One of the few things that every political persuasion agrees upon is that “everything sucks.” But could that be because we haven’t noticed real improvements around the world? A few notes:

  1. Worldwide poverty is still declining. More than a billion people have been lifted out of abject poverty in the last 25 years. This is a triumph of humanity. In 1941, 75% of the world’s population lived in utter destitution; great nations like Russia and China had frequent famines that killed millions. As recently as 1985, Ethiopia had terrible famines, bringing Western musicians together for LiveAid. Now, Ethiopia is averaging 10% growth annually.

    Figure 1 Souce: Wikimedia: Fotothek df roe-neg 0002313 002 Kinder beim Gruppenimpfen (Pockenschutz).jpg

  2. World health is improving. In a victory that should have had parades in every capital, smallpox was eradicated in 1977. It killed millions in Europe – even before it reached populations, as in the Americas, were there was no natural resistance. Smallpox hasn’t hurt or killed anyone since 1977. Polio is eradicated in every country except Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Polio had terrorized my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Few in the US today have ever seen someone with polio. While COVID 19 will impact world health and the world economy, we have the knowledge and tools to slow its spread, and alleviate its impact – something entirely absent during the “Spanish” Flu a century ago.
  3. Infant mortality has plunged. My grandparents had lots of brothers and sisters, because children (and parents) often died. Now, though, worldwide infant mortality rates have plunged from 65 deaths per thousand births in 1990 to 29 in 2017. If you’ve ever seen a parent mourn a child, you’ll know how great this is.
  4. Crime is declining. Violent deaths, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults are all down since the 1990s. While there is no consensus on why (which includes laws passed, longer prison sentences, increases in the number of police officers, and even the removal of lead from paint and gasoline), the fact that it is happening is not in dispute.
  5. The environment is improving. Industrialized economies are experiencing reforestation – European Union countries have reforested an area the size of Portugal since 1990. Since 1990, the United States has added nearly 19 million acres of forest. You don’t need to be the Lorax to approve of this message.
  6. But wait – there’s more. In the late 1980s, there was a real worry that the hole in the ozone layer could destroy crops and living standards in the Southern Hemisphere. If you haven’t heard about it recently, it’s because – it’s getting smaller. The world’s efforts to stop the emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals is succeeding.

Source: Wikimedia: US 101 entering Downtown Los Angeles[/caption] Figure 2: 

Meanwhile, air quality in the United States is improving. When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles, we had the worst air in the country. While that is still true (and is in part because of the geography of the area – while the predominant winds push the smog east, mountains surrounding the area keep the particulates in place), the air quality overall has gotten much better, thanks to a lot of work by local and state authorities. As the nation switches to non-fossil fuel sources of energy for transportation, the air quality will improve even more. No one misses fresh air, until you don’t have it anymore.

We know that hard work by scientists, researchers, and yes, even politicians, pays off. The good news is we know both how we do it, and where we want to go.