Our current news diets are remarkably unbalanced. The common ratio of progress to negativity would have us believing the world is in a persistent state of decline. And while the news is vitally important and we need to know what’s going on on this planet we call home, we can’t talk about the world purely in negative terms if we want to make it a better place for ourselves and those who come after us. We need to see the whole picture.
In this time when it’s so easy to feel like the world is one big dumpster fire – it’s important to hear about the many measures of true, real progress that are out there. Things are getting better. As of time of writing, that might not be the case for the pandemic, or current events, or climate change. But on the whole, the world is improving, and we don’t see enough of that.
Join us for a look at these remarkable statistics through the eyes of Stefan Sagmeister, an artist on a mission to prove this very point.
“Most of us agree that life is better than death. Having food beats being hungry. Knowledge is better than ignorance. We’d rather live in a democracy than a dictatorship. We prefer health over sickness and peace over war. And all of these things can be measured. And all of these things have been measured… And all of them have improved“Stefan Sagmeister
Stefan creates art pieces depicting the changes we’ve seen in the world using leftover antiques that his Great-Grandparents left behind in their antiques shop. His pieces juxtapose the old-fashioned antiques with bright colors and new statistics, creating a striking representation of the real progress the world is making.
Here to help give us a balanced worldview is Stefan in a beautiful video from Art Camp, with proof of the progress that we need to see.
And you can find all of Stefan’s Beautiful Numbers works here, and the rest of his unique work and information about him on his website. You can also watch his 2004 TED Talk, Happiness by Design, his 2009 TED Talk, The Power of Time Off, or his 2008 TED, Things I’ve Learned in My Life So Far.
Let’s dive into Stefan’s claims… He’s right: infant mortality is going down, 2 women now have the right to vote in close to every country, 3 absolute poverty has decreased from 90% to 25% and is still decreasing, and the UN says that eradicating extreme poverty is within our reach. 4
“So much remains to be done, I know. But I also feel that we have a better chance to improve things from a platform that acknowledges past successes rather than from this state of doom created by cable TV news and Twitter.”Stefan Sagmeister
There are many other ways the world is getting better. Here are 15 data points of progress that you need to know about.
1. Extreme poverty has fallen. 5
2. World hunger is falling. 6
3. Child labor rates are falling. Of course, any child labor is too much, but after a 40% decrease in the total number of children forced into labor, 7 that’s something to celebrate.
4. Life expectancy is rising. (It’s up 6 years since 1990, to be exact.) And that expectancy is especially rising in poor countries in Africa and Asia. 8
5. Child mortality has fallen by more than half since 1990. 9
6. Maternal mortality declined by 43% from 1990 to 2015. 10
7. Average human height has improved! Seems silly, but height is as used as an indirect measure of living conditions, which have improved considerably. 11
8. More people than ever have access to malaria bed nets. 12
9. Parasitic infection rates are lower than ever, including for Guinea Worm, for which cases have been reduced by 99.99% from 1986-2020. 13
10. The rate of Americans who smoke cigarettes is also way down. As of July 2021, only 16% of Americans reported smoking in the past week – down from a high of 45% in the 1950s and 60s. 14
11. Violent crime rates in the US have decreased across the board since 1997. 15
12. The world is more educated than ever before, with the number of years spent in school increasing in almost every country. 16
13. And with education rates, literacy rates have improved as well! 17
14. More and more people worldwide are getting access to the internet. 18
15. And renewable energy such as wind and solar power are getting cheaper and more effective. 19
For a fantastic look at all the graphs where you can find these statistics, click here.
Now let’s open our minds and hear him out on this one last point: On his website, Stefan even notes an improvement in the pandemics we humans have faced, as measured by the number of lives claimed. He notes that when we look at the past, the Spanish Influenza in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people, 20 and approximately 10 million people died of the HIV/AIDS epidemic from 2000-2005. 21 By no means does this minimize the unfathomable 5.1 million COVID-19 deaths and the deep loss so many of us have suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic; by no means does it trivialize the tragedy we’ve endured; and by no means does it mean our loss is any less. After all, drowning in 10 feet of water and drowning in 1 foot of water is still drowning. But it does serve to provide a global perspective: on the whole, even worldwide pandemics are getting better.
“For myself I noticed that when I’m in good shape, I am of much more use to the world than when I feel everything is terrible. I feel we can improve things more effectively by building on successes from the past.”Stefan Sagmeister
Now, of course, this isn’t to say we can or should ignore the things that are getting worse too, such as climate change 22, obesity, technology addiction 23, and mental health issues such as depression rates 24. But we need to see the whole picture: there is as much getting better as there is that continues to challenge us as the human race.
It’s hard to picture the lives our ancestors led, but they were certainly filled with more loss and less access to information, healthcare, and other necessities. We, here, today, have it better than anyone ever has. That doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do. There certainly is. But it does mean we can take a moment to appreciate this proof that things have and will continue to improve in so many ways.
Despite the rampant doom and gloom stories that we hear, there are endless reasons to be optimistic about our future. And these numbers – the ones we don’t often see – give us proof of tangible progress that we need to know about.
For more reasons to be optimistic about our future, you need only take a jaunt through our article library – with more than 1200 articles that prove it’s still an amazing world. Here are a few to get you started:
Why Optimism Is Our Most Powerful Tool for Change
Are we thinking about “optimism” all wrong? Could this frame of mind actually bring about a brighter future? In her fantastic TED Talk, diplomat Christiana Figueres shows us her trick to creating the realities that we want in life; something she calls, stubborn optimism!Read More
Conspiracy of Goodness: A Movement That’s Changing our Future
Why don’t we know about the awe-inspiring people who are making the world a better place? There is already a movement underway of people working towards a better collective future and you’re already a part of it. This is the Conspiracy of Goodness, the movement all around us just waiting to be celebrated!Read More
“Short term media like Twitter and hourly news create an impression of a world out of control, with democracy in peril, ubiquitous conflicts and an overall outlook of doom. But if we look at developments concerning the world from a long term perspective – the only sense making way – almost any aspect concerning humanity seems to get better. Fewer people go hungry, fewer people die in wars and natural disasters, more people live in democracies – and live much longer lives – than ever before.”Stefan Sagmeister
We can’t create a positive outcome if we’re only talking in negative terms. And these positive numbers are just as important to discuss as those that need urgent improvement.
So get out there, seek joy, and have a balanced news diet. If we recognize the good alongside our focus on improving what is currently bad, we’ll be ok.
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- Art Camp. “Stefan Sagmeister – Beautiful Numbers.” Vimeo, 18 Nov. 2021, vimeo.com/544574177. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- “Mortality in the Past – around Half Died as Children.” Our World in Data, 2019, ourworldindata.org/child-mortality-in-the-past. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- “Infographic: When Countries Granted Women the Right to Vote.” Statista Infographics, Statista, 13 Oct. 2020, www.statista.com/chart/23184/year-nations-allowed-women-to-vote-in-national-elections/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- United Nations. “Ending Poverty | United Nations.” United Nations, United Nations, 2020, www.un.org/en/global-issues/ending-poverty. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- Roser, Max, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina. “Global Extreme Poverty.” Our World in Data, 25 May 2013, ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- GLOBAL HUNGER INDEX ONE DECADE to ZERO HUNGER LINKING HEALTH and SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS. ↩
- International Labour Office. Global Estimates of Child Labour. 2017. ↩
- Roser, Max, et al. “Life Expectancy.” Our World in Data, 23 May 2013, ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy#life-expectancy-has-improved-globally. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- “Child Mortality – UNICEF DATA.” UNICEF DATA, 25 Oct. 2021, data.unicef.org/topic/child-survival/under-five-mortality/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- https://www.who.int/gho/maternal_health/mortality/maternal/en/index2.html ↩
- Roser, Max, et al. “Human Height.” Our World in Data, 8 Oct. 2013, ourworldindata.org/human-height#the-last-two-millennia. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- https://www.who.int/malaria/publications/world-malaria-report-2017/en/ ↩
- “Guinea Worm Eradication Program at the Carter Center.” Cartercenter.org, 2020, www.cartercenter.org/health/guinea_worm/index.html. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- Gallup, Inc. “Tobacco and Smoking.” Gallup.com, 9 Aug. 2007, news.gallup.com/poll/1717/tobacco-smoking.aspx. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- “Table 1.” FBI, 2016, ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/crime-in-the-u.s.-2016/tables/table-1. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- Roser, Max, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina. “Global Education.” Our World in Data, 31 Aug. 2016, ourworldindata.org/global-education#years-of-schooling. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- Roser, Max, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina. “Literacy.” Our World in Data, 13 Aug. 2016, ourworldindata.org/literacy#historical-perspective. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. “Technology Adoption.” Our World in Data, 2 Oct. 2017, ourworldindata.org/technology-adoption#internet-access-technology. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- Berke, Jeremy. “Solar Power Cost Rapidly Decreasing, Chart Shows.” Business Insider, Insider, 8 May 2018, www.businessinsider.com/solar-power-cost-decrease-2018-5. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- History of 1918 Flu Pandemic. 2021, www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- “Fact Sheet.” Unaids.org, 2021, www.unaids.org/en/resources/campaigns/globalreport2013/factsheet. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- “Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate Is Warming.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, 23 Sept. 2021, climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- “Technology: The New Addiction.” U.S. Naval Institute, Sept. 2018, www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/september/technology-new-addiction. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
- Fox, Maggie. “Major Depression on the Rise among Everyone, New Data Shows.” NBC News, NBC News, 11 May 2018, www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/major-depression-rise-among-everyone-new-data-shows-n873146. Accessed 18 Nov. 2021. ↩
Published: November 22, 2021
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