Are things getting better?

Nick Henderson


March 7th, 2018

How do twenty-first century problems stack up when viewed through a historical lens? Nick Henderson considers whether 200 years of context can change our perceptions.

There’s a lot to be worried about in the twenty-first century. Climate change, nuclear weapons, terrorism, food shortages, ongoing armed conflicts, wars, artificial intelligence, pandemics, anti-globalisation, biosecurity, territorial disputes, political scandals, hacking, and whether or not serial internet pest Clive Palmer will contest the next election.

All of this sounds rather scary, however it’s important to consider these global issues in the context of history. Are today’s issues greater than those we faced two hundred years ago? They’re certainly different. But while the role of our televisions, news feeds, blogs and papers are primarily to highlight the big issues of the day, there also are constant improvements being made that are not awarded such attention.

Our World in Data is an interesting website with a number of visualisations to help comprehend our progress on humanitarian issues.[1] The numbers are quite telling, and provide some welcome relief from the constant reminders that our politicians can’t behave themselves and the ice caps are melting:

  • In the past 200 years, the percentage of the world population living in extreme poverty has fallen from 94% to 10%. In absolute terms, the number of people living in extreme poverty maxed out in 1970 at 2.22 billion. It has now fallen to 705.55 million.
  • In the past 200 years, child mortality in the first five years of life has dropped from 43% to 4%.
  • In the past 200 years, global literacy levels have risen from 12% to 85%.
  • In the past 200 years, the percentage of people living in democracy has risen from 1% to 65%.
  • In the past 200 years, the percentage of people with basic education has risen from 17% to 86%.

To us in the twenty-first century, 200 years is an abstract concept. None of us can conceive what life was like back then. Australia was yet to federate, and Napoleon had just abdicated. But it’s not as far back as we might think. George Washington had been dead for two decades. The industrial revolution was almost complete. And it was significantly closer to now than it was to Christopher Columbus’ exploration of the New World.

Indeed, part of the reason 200 years feels so long ago is because of the remarkable progress we’ve made in that time, especially when mapped against the past two millennia.[2] World GDP in 200 years has risen 200 from $1 trillion to $108 trillion. The numbers are remarkable, and they aren’t dampened by population growth – GDP per capita has also skyrocketed.[3]

These figures are cause for optimism, however we as a species have shown a consistent disinterest in acknowledging that the world is improving. In a 2015 YouGov survey, adults in high-income countries were asked whether they believed the world was getting better.[4] Answers maxed out at 10% in Sweden, with only 3% of Australians answering that they believed the world was improving.

In light of the evidence, this is perplexing. However, the remainder of the survey respondents are by no means ignorant. A degree of cynicism is undoubtedly healthy, as it affords us a chance to consider areas of the global economy that still need attention.

For a start, there’s the consideration of our planet’s finite resources, and the damage we may have caused to the environment throughout our rapid development. Global GDP is not the only measurement to show a sharp spike in recent history – the same can be said for global CO2 levels.[5] If we are to reach a global solution to our changing climate, and avoid the severe long-term consequences, we may have to forsake some future growth potential in the short-term.[6]

Just as importantly, despite the majority of the world population being lifted out of extreme poverty in the last two centuries, 10% remain. This, obviously, is 10% too many. In addition, global inequality remains high, partly due to the divergence between advanced and developing economies since the industrial revolution, though current evidence suggests that the global economy is now converging.[7] Indeed, the IMF has classed rising income inequality as the “defining challenge of our time”.[8]

We should have cautionary faith in ourselves to fix these issues, however. We should not examine an issue such as inequality without contextualising its impact, as some recent literature has done.[9] For example, while the rich have indeed gotten richer, it is just as true that the poor have gotten richer.[10] This occurred through the formation of inclusive institutions that supported development, rewarded innovation and thus increased productivity. It is essential now that we protect these systems, and improve them where we can, such that further development may occur.

So, all in all, we should look on the bright side. Assuming we’re able to avoid wiping ourselves off the Earth with nuclear weapons, and we don’t create AI smart enough that it kills us off, we are in for a bright future. Let’s try and work together so we can keep making things better for everyone.



Further reading

[1] Roser, M. (n.d.). The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it. [online] Our World in Data. Available at:

[2] Our World in Data. (2018). World GDP over the last two millennia. [online] Available at:

[3] Our World in Data. (2018). GDP per capita. [online] Available at:

[4] Our World in Data. (2016). Share of the population who think the world is getting better. [online] Available at:

[5] CO2 Levels. (n.d.). Current & Historical Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Levels Graph. [online] Available at:

[6] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2018). The Economic Consequences of Climate CHange. [online] Available at:

[7]  Hellebrandt, T. and Mauro, P. (2015). The Future of Worldwide Income Distribution. [ebook] Available at:

[8]  Dabla-Norris, E., Kochhar, K., Suphaphiphat, N., Ricka, F. and Tsounta, E. (2015). Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective. [online] International Monetary Fund. Available at:

[9] Wolf, M. (2014). ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’, by Thomas Piketty. [online] Financial Times. Available at:

[10] Our World in Data. (n.d.). Global income distribution in 1800, 1975 and 2015. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].


Image: chensiyuan

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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