It’s a Great Time to Be Alive

Despite the by now routine and rather boring warnings about the end of the world as we know it, the actual truth may be quite the opposite. Whether coming from radical greens, concerned religious leaders, anti-capitalists or other gloom-and-doom merchants, we often hear that planet earth is about to face some major catastrophe, or is on the verge of annihilation.

But in reality, we are living in the most prosperous, the most healthy, and the most liberating times in human history. That is the conclusion of a new book about to be released this month. The Improving State of the World by American economist Indur Goklany, former US delegate to the United Nations’ intergovernmental panel on climate change, suggests that by almost every measure, things are looking up for those living on planet earth.

Writing in the December 2, 2006 Spectator, Allister Heath presents an overview of Goklany’s thesis. He begins in this fashion: “For billions of people around the world, these are the best of times to be alive. From Beijing to Bratislava, more of us are living longer, healthier and more comfortable lives than at any time in history; fewer of us are suffering from poverty, hunger or illiteracy. Pestilence, famine, death and even war, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are in retreat, thanks to the liberating forces of capitalism and technology.”

The book “reveals that, contrary to popular belief, it is the poorest who are enjoying the most dramatic rise in living standards. Refuting a central premise of the modern green movement, it also demonstrates that as countries become richer, they also become cleaner, healthier and more environmentally conscious.”

The statistics speak for themselves. Consider global food consumption. “We should be especially proud of the fact that humanity has never been better fed: the daily food intake in poor countries has increased by 38 per cent since the 1960s to 2,666 calories per person per day on average. The population of those countries has soared by 83 per cent during that time, so this is a stupendous achievement which puts the final nail in the coffin of Malthusianism.”

He continues, “fewer people than ever before are going hungry. The rate of chronic undernourishment in poor countries has halved to 17 per cent, compared with a little over a third 45 years ago. In wealthy countries, the cost of essential foods has collapsed, with the price of flour, bacon and potatoes relative to incomes dropping by between 82 and 92 per cent over the past century; similar trends are now visible in developing countries too. There is still a long way to go; but never before in human history have so many people been liberated from extreme poverty so quickly.”

Where problems still exist the cause is usually resistance to the free market, not adherence to it: “Famine and declining life expectancy are problems now limited to the small number of countries unfortunate enough to continue to suffer from horrendous misgovernment by kleptocratic elites or which persist in rejecting capitalism and globalisation. There is only one way to ensure that the most deprived in the poorest countries are fed and clothed: their governments must embrace the market economy, strong property rights, sound money, free trade and technological progress. That is the only road to higher economic growth; and increased wealth is the prerequisite to better living standards.”

One good way to see just how much progress really is being made is to compare life today with how it was not all that long ago: “To see how far we have come, consider that anyone born in Britain during the Middle Ages would have been exceptionally lucky to live to see their 30th birthday. The average person could expect to live only to the age of 22, before succumbing to disease, injury or famine. By 1800, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, life expectancy in Britain had climbed to 36 years, then the highest ever seen but less than the life expectancy enjoyed today in even the most war-torn and deprived countries. By the 1950s the average Briton could expect to live to the age of 69; today this has increased to almost 78 years.”

Heath documents other such examples, and shows how places like China and India are well on their way to economic growth and development. Sure, much more needs to be done, but these nations are picking themselves out of poverty and stagnation at much faster rates than the Western world did. Says Heath, “When Charles Dickens depicted the industrial town as hell on earth in The Old Curiosity Shop, he was chronicling the dark phase of economic development which some parts of China and India are undergoing today. But the forces that eventually lifted Britain from that Stygian gloom had already been set in motion, as they have in emerging economies today. Remarkably, there is mounting evidence that as countries become richer, they eventually also become greener, cleaner and healthier.”

Many other examples can be produced. Consider energy conservation, and improvements in productivity. “Increased productivity and better technology have allowed us to conserve energy resources, cut emissions of noxious substances such as lead and sulphur dioxide, provide cleaner drinking water and ensure better quality air. London’s great smog of December 1952, which killed 4,000 people, is now a mere historical footnote, as is the Great Stink of 1858, when the Thames was so filthy and polluted that Parliament had to be evacuated.”

He goes on, “The widespread view that Western societies are squandering natural resources on an unprecedented scale doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A ton of coal produces 12 times more electricity in modern power stations than a century ago. Energy intensity in the rich countries has been falling by 1.3 per cent a year for the past century and a half. This year the demand for oil from rich countries will actually fall, despite buoyant economic growth. Because one acre of agricultural land produces so much more food today than it did even a decade ago, Western countries have been able to cut back on the amount of space devoted to agriculture. Forests are growing again, replacing fields.”

Of course to say all this is not to imply that there is no poverty, starvation or injustice left in the world to be concerned about. Far from it. Indeed, Goklany “is concerned at the shameful deprivation, disease and misery that continue to affect hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, North Korea and all the rest of the world’s horror spots. But he argues convincingly that to recognise their horrific plight should not prevent us from also acknowledging our progress in liberating even larger numbers of people from extreme poverty.”

Heath concludes, “Hope has become a commodity in short supply in the West. Even though more progress will always be required, our victories over famine and extreme poverty during the past two centuries are civilisation’s greatest achievement. It is time we took a well-deserved break from worrying about terrorism, rising crime, social dislocation and all our other problems to celebrate what we have actually got right.”

While we must rightly not ignore the many problems that still need to be addressed, we dare not ignore nor minimise the tremendous achievements made in the West and the developing world. In a fallen world there will always be problems to solve and adversities to get through. But we need to acknowledge the good that we have done, while still tackling the problems that remain.

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