Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times. Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease or stroke. She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper-Collins, 2010), 14.
It is by any standard, and any reasonable standard, and any remotely intelligible standard, an astonishing human achievement. But I think Matt Ridley, rationally optimistic as he may be, is underselling the achievement.
I’m here to sell it. A quick look at the caliber of public conversation around topics like income, malnutrition, child mortality, etc. paints a picture radically different than Ridley’s. But the case made by pessimists is never quite wrong, just grossly warped and perhaps intentionally misleading. The world is extraordinarily better off than we are led to believe. We’re undergoing a crisis in perspective.
Here’s an analogy to illustrate the cognitive dissonance: if the world was an organism, experts bent on pessimism use data for what is happening at the microscopic-cellular level without reference to health on the macroscopic-tissue level. The information we get from media sees the world through a microscope. It uses a 1000X lens that zooms our perspective in. The image is sharp but from that magnification it also looks dire. From 1000X cells are attacking one another, viruses are spreading, and health seems like an impossible utopia.
Enter Matt Ridley. What he did with The Rational Optimist was lean back from the microscope and look directly at the tissue with his naked eye. And to his great surprise the organism was looking healthier than ever, even growing stronger! That organism is our reality.
This isn’t to say that billions of people aren’t struggling to survive in 2017. They are. What I want to make visible is our extreme misunderstanding of proportionality. If we live with microscopes perpetually duct taped to our eyes, we will continue to be dismayed by the state of the world. But, if we can rip off the tape and look at the world fresh and at the appropriate scale, it suddenly looks capable of improvement. If we look with our naked eyes like Mr. Ridley, helping the poorest in society looks seriously doable.
The rich have got richer, but the poor have done even better. The poor in the developing world grew their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole between 1980 and 2000. The Chinese are ten times as rich, one-third as fecund and twenty-eight years longer-lived than they were fifty years ago. Even Nigerians are twice as rich, 25 per cent less fecund and nine years longer-lived than they were in 1955. Despite a doubling of the world population, even the raw number of people living in absolute poverty (defined as less than a 1985 dollar a day) has fallen since the 1950s. The percentage living in such absolute poverty has dropped by more than half – to less than 18 per cent.
Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper-Collins, 2010), 15.
The problem I believe we have is a crisis in perspective. After reading Ridley, my intuition is that zooming out to understand the world in its totality before we form an opinion zoomed in could make all the difference. The poor are rising out of poverty at a breakneck speed, yet we are led to believe the opposite by experts.
According to “the media”, the world is going to hell in a handbasket. While there are plenty of local, micro, and pointed issues that need to be dealt with, adopting the magnified worldview can be a depressing practice. The Rational Optimist’s perspective is a brighter one, and to my estimation, a truer one.