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

Why have we made it our mission to publish “research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems”?

Why have we made it our mission to publish “research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems”?

At the heart of it is a simple truth. When we look around us, it is clear that the world faces many very large problems:

This is a list of terrifying problems. And as we don’t hear much that would tell us otherwise, it is easy to be convinced that we can’t do anything about them. Even in the extensive 24/7 news cycles, we hear little that suggests it would be possible to make progress against these problems. The same is true for our education — questions like how to end hunger, child mortality, or deforestation are rarely part of the curriculum.

As a consequence, it is not surprising that many have the view that it is impossible to change the world for the better. For many large problems, the majority, in fact, believe that they are getting worse.1

This, however, is not the case. We know that it is possible to make progress against these large problems because we have already done so. Thanks to the efforts of people around the world, we have achieved progress against these problems over the course of the last generation. Each of the big problems listed above was much worse in the past:

Because our hopes and efforts for building a better future are inextricably linked to our understanding of the past, it is important to study and communicate the global development up to now. Studying our world in data and understanding how we overcame challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time should give us both confidence and guidance to tackle the problems we are currently facing. Living conditions can be improved, we know this because it has been done.

For each of the problems we face today, we need to also address the difficult question of whether and how we can make progress in the years ahead.

Let’s look at one of the very worst global problems of all from that list above, the death of children. One of the leading causes of death for children is malaria. Malaria infections kill 300,000 children in one year.2

People who study malaria see several reasons that make it very likely that continued progress against this disease is possible. The factors that are holding us back in the fight against malaria are the three factors that often limit our progress:

What is true about malaria is true about many of the problems the world faces. Making progress is hard, but it is possible.

The progress made over the last two centuries has not ended in our lifetimes. There are possibilities to make the world a better place. It is on us to realize this.

The possibility of progress should matter for what we do with our lives

It is possible to lessen substantial problems that many people are suffering under, it is possible to foresee problems that are on the horizon and reduce these risks, and it is possible to achieve changes that allow the environment around us to flourish.

This fact – that progress is not inevitable but possible – should matter for all of us.

Personally, I believe that if we are in a situation in which it is possible to make progress, then we are obliged to seek progress. But even if you do not see it as an obligation, you can also see it as an opportunity, a chance to help others, and the possibility to do useful work in your life.

Whether we see it as an obligation or as an opportunity, we should ask ourselves what we can do with our money, our contributions to public discourse, our democratic votes, and our lives to help the world make progress.

How does Our World in Data’s mission respond to this?

Our World in Data publishes research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems.

We made this our mission for two reasons. We want to provide the research and data that those working towards progress need – we want to serve that community.

And we want more people to learn about big problems and to make the decision that they use their energy and resources to contribute to progress – we want to grow that community.

Serve those who work towards progress by providing research and data on the world’s largest problems

There are already many thousands of people who dedicate their lives to finding solutions to the world’s very large problems.

We know that many of them rely on us: engineers who build safer energy systems, activists who campaign for better health care, scientists who develop new drugs, politicians who want to learn from other countries, teachers who want to inform their students about global poverty, business founders who bring new technologies to the market, and nonprofits that need to decide where to focus their efforts.

Our audience is not defined by who they are but by what they care about and want to do. The people we want to serve are those who work towards progress against large problems.

They all need data and research to understand the problems they are working on – and to decide which problems to work on in the first place. They might want to know which diseases are most prevalent in different parts of the world, how the mix of energy sources compares across countries, or how global access to clean cooking fuels or clean water has changed over time.

We can serve these people well because much of the information they need already exists. The problem that we have to solve here is that this existing knowledge is often neither accessible nor understandable – it is often stored in inaccessible databases, locked away behind paywalls, and buried under jargon in academic papers. Our goal is to enable those who want to solve large problems to do their best work by increasing the use of evidence and making the existing knowledge on the big problems understandable and accessible.

Grow the number of people who work towards progress by challenging a culture that doesn’t make it clear that progress is possible

Our second goal is to grow the number of people who decide to contribute to progress against the largest problems.

There are already many people who dedicate much of their time to studying big global problems and making it central to their lives to seek ways to solve them. But we believe that it is possible to grow this group further and make it a very powerful force within the global culture because most people are concerned about the world’s problems and would want to contribute to a better future.

The problem, however, is that being concerned about big problems is only one precondition for someone to work towards progress. The other key requirement is that a person knows that progress is possible.3

The graphic here is a representation of our argument.

The big orange circle represents the many people concerned about big problems. The blue circle represents the much smaller group of people who know that progress is possible. The idea is that it is those who are part of both groups who will make the decision to work towards progress. We therefore want to grow the blue circle so that one day it becomes as large as the orange one.

The historian Anton Howes studies the history of innovation and writes, "People innovate because they are inspired to do so […]. And when people do not innovate, it is often simply because it never occurs to them to do so. Incentives matter too, of course. But a person needs to at least have the idea of innovation — an improving mentality — before they can choose to innovate." To make progress, we need to have the idea that progress is possible.

It is crucial to grow the number of people who know that progress is possible because almost all the world’s most pressing problems are collective action problems. These are problems that can’t be solved by anyone individually and instead require that many take them seriously and join forces to work towards a solution. When we fail to find solutions to such problems, it is because we don’t get started in the first place, and this is the situation we are in with many large problems. Instead of changing the world for the better, we get stuck in what the social scientist Alice Evans calls a ‘despondency trap’ – not knowing about positive change, we mistakenly think that positive change is impossible.

The fact that many believe that progress is impossible should not be too surprising. The powerful forces in our culture are not offering the perspective that progress is possible or even happening. Instead, they are often suggesting that decline is inevitable.

The news media is neither drawing our attention to the large problems we face nor to the fact that we are making progress against some of them. The news media focuses on daily events, but neither the big persistent problems (such as those listed above) nor the progress against them find a place in news cycles.

Our education systems are also not making us wonder how we can make progress, we are hardly even learning about the progress we made. Few leave school knowing about even the most fundamental achievements in how humanity improved their living conditions. The poor knowledge of the basic facts on global development is evidence for it.

Popular culture, too, is often detrimental. Frequently, it romanticizes a past that never was, and when it speaks about tomorrow, it paints a dystopian vision of the future rather than daring to imagine the better future that is possible.

Sometimes even researchers or activists reinforce the belief that progress is impossible. In their effort to emphasize the severity of the problems they themselves are concerned with, it can happen that they unwittingly present it as hopeless to change the status quo. In the worst cases, this achieves the opposite of what they want, passive fatalism rather than effective engagement.

And lastly some intellectuals perpetuate the idea that to believe that progress is possible is a sign of being poorly informed about the true state of the world. The difficulty of some of the world’s problems does warrant some deep pessimism, but not every problem we face justifies a pessimistic outlook, and doom and gloom should never become anyone’s intellectual default position. Sometimes the optimist is the realist, and it is the unjustified pessimism itself that is standing in the way of making progress.

Our team’s goal is to change this. By making the research and data on the world around us accessible and understandable, we want to offer a perspective that allows us to understand the difficulty of the problems ahead and their possible solutions.

We at Our World in Data believe that it is possible to grow a culture of people seeking solutions to large problems. Within each of the cultural forces I’ve just listed, some people are working towards change. There are researchers, activists, intellectuals, journalists, and teachers who are as keen on finding and communicating the solutions to move forward as they are on explaining the problems ahead. There is a strong culture of progress already, and we hope to expand it further.

The motivation for this work is what I have summarized at the outset: if it is possible to make progress, then we are obliged to make progress. It is not acceptable that much of the world lives in poverty, that children die, that people are hungry, that we are destroying the environment when it doesn’t have to be that way.

We are not saying that everything is getting better

To avoid any doubt, it is worth emphasizing what we are not saying.

We don’t believe that everything has gotten better. Some things have gotten much worse. Since the 1940s, we’ve had nuclear weapons that can destroy our civilization; burning fossil fuels leads to air pollution that kills millions every year; and the land use for agriculture continues to drive species into extinction.

And it is certainly possible that we remain stuck in the status quo or that things get worse; existential risks do not nearly receive the attention they deserve (Toby Ord’s book is an excellent overview of these risks).

Progress is not inevitable, and how the future turns out depends on what we do today. We are not saying we will make progress, but that we can make progress. Whether the problems we face are as old as humanity or were created by ourselves within the last decades, what matters for us now is the same. We should study these problems carefully because we can reduce our use of fossil fuels, we can give up on nuclear weapons, and we can work to bring down poverty, child mortality, and hunger.

These two goals belong together – we should study the world’s big problems because it is possible to make progress

A common mistake in thinking about problems and progress is to believe that focusing on one of the two would require not considering the other. That presenting the evidence for progress would mean to gloss over the problems we still have, or vice versa, that presenting the evidence on global problems would make it necessary to avoid mentioning the progress we’ve made.

For example, in an article in the New York Times in which he cites our work, Nick Kristof writes: “So I promise to tear my hair out every other day, but let’s interrupt our gloom for a nanosecond to note what historians may eventually see as the most important trend in the world in the early 21st century: our progress toward elimination of hideous diseases, illiteracy, and the most extreme poverty.”

I think this is not the right way of looking at it. Studying progress should not mean taking a break from the awful problems we face. These two sides belong together, it’s because we know that we can make progress that it is so important to study the problems we face.

To see this, consider the alternative. If it weren’t possible to make progress, then there would be little reason to study big problems. All we could care about was ensuring that each of us personally, and perhaps a few people close to us, were well and safe. It is the unusual time we live in – the fact that we face large problems against which we can make progress – that makes it imperative to focus on the problems we face.

We are interested in progress because we are not living in the best of all possible worlds.

Explaining progress and explaining problems belong together. We need to learn about the problems because we can make progress, and we need to learn about progress because we face large problems.


The question that guides our decisions for what we report on Our World in Data is simple: What do you need to know about our world to be able to contribute positively to the world?

Progress means solving problems. This makes it necessary that anyone who wants to contribute to solutions needs to study both:

If you care about problems, you need to study progress. The progress we achieved allows us to learn how we solved problems in the past and – most fundamentally – to know that progress is possible.

If you want to make progress, you need to study problems. Every problem we identify is an opportunity to make progress. To make the world a better place, the first step is to understand the problems we face today.

Our mission follows from this understanding. Our goal with is to give a wide overview of the big problems the world faces, show that it is possible to make progress against even very large problems and inspire people to work on these big problems to achieve the progress that is possible.

We want to contribute to a culture that seeks progress – a culture of people deciding to study the very large problems we face and taking the initiative to contribute to progress against them. We want to inform thoughtful people about the world’s large problems and the possibility of progress so that they can become the engineers, politicians, voters, donors, activists, founders, or researchers that will solve them.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Hannah Ritchie, Ernst van Woerden, Charlie Giattino, Matthieu Bergel, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina for reading drafts of this text and for their very helpful comments and ideas.

Our reader Tokio Nagaki kindly translated this text into Japanese: もし私たちが世界の大きな問題に関心があるならば、なぜ進歩について知る必要があるのでしょうか?

Continue reading on Our World in Data:

The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it


  1. Besides the linked article, see Gapminder’s Ignorance Survey and Ipsos’ Perils of Perception studies for survey data on people’s perception of global problems.

  2. The referenced data point refers to children under the age of 15 and comes from the WHO. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation’s large-scale annual study Global Burden of Disease (GBD) estimates an even higher death toll; at 400,000 child deaths due to malaria.

  3. A list of relevant studies from several different fields:

    Alice Evans (2020) – Overcoming the global despondency trap: strengthening corporate accountability in supply chains, In Review of International Political Economy, 27:3, 658-685, DOI: 10.1080/09692290.2019.1679220

    Rees, J. H., & Bamberg, S. (2014). Climate protection needs societal change: Determinants of intention to participate in collective climate action. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(5), 466–473. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2032

    Roser-Renouf, Connie, Maibach, E. W., Leiserowitz, A., Zhao, X. & Zhao (2014) – The genesis of climate change activism: From key beliefs to political action. In Climatic Change, 125(2), 163–178. doi:10.1007/s10584-014-1173-5

    Joel Mokyr (2011) – The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution, 1700-1850.

    Chan, M. (2016) – Psychological antecedents and motivational models of collective action: Examining the role of perceived effectiveness in political protest participation. Social Movement Studies, 15(3), 305–321. doi:10.1080/14742837.2015.1096192

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    author = {Max Roser},
    title = {Why do we need to know about progress if we are concerned about the world's largest problems?},
    journal = {Our World in Data},
    year = {2021},
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