Things are Getting Better. Really.

by Brian Frederking ’90, Ph.D.

Photo of Brian Frederking '90The above title may be difficult to believe given the partisan rhetoric and media narratives that fill our daily lives. Emphasizing doom and gloom is profitable for the media and beneficial to politicians. We seem to be hardwired to focus on short-term threats and crises, and that obsession fuels everything from our dysfunctional, hyper-partisan political system to the fake news in our social media.

However, it is important that we take a step back and evaluate our lives from a broader perspective. We politically organize as groups for both security (deter war, crime, etc.) and human development (provide education, health, etc.). If we take a global and historical perspective, the only possible conclusion is that Things Are Getting Better. Since our current political reality focuses on the local and the immediate, we are not even aware that the global and historical trend lines are going in the right direction across a wide range of issues.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff. We have revolutionized human access to education (Table 1). Public education is now the global norm, and many international organizations help to build the capacity of poorer countries to educate their children. Global rates of school enrollment and literacy have skyrocketed in the past century. We have also dramatically reduced the gender gap in education - in 1900 there were 35 girls in school for every 100 boys, and now that number is 90. In most places around the world, girls go to school as often as boys do.

We have also revolutionized human access to health care. Life expectancy hovered around 40 years for centuries, and we have nearly doubled that number. We have reduced child mortality by 90 percent since 1900. Through global vaccination programs, we have eradicated some diseases (smallpox) and are close to eradicating others (polio, guinea worm, hookworm, malaria, measles, rubella, and many others). We have even turned the corner on the global HIV epidemic; fewer people now die from AIDS than a decade ago. A much higher percentage of humanity now has access to food, clean water, toilets, and medicine. It is undeniable that we now live longer and healthier lives than our ancestors.


Table #1


We are also obviously wealthier than our ancestors. Despite the ebbs and flows of global capitalism, economic growth continues over the decades and centuries. Despite the current criticisms of globalization and free trade harming the middle class in developing countries, it is also true that we have greatly reduced global poverty in the last 25 years. In 1990, around 33 percent of humanity (2 billion people) was living in extreme poverty, defined by the U.N. as earning less than $1.25 per day. Today that percentage is nearing 10 percent (under 800 million people). More than 1 billion people have jumped over the global poverty line in one generation. This economic growth has many beneficial implications, including historic reductions in the amount of war and conflict.


We have reduced child mortality by 90 percent since 1900.


Yes, that is correct. The amount of war and conflict is going down. If we use measures like battle deaths or violent death rates, we are easily living in the most peaceful era in human history. It is not even close. (That headline will definitely NOT sell more papers or generate more social media clicks.) If we compare the last 25 years to the Cold War era; or we compare the last half of the 20th century to the first half; or we compare the 20th century to earlier centuries - it does not matter, the trend lines all go down. In fact, the violent death rate has decreased 90 percent since medieval times.

Let us start at 1945. Since then, there have been no wars between major powers; no wars between rich developed countries; no use of nuclear weapons; no wars between European states; no conquered countries that no longer exist; and, with the exception of Israel, no developed state has expanded its territory through military conquest. Consider the trend in Europe - from 1400 to 1945, Europe averaged two wars per year. That is over 1,000 wars. There have been zero wars  between European states since 1945. This is simply amazing.

Other long-term trends regarding conflict are also declining. Including terrorism. Really. According to the Global Terrorism Database, there have been fewer terrorist incidents and fewer deaths related to terrorism in the last 20 years than during the 1970s and 1980s. There are fewer civil wars going on today than in 1989. Acts of genocide are decreasing. Only two countries are actively pursuing nuclear weapons, while around 50 countries have the technical capability to build them. In fact, nearly 20 countries have dismantled their nuclear weapons program and/or destroyed their nuclear weapons.


Other long-term trends regarding conflict are also declining. Including terrorism. Really.


Many other good things have increased over time to facilitate this reduction in war and conflict. Many more countries are democratic and respect basic human rights than in earlier historical periods. There is much more gender equality in most places around the world. We have more treaties, international organizations, and rule-based interactions around the world than ever before. And the U.S. has been at the center of all this, encouraging these global trends.

There is much more. Crime rates around the world are declining over the last two decades, particularly in the U.S. The European homicide rate has declined a staggering 95 percent from the 14th century to the 21st century. Looking at it over centuries, there is declining violence against ethnic minorities, women, children and animals. There is a global decline in domestic violence, rape, and hate crimes. There is a long list of things that we no longer do, including human sacrifice, lynching, and duels. We no longer torture heretics or burn witches. We have developed norms to increase tolerance and reduce violence in our lives.

Many other acts of violence are much less common and shock us when they do occur, including torture, slavery, honor killings, and public executions. Capital punishment is considered a human rights violation in most places around the world. Children are safer now than ever before—levels of infanticide, spanking, bullying, and child labor are decreasing. Children in the U.S. are now much less likely to run away, get pregnant, commit crime, drink alcohol, or commit suicide than earlier generations.

There is much to celebrate if we take this global and historical perspective. Things are getting better. Of course, there are still many problems to solve: economic inequality, climate change, gun violence, global refugees, racial and other forms of discrimination, religious extremism, and dysfunctional, non-responsive political systems, just to name a few. My point in writing this is not to reduce the importance of these issues or ignore the reality that many of our fellow humans lead difficult lives. My point is that we should not despair. Taking a long view should help us have more confidence in ourselves to adequately respond to our contemporary challenges. We have made much progress through the global spread of knowledge, technology, and norms. And we will continue to do so.

Of course, there are still many problems to solve…

Dr. Brian Frederking ’90 is professor of political science at
McKendree University.

(Much of the statistics in this article come from United Nations publications and the following books: Kenny, Charles. 2011. Getting Better. New York: Basic Books. Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature. New York: Penguin Books. Goklany, Indur M. 2007. The Improving State of the World. Washington DC: Cato Institute.)