The world has never had it so good – thanks partly to capitalism
Telegraph.co.uk – finance/economics – We live in largely peaceful times, with better access to medicine and education – the world is easily in the best place it’s ever been
29 Oct 2013. By Allister Heath
Contrary to what environmentalists, anti-globalisation campaigners and other economic curmudgeons like to think, the world is not going to hell in a handbasket.
Immense problems remain, of course, from Europe’s youth unemployment crisis to atrocious cases of extreme child poverty around the globe, and it is the duty of all of us to highlight and address them.
But humanity as a whole is doing better than it ever has: the world is becoming more prosperous, cleaner, increasingly peaceful and healthier. We are living longer, better lives. Virtually all of our existing problems are less bad than at any previous time in history.
In How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World, Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg documents how on almost all important metrics, the human condition is improving at a dramatic rate; his thesis is backed up by oodles of other data and research.
Take war, the worst possible affliction that can befall a society. It is often wrongly argued that armed conflicts are the handmaiden of capitalism; in reality, they are the worst thing that can happen to a liberal economy, destroying lives, families and capital and triggering state control, militarism and deglobalisation.
Tragically, there are still far too many conflicts costing far too many lives but overall we live in extraordinarily peaceful times by historical standards.
Genghis Khan’s mad conquests in the 13th century killed 11pc of the global population at the time, making it the worst conflict the world has ever had the misfortune of enduring; the Second World War, which cost more lives than any other, was the sixth worst on that measure, killing 2.6pc of the world’s population.
There has been immense progress since then, especially following the end of the Cold War.
The Peace Research Institute Oslo calculates that there were fewer battle deaths (including of civilians) in the first decade of the 21st century than at any time since the Second World War.
Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Program found 32 active armed conflicts in 2012, a reduction of five compared with the previous year.
The bad news is that the number of deaths shot up again last year as a result of the horrendously bloody Syrian conflict. But that outbreak of barbarism shouldn’t detract from the otherwise dramatically improving trend, which is perhaps the single most important fact about the world today.
Instead of fighting, we now trade, communicate, travel and invest; while there is still a long way to go in tearing down protectionist barriers, international economic integration is the great driving force of progress.
We are also far less likely to die from the side-effects of economic development and the burning of cooking and heating fuels. In 1900, one person in 550 globally would die from air pollution every year, an annual risk of dying of 0.18pc. Today, that risk has fallen to 0.04 pc, or one in 2,500; by 2050, it is expected to have collapsed to 0.02pc, or one in 5,000. Many other kinds of pollution are also in decline, of course, but this shift is the most powerful.
In fact, we are living healthier and longer lives all round, thanks primarily to the remarkable progress made by medicine.
Average life expectancy at birth in Africa has jumped from 50 years in 2000 to 56 in 2011; for the world as a whole, it has increased from 64 to 70, according to the World Health Organisation.
While people in rich countries can now expect to reach 80, the gap is narrowing and emerging economies are catching up; in India, for example, life expectancy has been increasing by 4.5 years per decade since the 1960s.
Medical advances have improved life measurably for any given stage of economic development. Childhood mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa remains far too high, but in 2008 it had fallen to just a third of that in Liverpool in 1870, even though real per capita incomes in that part of the world remain just over half that of Liverpudlians in the 19th century.
The probability of a newborn dying before their fifth birthday has dropped from a world average of 23pc in the 1950s to 6pc in the current decade. That’s still nothing to be happy about, of course, but the progress has been remarkable. Child mortality is set to fall from 7.7pc in 2000 to 3.1pc in 2050.
One reason is better nutrition. The best proxy for that is height: Latin Americans have been growing taller for years, and since the late 20th century so have young people in Asia, with increased prosperity allowing parents to feed their children more and better food.
Better sanitation is also helping: deaths caused by a lack of access to clean water have tumbled from 1.5 per 1,000 people in developing countries in 1950 to 0.4 today and are due to halve again by 2050.
Education is another area which has seen huge improvement globally. The UK is a scandalous outlier here, with a recent OECD analysis showing that we are the only rich country in which 55 to 65-year-olds are more proficient in literacy and numeracy than 16 to 24-year-olds, a catastrophic regression.
But our educational suicide is unique, and emerging markets have seen revolutionary improvements in recent decades, enhancing educational opportunities for hundreds of millions of young people. Progress has been especially strong from around 1970.
While 23.6pc of the world’s population remains illiterate, that is down from 70pc in 1900 and is the lowest it has ever been. The costs of illiteracy have fallen steadily from 12.3pc of global GDP at the start of last century and are set to be just 3.8pc by 2050.
Gender equality is also improving. In 1900, women made up only 15pc of the global workforce. By 2012, it reached around 40pc and is expected to hit 45pc by mid-century.
Even climate change may have had a much more balanced effect than is usually understood. One of the contributors to Lomborg’s book, Richard Tol, estimates that global warming has so far been beneficial, on balance, to the world – some countries have lost out, but more have gained – but will turn into a net negative later this century, when costs will increasingly outweigh benefits.
Tol’s analysis includes agriculture and forestry, sea levels, energy consumption, health and much else besides. This area is contentious and hard to measure.
Predictions are exceptionally difficult; as Lomborg himself has argued elsewhere, so far global warming has been below what almost all models had been predicting. We shall see.
The only important metric that is unambiguously deteriorating is biodiversity, which declined by 21pc in the 20th century and is continuing to fall.
On balance, however, the world is easily in the best place it’s ever been, despite the financial crisis and the threat of terrorism. Thanks to capitalism, globalisation, technology and a reduced tolerance for violence, humanity has never had it so good.
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