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 any positive development.
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 that are real today.
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.
To illustrate what I mean, I will use the example of one of humanity’s biggest tragedies: the death of its children. But the same is true for many of the world’s other 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
Globally 4.3% of children die before they are 15 years old. This is the data for 2020, the latest available year.
This means that 5.9 million children die every year – 16,000 children on any average day, and 11 children every minute.2
Clearly, a world where thousands of tragedies happen every single day is awful.
History’s big lesson is that things change. But it is hard to imagine how dire living conditions once were and that makes it difficult to grasp just how much the world has changed.
Data can help to bring the scale change to mind. Historians estimate that in the past around half of all children died before they reached the end of puberty. This was true no matter where in the world a child was born and it only started to change in the 19th century, just a few generations ago.3
It’s hard to imagine, but child mortality in the very worst-off places today is much better than anywhere in the past. Even in the world’s richest countries the mortality of children was much higher very recently. In Somalia, 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.
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.
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 is already a reality.
The world region where children have the best chance of surviving childhood is the European Union. 99.55% of all children born in the EU survive childhood.6
To see how much better the world can be, we can ask what the world would look like if this became the reality everywhere. What if children around the world would be as well off as children in the EU? Five million fewer children would die every year.7
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 contribute to this progress 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, offering you the opportunity to contribute to the progress against child mortality.
Research on how to prevent child deaths and the fact that child mortality in entire world regions is 10-fold lower than the global average show what is possible. Millions of child deaths are preventable. We know that it is possible to make the world a better place.
The news often focuses on how awful the world is. There is a large audience for bad news and it is easier to scare people than to encourage them to achieve positive change.
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 how awful our situation is.
To see that the world has become a better place does not mean to deny that we are facing very serious problems. To the contrary, if we had achieved the best of all possible worlds I wouldn’t spend my life 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.
I wish we could change our culture so that we take this possibility of progress more seriously. This is a solvable problem: we have the data and the research, but we are currently not using it. The data is often stored in inaccessible databases, the research locked away behind paywalls and buried under jargon in academic papers. With Our World in Data we want 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.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Hannah Ritchie and Toby Ord for their feedback.
Continue reading on Our World in Data:
What can you do to make the world a better place? There are many things you can do. One opportunity that I mentioned in the post is to donate some of your money to an effective charity. For this I recommended to rely on the research of the team at GiveWell.org. As you’ll see on their site, the research is written up in a transparent way, it is continuously updated, and it gives clear recommendations which global health charities to support.
In recent years an increasing number of people have also signed the giving pledge of GivingWhatWeCan.org. Signing this pledge means that their members donate 10% of their income to the most cost-effective charities.
And if you are interested in this question more broadly you might be interested in a social movement called ‘effective altruism’. Effective altruists ask themselves what they can do to help others in the most substantial ways, and then they go and do that. See EffectiveAltruism.org.