Despite war, climate fears and economic woes, life really is getting better

  • Beyond what the crisis-obsessed media may report, the world is actually making steady progress against poverty, illiteracy, disease and more
  • More than anything, we should rely on a fact-based world view rather than the fact-free bigotry incubated across much of social media

When the fog of global gloom gets too hard to bear, my thoughts often flicker back to Monty Python’s 1979 epic Life of Brian and Eric Idle tied to a cross in Golgotha singing: “Always look on the bright side of life”.

Even in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, amid US debt crisis negotiations, fears of recession, Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the deepening US-China conflict, glacial progress in addressing climate change, Idle can still induce a wry, if grim, smile.

But there are more constructive ways of clearing the gloom. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in late December 2019, on the cusp of a new decade, of seeking “a ray of optimism to pierce the gloom of the daily headlines”. “Progress is a historical fact,” he said. “Over the past seven decades, humans have become (on average) longer-lived, healthier, safer, richer, freer, happier and smarter, not just in the West, but worldwide.”

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His article appeared just days before Beijing notified the World Health Organization of a new virus in Wuhan. Still, Pinker is likely to be sticking to his guns – even as Russia’s Vladimir Putin takes us closer to a new world war than anyone has seen in six decades.

More valuable therapy comes in Hans Rosling’s 2018 book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, published almost a year after his death from pancreatic cancer. “Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule,” he wrote. “Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based world view.”

Rosling was thorough in explaining why so many people think the world is more frightening, more violent and more hopeless than it really is.

First, he blamed the “overdramatic world view” incubated by a crisis-obsessed media. Pinker would agree: “Journalism by its very nature conceals progress, because it presents sudden events rather than gradual trends. Most things that happen suddenly are bad: a war, a shooting, an epidemic, a scandal, a financial collapse. Most things that are good consist either of nothing happening – like a nation that is free of war or famine – or things that happen gradually but compound over the years, such as declines in poverty, illiteracy and disease.”

While we are shocked and alarmed by images of decimated crops and famine, we ignore the fact that, between 1997 and 2017, extreme poverty in India fell from 42 per cent to 12 per cent, and in China from 42 per cent to 0.7 per cent – lifting 770 million people out of poverty. We fail to notice that, in 1972 in Bangladesh, women on average bore seven children with a life expectancy of around 50 years but, by 2017, they bore just 2 children each with a life expectancy of 72 years. Rosling insisted we need “constantly to resist the overdramatic world view”.

How Bangladesh surged past India on road to South Asian economic stardom

Second, Rosling said we need to curb our tendency towards negativity and fearfulness – “the mega-misconception that the world is getting worse” – overlooking the “secret, silent miracle of progress”. He talked of our inclination to let the bad stuff get out of proportion. Despite the regularity of mindless shootings in the US, he noted the gradual progress worldwide in reducing violent crime.

Despite famine reports, he noted that since 1960, average harvest yields of cereal crops have tripled. And 90 per cent of girls worldwide received at least primary school education, compared with 65 per cent in 1970.

He complained of our temptation to divide the world into “us and them”, rich and poor, developed and developing, good and evil – and to prefer the simple (and false) to the complex (but true). Look at former US president Donald Trump’s complaints of the rest of the world ripping off America, or of current US President Joe Biden’s misplaced efforts to group the world into democracies and autocracies, friends and enemies.

Take America’s effort to paint China as a hegemonic threat. As Pinker noted back in 2019: “For all the warnings of a rising China that will inevitably fight its rival hegemon, that country has rested its fortunes on trade, contributed to UN peacekeeping, joined global and regional organisations, kept North Korea on a leash, assisted poor countries with infrastructure rather than weaponry, and not fought a war in 32 years.”

By resisting populist stereotypes, and what seems to be an urge to blame others, the basis for many conflicts worldwide would evaporate.

Neither Pinker nor Rosling accept that they are naive or overly optimistic – Rosling called himself a “possibilist”, not an optimist. Pinker insisted: “I am confident of one thing: the 2020s will be filled with problems, crises and discord, just like the decades before and after.”

While they recognised bad things going on, they asked us to acknowledge that many things are also getting better. Rosling warned of five “mega-killer risks” – financial collapse, world war, climate change, extreme poverty, and pandemics – a prescient list.

More than anything, they call on us to rely on a fact-based world view rather than the fact-free bigotry incubated across much of social media. A good rule of thumb seems to be the quiet, stoic British view: keep calm and carry on.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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