It’s Getting Better All the Time

Commentary, Poverty, Roger Kerr

It’s official: never before in human history has humankind had it so good. By every objective measure of human well-being – be it availability and price of food and other basic necessities, access to clean air and water, rates of infant mortality and child labour, life expectancy, health, wealth, social mobility, quality of environment, economic and political freedom, literacy or educational attainment – the quality of life is getting dramatically better for billions of people all over the world.

In a giant setback for the global doom-mongers’ movement, eminent American economist Indur Goklany has collected in one volume the long-term trends in the most significant indicators of human and environmental well-being. The evidence is compelling. In The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, Goklany demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, global economic growth, free trade and technological change have led to unprecedented improvements in the human condition.

Goklany’s optimistic account of the world’s progress turns a number of modern myths on their head. For example, the most striking improvements have been experienced not in the developed world but in the poorest countries. The rates at which hunger and malnutrition have been decreasing in India and China are stunning. In the 40 years to 2002, China’s food supply has gone up by 80 percent. India’s has increased by 50 percent since 1950. Chronic under-nourishment in developing countries has fallen since 1970 from 37 to 17 percent, despite an overall 83 percent growth in their populations.

Also at odds with the popular doom and gloom view is the fact that the gap between rich and poor countries is rapidly closing. Fifty years ago a child born in a poor country had a life expectancy 25 years shorter than their counterpart born in a rich country. Today, thanks to health practices developed in and transferred from the West, the gap has halved.

Of course, of course … the pattern is not universal. The main exceptions are countries that lack democracy, the rule of law and free markets. Goklany deplores the appalling deprivation, hunger and disease that continue to afflict many millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa and other mismanaged countries. But, he argues, that should not stop us from celebrating the extraordinary global achievement of liberating even greater numbers from extreme poverty.

The book, published last December by the Cato Institute, contains a massive range of information. From charting the fall in cholera outbreaks since London’s Great Stink of 1858 (when the stench of rotting sewage in the Thames caused parliament to recess) to the rise of affordability of holidays in the developing world, Goklany documents the positive impact of progress.

Consider the following: over the past century the retail prices of flour, bacon, and potatoes in the United States relative to per capita income have fallen by 92 percent, 85 percent and 82 percent respectively. The real global price of food commodities has dropped by 75 percent since 1950. In the last 30 years, global illiteracy has fallen from 46 to 18 percent. Life expectancy in India has almost doubled since the 1950s, from 39 years to 63 years. Over the past century, average life expectancy worldwide has risen from 31 years to 67. Infant mortality rates in the poorest countries have fallen since 1980 from 147 deaths per 1000 births to 53 per 1000. Improved technology has led to energy conservation, a reduction in noxious emissions and amazing gains in the productivity of farmland, with the United States, for example, feeding three times as many people with a third fewer farmers on a third less farmland than in 1900.

While noting that the record on the environmental front is complicated and that the early stages of development often cause environmental problems, Goklany reaches a firm conclusion that must surely strike cheer into even the gloomiest corner of the green movement: as countries become wealthier they also become healthier, cleaner and greener.

To those who warn that all these gains will be lost with the costs of human-induced global warming, Goklany responds with rigorous modelling that shows the benefits of faster economic growth in the developing world will far outweigh any such costs. If we allow globalisation to continue, he argues, we could soon be living in a world where “hunger and malnutrition have been virtually banished; where malaria, TB, Aids and other infectious and parasitic diseases are distant memories; and where humanity meets its needs while ceding land and water back to the rest of nature … even in sub-Saharan Africa infant mortality could be as low as it is today in the United States, and life expectancies as high.”

You have to admit, in the words of Lennon and McCartney, it’s getting better, so much better all the time.