It is the time of year we think of Tiny Tim, the poor child looking through the window at the things he can never have, doomed to die young due to the lack of good health care, terrible housing, high child mortality and terrible poverty. According to Max Roser of The World In Data (OWID) many people think times are pretty bad these days too, especially given the way the news cycle works, particularly in the USA.
But in fact, there is a lot to celebrate this weekend about the great progress that the world has actually seen over the longer term. Not that there is any guarantee, like all the mutual funds say, that past events are true indicators of the future. Nor should we read this and think everything is wonderful. The OWID people note:
The purpose of this research project is not to stop people from complaining; on the contrary our argument is that a reasoned critique — that involves considering what we have learned through the progress we achieved in modern history — is beneficial in bringing about change and helping to create a better world.
Here, the world has made extraordinary progress from a time where there was a small elite that were comfortable, while the vast majority lived in worse than Dickensian poverty.
That is a huge achievement, for me as a researcher who focusses on growth and inequality maybe the biggest achievement of all in the last two centuries. It is particularly remarkable if we consider that the world population has increased 7-fold over the last two centuries... In a world without economic growth, such an increase in the population would have resulted in less and less income for everyone; A 7-fold 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 continuously lift more people out of poverty.
Two centuries ago, only a tiny elite, one in ten, could actually read. And even if you could read, books were really expensive.
If you think science, technology, political freedom are important to solve the world’s problems and you think that it helps to read and write to do this then look at the figures in absolute numbers. In 1800 there were 120 million people in the world that could read and write; today there are 6.2 billion with the same skill.
Here, we see some of the most extraordinary changes, an incredible decline in child mortality and improvement in health. And as we have noted in our series on healthy homes, it is not just due to the understanding of germ theory and the development of antibiotics.
It would be wrong to believe that modern medicine was the only reason for improved health. Initially rising prosperity and the changing nature of social life mattered more than medicine. It were improvements in housing and sanitation that improved our chances in the age old war against infectious disease. 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.
Past record is no guarantee of future progress
None of this is to suggest that things cannot turn around in a big hurry. Climate change and global warming might well reverse some of the gains made in agriculture. Population growth might well lead to the decline in housing quality. Antibiotic resistance might lead to declines in health. Political changes might increase inequality and poverty, not to mention risks of nuclear war.
But even the Cratchit family could be happy at this time of year, believing that things are looking up.