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The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better.

It is wrong to think these three statements contradict each other. We need to see that they are all true to see that a better world is possible.

The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better. All three statements are true at the same time.

Discussions about the state of the world too often focus on the first statement: The news highlights what is going wrong, rarely mentioning the positive developments in our country or the world as a whole.

A pushback on this narrative takes it to the other extreme, which is equally damaging. Solely communicating the progress that the world has achieved becomes unhelpful, or even repugnant, when it glosses over the problems people are facing.

If we only see the problems and only hear what is going wrong, we have no hope that the future can be better. If we only hear about progress and what is going right, we become complacent and lose sight of the problems the world is facing. Both of these narrow perspectives have the same consequence: they leave us doing nothing — they are worldviews that paralyze us.

It’s hard to resist falling for only one of these perspectives. But to see that a better world is possible, we need to see that both are true at the same time: the world is awful, and the world is much better.

A Venn diagram that shows the three statements and points to their overlapping area, saying ‘All three statements are true at the same time’

To illustrate what I mean, I will use the example of one of humanity’s biggest tragedies: the daily deaths of thousands of children.

What is true for child mortality is true for many other large problems. Humanity faces many problems where things have improved over time, which are still terrible, and for which we know that things can get better.1

The world is awful

Globally, 4.4% of all children die before they are 15 years old. This is the data for 2021, the latest available year.

This means that 5.9 million children die every year. These are 16,000 dead children on any average day, 11 children every minute.2

Clearly, a world where thousands of tragedies happen every single day is awful.

A chart showing that every day 16,000 children die

The world is much better

History’s big lesson is that things change. But it is hard to imagine how dire living conditions once were, making it difficult to grasp just how much the world has changed.

Data can help to bring the scale of change to mind. Historians estimate that in the past, around half of all children died. This was true until the 19th century no matter where in the world a child was born.3

It’s hard to imagine, but child mortality in the very worst-off places today is much better than anywhere in the past. In Niger, the country with the highest mortality today, about 14% of all children die.4 Just a few generations ago, the mortality rate was more than three times as high, even in the best-off places.5

What we learn from our history is that it is possible to change the world. Unfortunately, long-run data on how living conditions have changed is rarely studied in school and rarely reported in the media. As a result, many are entirely unaware of even the most fundamental positive developments in the world.

But this fact — that it is possible to change the world and achieve extraordinary progress for entire societies — is something that everyone should know. If we don’t know about humanity’s most meaningful achievements, then it’s no surprise that we have little trust in ourselves and no hope that we can achieve a better future.

A chart showing that the global child mortality rate declined from 50% to 4.4%

The world can be much better

Progress over time shows that it was possible to change the world in the past, but do we know that it’s possible to continue this progress into the future? Or were we perhaps born at that unlucky moment in history at which progress has to come to a halt?

Studying the global data suggests that the answer is no. It is possible to make the world a better place.

One way to see this is to look at the places in the world with the best living conditions today. The best-off places show that extremely low child mortality is not just a possibility but already a reality.

The world region where children have the best chance of surviving childhood is the European Union. The mortality rate in the EU is 0.47% — 99.53% of all children survive childhood.6

To see how much better the world can be, we can ask what the world would look like if this became a reality everywhere. What if children around the world would be as well off as children in the EU? The answer is that five million fewer children would die every year.7

The global death toll would decline from 5.9 million to 0.6 million.

Of course, the child mortality rate in the EU is still too high, and there is no reason that progress should stop there. Cancers like leukemia and brain tumors kill hundreds of children, even in today’s richest countries. We should strive to find ways to prevent these tragic deaths.

However, the largest opportunities to prevent the pain and suffering of children are in the poorer countries. There, we know not only that things can be better but how to make them better.

You can use this research on how to make the world a better place to make a difference yourself. I recommend relying on research published by the nonprofit organization GiveWell.org. GiveWell’s team spent years identifying the most cost-effective charities so that your donation can have the biggest positive impact on the lives of others. Several of the recommended charities focus on improving the health of children, giving you the opportunity to contribute to the progress against child mortality.

Millions of child deaths are preventable. We know that it is possible to make the world a better place.

A chart that shows that the global child mortality rate is 4.4% and that the child mortality rate in the European Union is about 10-times lower, at 0.47%.

The world is awful; this is why we need to know about progress

The news often focuses on how awful the world is. It is easier to scare people than to encourage them to achieve positive change, and there is always a large audience for bad news.

I agree that it is important that we know what is wrong with the world. But, given the scale of what we have achieved already and of what is possible in the future, I think it’s irresponsible to only report on what is wrong.

To see that the world has become a better place does not mean to deny that we are facing very serious problems. On the contrary, if we had achieved the best of all possible worlds, I would not be spending my days writing and researching about how we got here. It is because the world is still terrible that it is so important to see how the world became a better place.

With my work, I hope to change our culture a little bit so that we take the possibility of progress more seriously.

This is a solvable problem: we have the data and the research to see the problems we are facing and the progress that is possible. The problem is that we are not using the data and research we have. The data is often stored in inaccessible databases, the research is buried under jargon in academic papers and often locked away behind paywalls. I’ve been spending the last decade building Our World in Data to change this.

If we want more people to dedicate their energy and money to making the world a better place, then we should make it much more widely known that it is possible to make the world a better place.

For this, we have to remember that all three statements are true at the same time: the world is awful, the world is much better, and the world can be much better.

A summary chart that shows all three previous charts at once — and says at the top ‘All three statements are true at the same time’

This is a revised and updated version published in February 2023. The last previous revision I had done in July 2022. The first version of this article was published in October 2018.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Hannah Ritchie and Toby Ord for their feedback on this article.


Continue reading on Our World in Data:

Why do we need to know about progress if we are concerned about the world’s largest problems?

Endnotes

  1. In a number of fundamental aspects – obviously not all – we achieved very substantial progress. These aspects include education, political freedom, violence, poverty, nutrition, and some aspects of environmental change. See also my short history of global living conditions.

  2. Except for the historical data, all data in this post is taken from IGME, the UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation. They publish their data here: childmortality.org/data/World

    Their point estimate for the global number of deaths for children under 15 in 2021 is 5,862,574.

    This means on average there are 5,862,574 / 365.25 = 16,051 child deaths per day, 5,862,574 / (365.25 * 24) = 669 child deaths every hour, and 5,862,574 / (365.25 * 24 * 60) = 11.15  child deaths every minute.

  3. If we still suffered the poor health of our ancestors, more than 60 million children would die every year. How many children died at the time? We don’t know because data on the number of global births at the time is not available. For the 1950s and 1960s, we have estimates of both the number of births and the mortality rate, and the records show that around 20 million children died every year. See the data shown here.

    There was some variation over time and some differences between different locations. But as the linked article shows, the mortality rate was surprisingly similar in very different cultures. Whether in Ancient Rome, in hunter-gatherer-societies, in the pre-Columbian Americas, in Medieval Japan or Medieval England, in the European Renaissance, or in Imperial China, every second child died.

  4. See the world map on the mortality of under-15-year-olds.

  5. See the data reported in Mortality in the past – around half died as children.

  6. The child mortality rate in the EU — 0.47% — was calculated as the weighted average of the youth mortality rate of the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden. The data is also for 2021 and also from the same source (UN-IGME). The weights are assigned based on the number of children under the age of 15.

    If we look at single countries, this difference becomes even more striking as in the countries with the best health, the child mortality rate is again almost twice as low as in the EU as a whole.

    The countries with the lowest mortality rates today include San Marino, Norway, Japan, Finland, Singapore, Iceland, and Slovenia, where 99.7% of all children survive. This chart shows the ranking. However, because several of these countries are small, I did not base this text on the data from any single country but on a large world region where millions of children are born every year.

  7. The global number of child deaths, as reported above, is 5,862,574.

    5,862,574 – 5,862,574 / (4.4 / 0.47) = 5,236,345 fewer children would die if the global mortality rate were 0.47% rather than 4.4%. The number of children who would die if the global mortality rate was 0.47% would be 5,862,574-5,236,345=626,229

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Our articles and data visualizations rely on work from many different people and organizations. When citing this article, please also cite the underlying data sources. This article can be cited as:

Max Roser (2022) - “The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better.” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/much-better-awful-can-be-better' [Online Resource]

BibTeX citation

@article{owid-much-better-awful-can-be-better,
    author = {Max Roser},
    title = {The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better.},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2022},
    note = {https://ourworldindata.org/much-better-awful-can-be-better}
}
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