers expect that the number of children will decline from now — there will never be more children on the planet than today. And as mentioned before, the IIASA researchers expect the world population to peak in 2070 and to decline thereafter.

Focusing on the educational breakdown, the projection suggests that by 2100, there will be almost no one without formal education and there will be more than 7 billion minds who will have received at least secondary education.

With the great importance of education for improving health, increasing political freedom, and ending poverty, this projection is very encouraging.


There is not one area in which humanity hasn’t progressed in a measurable and significant way, and while this progress is by no means complete, and indeed remains tenuous, it is worth acknowledging and celebrating — so why haven’t we? Roser chalks it up to a failure in both media reporting and education:

I do not think they are the only ones to blame, but I do think that the media is to blame for some part of this. This is because the media does not tell us how the world is changing; it tells us what in the world goes wrong.

One reason the media focuses on things that go wrong is that the media focuses on single events, and single events are often bad — look at the news: plane crashes, terrorism attacks, natural disasters, election outcomes that we are not happy with.

Positive developments, on the other hand, often happen very slowly and never make the headlines in the event-obsessed media.

The result of a media — and education system — that fails to present quantitative information on long-run developments is that the huge majority of people are completely ignorant about global development. Even the decline of global extreme poverty — by any standard, one of the most important developments in our lifetime — is only known by a small fraction of the population of the UK (10 percent) or the US (5 percent). In both countries, the majority of people think that the share living in extreme poverty has increased. Two-thirds in the US even think the share in extreme poverty has “almost doubled”. When we are ignorant about global development, it is not surprising that few think the world is getting better.

I think human psychology is a factor too. Perhaps for evolutionary reasons, humans are more likely recall and put undue weight on a single bad event than a substantially good, yet let perceptible one. It is harder to empathize with 130,000 people being lifted out of poverty in one day, than an image of a starving child in a poor country, especially if no one is reporting on the former: after all, people living normal and comfortable lives isn’t all that interesting or attention grabbing.

Still, all this can be countered with more awareness-raising. Statistics and empirical data, especially when presented in an engaging and visualized way, can help shed light on the surprising ways that the world has gotten better. People seeing the doom and gloom on the news or via social media should check out sources like Our World in Data and compare what they hear and see with the raw facts. For my part, I maintain this blog and an active social media presence partly to get the word out as much as possible. I invite and encourage you to do the same, especially seeing as the world could use all the hope and cause for optimism as it can get.

For more reasons to be optimistic about the future of humanity, check out Vox‘s interview with Steven Pinker, whose written an extensively research and data-rich tome highlighting all of the progress our species has made (and continue to makes) across multiple areas.


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