If you could scroll through history searching for an era where you’d like to spend a lifetime, what would attract you?
Probably peace and prosperity. Probably a time when the arts flourish and science is open to new wonders. Probably too, a time period when people behave morally, care for one another, and uphold higher ideals than selfishness.
Does it make a difference to your answer if you don’t get to choose where on Earth you’ll be born? Into what class, gender, creed, and ability?
You’ll probably want to stay right here, right now.
Our 24 hour media attention on what’s terrifying and what’s superficial steers us away from the big picture. That picture, looking at the wider view, is actually pretty heartening.
1. War and global violence continue to decline.
Armed conflicts aren’t going up, they’re going down.
The world has seen a 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War era. Genocide is down 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished by 33 percent and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent. Even measuring from as little as 15 years ago, the number of armed conflicts has dropped from 44 to 28.
Why? Project Ploughshares credits peace building efforts.
Chances are, the reasons for peace are complex. Yet a stronger international resolve to focus on peace building and basic human rights is taking place. Imagine the far larger potential for enduring peace if we intentionally educate our children and ourselves in the proven methods of non-violence—-negotiation, mediation, reconciliation, even basic listening skills.
2. Freedom is stretching across the planet.
By evaluating variables including civil liberties, democratic institutions, and independent media it’s possible to assess how free each nation in the world really is. Back in 1973, 29 percent of nations were deemed free, 25 percent partially free, and 46 percent not free.
In a little over 35 years, the number of nations ruled by authoritarian regimes dropped from 90 to 30. Countries around the world considered to be free increased by 50 percent while those not free had dropped by more than half.
Independence has a long way to go. And what we may not recognize as positive signs—protests, dissent, political upheaval—may very well be ordinary people speaking up for freedom.
3. Affluence is on the increase.
A shifting focus away from war, conflict, and chaos means that countries are better able to meet the needs of their citizens. Those 151 countries deemed free or partly free account for 95 % of the world’s gross domestic production (GDP).
The number of people living in poverty has dropped by 500 million people, although most of those successes are in a few key countries. Since 1975 the world’s poor have seen their incomes grow faster than the world’s wealthy, meaning economic equality is increasing.
Of course, we make a mistake when we confuse affluence with well-being. After certain (surprisingly minimal) levels of health and safety are reached, money doesn’t buy happiness.
Current global conditions of institutional breakup, financial chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which seem to be (slowly) leading to long-term beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the limitations of short-term fixes and relentless economic expansion. Hopefully we’re also waking up to the reality that we’re in this together—rich and poor, developed and developing nations, young and old, left and right. We see in our own lives that what’s important can’t be measured by dollars alone. Things like good health, supportive relationships and a vital ecosystem.
There are plenty of other ways to define affluence. A fascinating measure of wealth lies in a quick look at how many hours of labor it once took the average worker to pay for light. In ancient Babylonia it took over 50 hours to pay for an hour of poor light from a sesame-oil lamp. At the start of the last century, it would have taken the average worker a thousand hours to earn the money to buy candles equaling the light of a single 100 watt bulb. Today’s high efficiency lighting costs us less than a second of work.
4. Fewer people are hungry.
Hunger continues to drop although we have a long way to go. It’s staggering to realize that 925 million people are chronically hungry. But according to The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany, global food supplies increased 24 percent per capita in the last 40 years. In developing countries the food supply increased at an even greater rate, 38 percent more food per person. Since 1950, the real global price of food commodities has declined 75 percent.
No one should go hungry. The future of global food justice relies on efforts to restore and protect biodiversity, stop the spread of genetically modified crops, and assure water rights.
5. Longevity is improving yet total population faces a downturn
Fulfilling the cherished hopes of their parents, more children around the world are born healthy. Mortality rates for those under five years of age have fallen by 60 percent since 1960.
Meanwhile, life expectancy has risen 21 years since the mid 1950’s.
This doesn’t mean the planet will be too crowded. Overall population will continue to rise for several more decades but we’re facing a major downturn. Already birth rates are near or below replacement rate in countries all over the world. Increased education and affluence tend to inspire women, no matter what country they live in, to invest their time and resources in fewer children. As Fred Pearce clearly explains in The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, our little Earth will likely reach a (painful) peak of 8 billion people around the year 2040, then the total number of human will begin to decline so rapidly that nations will struggle to keep their populations levels from slipping too low. They may create perks for becoming parents and incentives to attract immigrants.
6. Health continues to improve.
Studies conducted by Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate and economic historian at the University of Chicago, show that in a few hundred years human biology has changed in startling ways. We are more resistant to ill health, more likely to recover when faced with disease and less likely to live with chronic disability. We are also smarter and live longer. Fogel calls this radical improvement “technophysio evolution.”
An interview quotes Fogel as saying, “The phenomenon is not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.”
Fogel doesn’t necessary attribute the changes to genetic shifts. Improvements in medical care, nutrition, sanitation and working conditions may cause epigenetic changes. These are shifts in gene expression that can last through many generations without altering underlying DNA.
Information amassed by Fogel indicates that chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and lung ailments are occurring 10 to 25 years later in life than they did 100 or 200 years ago. Interestingly, well-being may be more strongly affected by conditions each individual faces in utero and during the first few years of life than previously suspected.
These remarkable health gains don’t diminish our current struggles with cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other serious health conditions on the increase. Despite the blessing of bodies more resilient and healthy than those of our ancestors of just 150 years ago we suffer the effects of environmental toxins and nutritionally inferior diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, we need to make the right choices to pass those benefits to our descendants.
7. Literacy rates continue to improve.
Global adult literacy rates have shot up from 56 percent in 1950 to nearly 84 percent today, the highest ever.
Women’s rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularly East Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health and greater financial stability.
8. Intelligence is on an upswing.
From generation to generation, we’re getting smarter. In fact, to accommodate continuously increasing intelligence the IQ test must be renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100). This is called the Flynn Effect.
Between 1932 and 1978, mean IQ scores in the U.S. rose 13.8 points. If your grandparent received IQ score results of 98 back in 1932 they’d have been deemed of average intelligence. That same grandparent, if administered today’s tests, would be considered to have a borderline mental disability by current scoring standards. IQ scores have risen even higher in some other countries. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.
Plenty of explanations have been proposed, but the increase can’t be definitively pinned on genetic improvements, improved nutrition, greater familiarity with testing or better schooling.
According to Cornell professor Stephen J. Ceci, the most direct gains are not in subjects that are taught (math, vocabulary) but are shown in parts of the test that seem unrelated to schooling (matrices, detecting similarities). In fact, test gains have been enormous in areas requiring the child to apply his or her own reasoning, such as arranging pictures to tell a story or putting shapes in a series. Although teaching children does return positive results, what a child learns through the natural stimulation of everyday life has a more profound effect. For example, a study to determine the effect of schooling on rural children in India found that the increase in overall intelligence from a year of age is twice the increase from that of attending a year of school.
IQ test scores don’t relate to what truly provides satisfaction in life. But the Flynn Effect is intriguing. Factors we can’t completely explain are giving us the intellectual capacities to deal with an ever more challenging world.
9. Compassion is huge.
Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming that the abolitionist movement was the first major movement by human beings to advocate on behalf of others without seeking advantage for themselves or their particular social or political group. Since that time, such efforts have grown with astonishing vigor.
There are now over a million organizations on the planet working for environmental stewardship, social justice, the preservation of indigenous cultures, and much more. These groups don’t seek wider acclaim, they seek to make a difference for the greater good.
Humanity, which is clever and kind enough to bring about so much improvement for one another, is awakening to the vital importance of living more sustainably on Earth. Unless we pull another planet out of the galaxy’s pocket in the next decade or two, we have to stop using up our precious blue green Earth. It’s time to turn our ingenuity to living well within our means. Peacefully, wisely, and with optimism.
Hand Globe image courtesy of HapciuMadam
Hummingbird image courtesy of PhapPuppy