It is easy to lose perspective when you feel inundated by a torrent of daily, discouraging news reports. With a loss of perspective can come an erosion of hope and vision, which presents a danger to all enterprise. “Where there is no vison, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) This article is about some truly positive and remarkable developments which may have escaped your notice. If it does not translate into immediate, actionable plans, it may provide a renewal of energy and commitment and sense of meaning to your enterprise, with untold productive consequences.
The facts and statistics cited here are from the book Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting by Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy. Despite the breezy title, this book comes with substantial footnotes and references to support its claims. What an eye-opener!
The overall message is that free markets, rule of law, freedom of opportunity, democracy, and education, together with science and technology have in the past couple of hundred years produced levels of human flourishing that were unimaginable throughout most of human history. And the trends continue. Concerns about the natural environment and global warming are not neglected, and the book discusses significant positive trends there as well.
SUMMARY OF TOP TEN TRENDS
1 & 2) The first two trends can be combined, “The Great Enrichment” and “The End of Poverty.” During most of history, the great majority of humans have lived in subsistence conditions. Over the past 200 years, the world’s population has grown close to eightfold. In that same time frame, however, the world’s economy has grown more than a hundredfold. Under current projections, the global economy will grow another six to tenfold from its current level by 2100. As late as 1820, almost 84% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, defined as each person living on less than $1.90 per day. By 2019, about 8.6% lived in extreme poverty. This number is expected to decline to less than 5% by 2030. The U.N set a goal of zero per cent by that year, which is doable.
3) “Are we running out of resources?” or necessary commodities as predicted by Paul Ehrlich in the 1980s? The answer is clearly no. In fact, they have become not only more abundant over time, but also cheaper relative to the amount of work a consumer must perform to obtain them. As the authors state, “the totality of our resources is neither known nor fixed.”
4) “Peak Population” provides another answer to Ehrlich’s worry of population outgrowing available necessities. Projections are that world population will peak at about 9.8 billion by 2080 and then fall to 9.5 by 2100. Numerous other trends correlate strongly with families choosing to have fewer children: falling child mortality rates; rising incomes; and economic and political freedom in an increasingly urbanized population.
5) “The End of Famine” indicates another benefit of enrichment and poverty’s end. Many Americans know of the Great Potato Famine in 1840s Ireland. At least a million Irish died of starvation, and another two million emigrated to the U.S. and elsewhere. Food scarcity has been a common part of the human condition throughout all recorded history. Today famine has all but disappeared except in war zones. This is due to innovation and entrepreneurial activities: improved agricultural productivity; scientific methods of farming; access to plentiful and improved fertilizers and pesticides, and the high yield plants of the “green revolution,” together with better transportation. (Did you know that the greatest famine of all time claimed 45 [forty-five] million lives?! It occurred between 1958 and 1962 in China when Mao Zedong forcibly nationalized the country’s farmland.)
6) “More Land for Nature” indicates one way in which human flourishing is compatible with environmental protection and enhancement. Global tree “canopy” increased between 1982 and 2016 by an area equivalent to the states of Alaska and Montana combined! Warming climate has increased mountain growth at higher altitudes. Renewed forests not only act as a significant “carbon sink” for fossil fuel emissions but also make up for much of the loss of forests in the tropics, such as Brazil. This human “retreat from nature” is due to increased agricultural productivity and efficiency. Less land is needed, though more food is produced.
7) “Planet City” denotes the increasing percentage of the world’s population living in cities, from 28% in 1950 to 55% in 2018. Cities are centers of innovation, education, and research. Moreover, “On average, city dwellers use less electricity, emit less carbon dioxide, and have smaller land footprints than people living in the countryside.”
8) “Democracy on the March” may seem out of date, with recent events in Venezuela, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong. Again, the broader, longer-term perspective is needed. With the defeat of Fascism and Soviet Communism in the last century, the number of democracies has doubled since the 1920s. Using a scale of -10, denoting tyranny, e.g., North Korea, to +10, denoting a free society, e.g., Norway, the percentage of countries that scored 7 or above, thus denoting true democracies, rose from 31% in 1989 to 49% in 2017. In the same period, the percentage of countries scoring -7 or below declined from 39% to 11%.
9) “The Long Peace” looks like an odd title when armed violence across the world is constantly broadcast on TV. Yet when was the last major war you can recall between nations? They have become far fewer than in the previous two and one-half millennia of history, and when they do occur, far fewer casualties result. This trend began after WWII, even as decolonization increased the number of countries in the world, along with the potential for international friction. Why the decrease? Countries that are democratic, wealthy, and economically interrelated tend not to war with one another. Other factors also play a part which the authors do not discuss, such as nuclear weapons, the U.S. military presence in Europe and Asia, and the role of the U.S. Navy in keeping open the world’s sea lanes. The Rand Corporation expects the decrease in international war to continue at least through 2040.
10) “A Safer World” refers to reductions in loss of life from acts of nature, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and epidemics. The chances of a person dying in a natural disaster have declined 99% since the 1920s and 1930s, mostly through technological progress made possible by greater wealth. Unfortunately, bad weather and earthquakes still produce massive deaths when combined with poverty. This accounts for the 230,000 deaths from a tsunami in 2004 in the Indian Ocean and the 225,000 deaths in the Haitian earthquake of 2010. By contrast, when Queensland, Australia experienced a Category 5 cyclone in 2010, fatalities were zero. (Measures of significant progress can also be made regarding Covid death rates, compared to those of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, though this is not addressed in the book published in 2020.)
If the above is not enough to instill a sense of hope and of possibility for greater accomplishments, there are 68 additional positive trends discussed in the book. This is a brief sample, in only headline form:
- Costs of Adopting New Technologies Are Declining.
- Racist Attitudes are Declining.
- Global Income Inequality is Falling.
- Women are More Empowered.
- Global Literacy Rates are in the 90 per cent ranges.
- More Countries Are Decriminalizing LGBTQ.
- Life Expectancy is Rising.
- Carbon Emissions per Dollar of GDP Are Falling Dramatically.
- Air Pollution is Falling Steeply.
- Water is Used More Efficiently.
- Cancer Incidence and Death Rates Are at 26-year Low.
You may ask yourself, “how can I have missed all this?” One answer is that 24-hour bad news sells. Digging below the sensationalist headlines and gloomy “click-bait” into the facts, analysis, and statistics, gives a more accurate picture. Acknowledging the remarkable progress of the past 200 years creates motivation to continue.
As businesspeople, we create wealth, jobs, new technology, services, products, and solutions to apparently intractable problems. These are noble activities, and the opportunities are worth preserving. Everyday each of us has a small or large say in whether the progress continues, stagnates, or is lost. None of this came about automatically, and none of it can be taken for granted.