What a time to be alive

On this last day of the 2010s, what defined the decade for you? Probably climate change. Or the election of Trump. Mass shootings. Civil War in Syria. A man-made humanitarian catastrophe in Venezuela. Twitter mobs. Fake news. The Cats movie.

With all this horrible news on social media, and everyone arguing with each other about it, no one really noticed that we’re living in the most peaceful and prosperous era in all of human history. Matt Ridley makes a strong case in The Spectator:

Let nobody tell you that the second decade of the 21st century has been a bad time. We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.

Little of this made the news, because good news is no news. But I’ve been watching it all closely. Ever since I wrote The Rational Optimist in 2010, I’ve been faced with ‘what about…’ questions: what about the great recession, the euro crisis, Syria, Ukraine, Donald Trump? How can I possibly say that things are getting better, given all that? The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better. Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.


Efficiencies in agriculture mean the world is now approaching ‘peak farmland’ — despite the growing number of people and their demand for more and better food, the productivity of agriculture is rising so fast that human needs can be supplied by a shrinking amount of land. In 2012, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and his colleagues argued that, thanks to modern technology, we use 65 per cent less land to produce a given quantity of food compared with 50 years ago. By 2050, it’s estimated that an area the size of India will have been released from the plough and the cow.

Land-sparing is the reason that forests are expanding, especially in rich countries. In 2006 Ausubel worked out that no reasonably wealthy country had a falling stock of forest, in terms of both tree density and acreage. Large animals are returning in abundance in rich countries; populations of wolves, deer, beavers, lynx, seals, sea eagles and bald eagles are all increasing; and now even tiger numbers are slowly climbing.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that Britain is using steadily less energy. John Constable of the Global Warming Policy Forum points out that although the UK’s economy has almost trebled in size since 1970, and our population is up by 20 per cent, total primary inland energy consumption has actually fallen by almost 10 per cent. …

Read it all. Obviously, everything in the world isn’t good – as I write this, the US Embassy in Baghdad is being stormed by Iranian-backed militants, a situation it’s hard to imagine ending well. But our remarkable advances in combating poverty, disease and conflict are just taken for granted.

I grew up during the era now nostalgically portrayed on Stranger Things, and I remember living with near-absolute certainty that we were going to be incinerated in a nuclear war. People now look back on the nineties as a golden age, but it sure didn’t feel like it at the time. Grunge music didn’t take off because people were happy.

It seems like people always scorn the present, fear for the future, and reminisce fondly about the past. Ten years from now, I bet we’ll all be looking back on how great the 2010s were and how much the 2020s sucked.

By all means, keep working toward a better world. It can always be better. But don’t forget how far we’ve already come.

Have a happy new year, and I hope 2020 is our best year yet.

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