The experience of the human species on this planet is generally characterized by progress from miserable conditions to more desirable ones. Recent evidence suggests that this momentum is accelerating.
Most of written history focuses on such periods, often described as "Golden Ages", where particular civilizations quickly advanced the welfare of their people. The world has seen many such magnificent periods come and go, times that have come down to us through phrases like the "glory of Rome". In such diverse locations as Mesopotamia, China, Greece, Central America and Britain, a sudden growth of ideas and wealth has produced quantum leaps in knowledge and living standards.
Are we in a Golden Age right now? A recent spate of "good news" statistics points to an affirmative answer.
Take the most important element in the mix, life itself. According to the World Health Organization, the physical well-being of the human race has improved more in the last 50 years than the previous 5,000. Indicators like life expectancy and infant mortality rates have shown dramatic gains, due, according to the WHO, to economic development, safer water and sanitation, improved national health facilities and the control of infectious diseases. Even more heartening is the fact that the gap between rich and poor countries is closing; in 35 years, the developing world extended its average life expectancy by 16 years, while industrialized countries added only five.
As a consequence, the global population is mushrooming. It stood at 2.8 billion in 1955, but has more than doubled to 5.8 billion now. If the curve is not interrupted by manmade or natural disaster, it will hit 8 billion by the year 2025.
Does that mean resource depletion, a Malthusian collapse in the supply of food or other resources? Apparently not. Famines and mass starvations, once a regular feature of the nightly news, are increasingly rare. Worldwide, per capita food consumption is up by 20% over the last 50 years. Just 30 years ago, people in Third World countries consumed, on average, only 80% of the minimum dietary requirement. Today, even in the poorest countries, the average daily caloric intake stands at 2,600 per capita, 10% greater than the minimum.
Measures of the quality of life are similarly way up. In 1970, 60% of adults in the developing world were illiterate, while now only 30% cannot read. Per capita gross domestic production in poor countries, adjusted for inflation, tripled in the last 35 years.
If things are getting better, what caused the improvement? Hand in hand with the postwar prosperity has come political empowerment. Only 40% of the world's people lived in democracies twenty years ago; now, 55% do. In fact, the good news on the demographic and economic side has largely been driven by changing ideas. The fall of trade barriers and new technology have expanded the spread of knowledge and has led to more rapid growth. Economic liberalization in India, for instance, has allowed it to triple its output of wealth since 1960. Its middle class now numbers over 100 million, and should double in the next five years if present trend lines continue.
In his book, Is Progress Speeding Up?, John Templeton summarizes it well: "Fewer and fewer people live under the weight of tyranny. In most parts of the world, people are enjoying longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives." The author claims that we now live in "the most glorious period in all of history".
The big difference between this Golden Age and its predecessors? The advances are not specific to any geographic region or culture. As the world becomes more open, growth, stability and prosperity seem to follow.
The world is getting better.