2013: The Best Year Ever In Human History

The whole earth. Photo: NASA

The whole earth. Photo: NASA

A week ago, I listened with fascination to Uri Berliner’s report on NPR about the good news of 2013.  The thing that was fascinating about his report was that these stories tended to be huge, tectonic trends – powerful positive shifts in human affairs.

A dramatic decrease in cancer deaths, suggesting real progress in the war against one of the world’s deadliest killers.  Amazing economic and social progress in Africa.

Uri’s article provides a link to a website called HumanProgress.org, which collects evidence of our advancement of a species.  The declaration on the site’s front page is bracing:  “The state of humanity is improving.  Fast.”

The evidence collected by the website — along with other data sets that I’ve looked at over the years — is incredibly convincing.  Poverty and famine world-wide are declining at science-fiction speeds.

“In 1990, people in 26 countries consumed less than 2,000 calories, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends an average person should eat each day,” the organization reports.  “By 2008, that number fell to 3.”

Infant mortality is declining and humans work less hours for greater material reward.  There are fewer wars and the wars we conduct are far smaller, resulting in massively fewer casualties.

Set against these mega-trends is a constant drum beat of gloom and anxiety and sour news.  In part, this may reflect my own industry and its insatiable hunger for drama and trouble and strife.

We don’t send reporters to Africa to chronicle the revolutionary improvements in living conditions and productivity and the rapidly advancing state of women’s rights.  We send them to chronicle regional conflicts and civil wars.

And it’s also often in the interest of various activists — on the right, and the left — to raise the alarm to a fever pitch.  It’s hard to get people’s attention.

From climate change to the budget deficit, partisans like to talk about what amount to challenging, technical but eminently solvable problems as if they are harbingers of the end-times.

Which makes sense.  There’s some evidence out there to suggest that humans as as a species are drawn to bummer news.  We are risk-assessors.  We tend to focus on threats, danger-signs, storm clouds on the horizon.

That’s fine, so long as it doesn’t eclipse the reality that our collective hard work is producing astonishing progress.

The various tools and institutions that we have in place — ranging from the United Nations to the US Congress — to solve big problems tend to be hated, even loathed, because they don’t produce big, home-run style victories.

But they do seem to work in their muddled way, shuffling us through what amounts to a tarnished, noisy and sometimes ugly Golden Age.

None of which is to suggest that we shouldn’t still strive for progress.  That yearning, too, appears to be thankfully hard-wired into our natures.  We want less poverty, less uncertainty, more opportunity for more people.

But as we ring out 2013, it’s worth pausing once to remember that this was, warts and all, a year in which more humans than ever before on our planet had at least a small share in hope and progress.

19 Comments on “2013: The Best Year Ever In Human History”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Thanks for the reminder that things are better and sure could be worse.
    Happy New Year.

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  2. kirby says:

    Thanks for this upbeat report.

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  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “Set against these mega-trends is a constant drum beat of gloom and anxiety and sour news. In part, this may reflect my own industry and its insatiable hunger for drama and trouble and strife.”

    There does seem to be a tendency in the media to treat issues as conflict between winners and losers, that every issue is a zero sum game. In reality problems are often resolved in ways that make everyone winners, at least to some extent. On the bright side 2013 was the year of the Prison Time project. That sort of in depth, nuanced reporting on an issue is the way that we make progress, by promoting more accurate understanding of a problem.

    Ignorance is the real enemy. Once we stamp out ignorance everyone will agree with me and we’ll really get some good stuff done.

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  4. Michael Ludovici says:

    Thanks, I needed that.
    Everybody has been telling me how glad they will be when 2013 is over.

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  5. Ken Hall says:

    Brian, there is nothing as great as a pair of rose colored glasses to gloss over the realities of the once great planet Earth as defined by her most atrocious and voracious parasites in terms of their purported progress while they escort the fauna and flora co-inhabitants of spaceship Earth to hell in a hand basket.

    Uri Berliner quotes information from the humanprogress website, which brags: “HumanProgress.org is a project of the Cato Institute with major support from the John Templeton Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, and the Brinson Foundation”. All of these supporters are conservative to ultra conservative organizations controlled by folks such as the Koch brothers with pointedly anti-liberal agendas intent upon increasing the net worth of their associates not the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants.

    The generalizations about the fabulous advances in individual human progress towards the “good life” appear to ignore the “horrible life” that half or more of the humans exist within. Even in the US and Europe the numbers of folks working two, three, four menial wage jobs to eek out a subsistence level survival is staggering and in many countries there are not even menial jobs. On the other hand folks such as the Kochs and their friends obviously observe a bright and shiny world for them to plunder.

    If there is a fever pitch alarm being raised by the MSM about the rate at which 7 billion plus humans are converting the Earth into a trash heap for the future generations, assuming there are some, I am hard pressed to observe it.

    The non-event, for which I prefer the moniker “global warming”, for which the MSM prefers “climate change” because it does not raise ones awareness of the imminent danger it harbingers, is purported to be solvable; by whom? The amount of green house gasses poured into the atmosphere, by humans, continues to increase every year. Yes there is a fix but I do not foresee it being put into practice until the available hydrocarbon fuels left underground have been depleted to the point that the cost to extract outweighs the profits of doing so. Yup, global warming, the myth in the eyes of those with plenty is not really a myth.

    “The various tools and institutions that we have in place” … ” tend to be hated, even loathed, because they don’t produce big, home-run style victories”. Of course they do for those who can afford to procure a Senator here and a Representative there and “persuade” them on the rationality of decreasing public works/welfare funding for “the worthless eater” so as to increase the profits for the “job creators”.

    I will give it to you that you got this part correct ” this was, warts and all, a year in which more humans than ever before on our planet had at least a small share in hope and progress”; you know how well that hope fills your belly and keeps one warm on a cold Winter’s night. Heavy on the “small”.

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  6. Mervel says:

    There is some research to show that the type of mega trends that Brian is talking about have nothing to do with our year in year out political decisions or even our governments, but much long term trends in technology and culture. The fact is there are far far fewer people hungry in the world today than 50 years ago.

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  7. Baloney! says:

    ‘ “In 1990, people in 26 countries consumed less than 2,000 calories, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends an average person should eat each day,” the organization reports. “By 2008, that number fell to 3.” Infant mortality is declining and humans work less hours for greater material reward. There are fewer wars and the wars we conduct are far smaller, resulting in massively fewer casualties.’

    I agree that there’s a lot of less-than-analytical doom-and-gloom reportage out there, but I don’t trust these propagandists of corporate industrialism. Sure, it’s easier to feed humanity, but it’s easier to over-feed them to obesity, too. Is that figured in their halcyon calculus? I doubt it, because such restrain in consumption doesn’t garner profits. A decline in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy require accounting for overpopulation and it’s effects. And the greater material reward for less work hours is a baloney figure. People worldwide aren’t getting paid in line with their increased productivity (the foundation of capital) and that productivity hasn’t increased as swiftly as it should have. Progress.org seems to have pretty facile statistics, but they sell.

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  8. Mervel says:

    Well I don’t know about the statistics. Personally I veer toward being negative more on the conservative hell in a handbasket idea. However I think that is what sells, not everything is probably just going to muddle along getting marginally better over time. That is what does not sell.

    Both the Left and the Right kind of need a narrative that we need big change that we are in big trouble and we need BIG answers. I think they are always about selling the big answer, which I don’t buy. I am not even sure we have huge control over these trends and that bothers people particularly people who want to sell us solutions.

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  9. Walker says:

    “The fact is there are far far fewer people hungry in the world today than 50 years ago.”

    Perhaps, but what are the odds of that statement being true fifty years hence? Check out this story for a hint of what the future holds.

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  10. The Original Larry says:

    Yeah, can’t have things getting better, or at the very least, they probably won’t stay better. Some people are so firmly rooted in negativism that they can’t stand the thought that there might be any progress anywhere. After all, what would they talk about if there actually was some progress somewhere?

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  11. The Original Larry says:

    You’re slipping, Ken Hall. You call out the Koch brothers, but what about the Rockefellers, the Bushes and the Bilderburg Group? Tri-Lateral Commission? Federal Reserve Bank? If you’re going to wear the tinfoil helmet, make sure it fits.

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  12. Walker says:

    Well, time will tell, Larry, whether pessimism or optimism is warranted. I’d say we’ll have a pretty good idea ten years from now.

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  13. Pete Klein says:

    I would feel a lot better about the future if there was at least one Muslim religious leader who sounded more like Pope Francis than a silent endorsers of terrorism.

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  14. Sherman says:

    I have a lot of respect for Brian and his body of work at NCPR. However things do not look rosy for a big chunk of humanity. Homelessness, poverty and disease are still a menace to many. Troubles in the middle east show no sign of abating. Nuclear proliferation is a bigger problem than ever, threatening all of us.
    I would love to see signs of a better world and hope for this planet, but I do not see them, yet.
    Sherman Brown, Walnut Creek, CA

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  15. dave says:

    Humans are doing great! Yay us!!

    Now maybe we can try to focus on achieving some of these outcomes without, ya know, making a mess of the place where all of us have to live.

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  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It is nice to see OL rooting for progress on issues that often are considered part of the liberal or progressive agenda. Things are looking good for 2014!

    Pete, there isn’t any sort of analogous figure in Islam to the Pope. Most Muslims believe that anyone of the faith who is intelligent and well educated can be a religious leader and that the adherent is responsible for understanding the tenets of the religion in his or her own fashion. By that standard there are about 1.5 billion Muslims who renounce terrorism.

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  17. Mervel says:

    They sound like Protestants!

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  18. Mervel says:

    Well as I said I veer toward the negative, however I have to respect the data. I think its good to step back and look at some of things mentioned in Brian’s article.

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  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel, yes, sort of. The Shia sect tends more toward hierarchical structure but not nearly as much as Catholics or Orthodox Christians. And they are a minority in Islam. I always wondered why some religions tend to be so steeped in scholarship when the founders of most religions weren’t scholars. I can’t think of any great prophets who came to their insights through studying of texts. Many were illiterate.

    To paraphrase a Muslim scholar I sort of knew: Revelation is not in a book; it is all around you, and your job is to understand it as best you can. Revelation is in the smallest atom, the furthest galaxy and everything in between.

    That is a very different mindset from being being told what to believe by a priest. On the other hand, there are many similarities between Catholicism and Islam. Until relatively recently Catholics went to Mass and listened to a language they didn’t understand. In Islam the Koran is supposed to be recited in the original Arabic so that there is no corruption due to translation. But if your native tongue isn’t Arabic you have to rely on others to tell you what it all means. That can lead to misuse of the religion; and sometimes it has.

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