Getting Better

Some facts taken from a review of John Mackey’s book Conscious Capitalism, which I lifted from an article in Mother Earth News:

  • Two centuries ago 85% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (earning less than $1 per day, adjusted for inflation and region), compared with only 16% of the world’s population living in such dire straits today.
  • In 200 years, human life expectancy worldwide has grown from about 30 years to 68 years.
  • In just the past 40 years, the percentage of undernourished people in the world dropped from 26 percent to 13 percent in spite of rapid population growth over the same time period.
  • Worldwide literacy rates were estimated to have been in the single digits in 1800.  Today, 84% of adults in the world can read.
  • About 53% of human beings now live in true democracies, compared with zero people just 120 years ago, when even nominal democracies denied the vote to women or minorities, or both.

While I could quibble with some of the author’s wording, the point is clear.  Even as we rightfully emphasize the injustice that exists in our world and society, we ought to remain mindful of the great progress that humanity has made over the past two centuries. 

I’m prone, no doubt, to putting emphasis on things about our culture that I think ought to be changed, or on changes we are making in our culture that I think we ought not make. I’m surely not alone in having that tendency, however. I’d wager that if Americans were polled and asked whether things are getting better or worse, the majority would say they’re getting worse.  It’s good to be reminded that, from a little distance, humanity’s material and economic trajectory has been steadily upward for the past few centuries.

Of course much of this progress has come directly from the sudden and intensive use of the earth’s natural resources, and we need to continue to try to pursue less destructive ways to produce prosperity.  Our biggest challenge going forward, in my opinion, is to transition from an extractive economy to a sustainable economy.  If all this progress was dependent upon cheap fossil fuels, for example, a great deal of it might be erased when those are no longer available.

But whenever we start fretting about how fouled up things are these days, it might be helpful to reflect on the fact that a typical person from the past would have cheerfully traded places with us.