Believe it or not, this is the best time to be alive

Though fixated on threats, humans have never been better off, writes Scott Gilmore

Tim Graham/Getty Images

Tim Graham/Getty Images

By almost every objective measure, 2014 was the safest, healthiest, happiest year in human history. But you probably refuse to believe that, don’t you? And that is actually a problem.

First, the world has never been more peaceful. The number of wars has continued to decline sharply since the Second World War, and the number of civil wars has dropped by 40 per cent since 1990. These conflicts are becoming less lethal, too. In the 1950s, the average civil war would kill 86,000 people. Today, it is only 3,000. Expand the time frame and things look even better. In the Middle Ages, 15 per cent of people would die violently in some form of warfare. Now, even if we take into account war-related diseases or famine, it is still less than one per cent. What about the threat of nuclear war? Good news there, too. The number of global warheads is down from 70,000 in 1986 to 24,000 now.

There has never been less poverty. In Canada the number of people living on low incomes has never been smaller. Globally, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day dropped from 52 per cent to 21 per cent over the last 30 years. During a similar time frame, hunger has dropped by 40 per cent. There are 78 million fewer child labourers than there were just 14 years ago, a reduction of one-third.

Our societies have never been healthier. The number of democracies has blossomed, from only 11 in 1900, to over 80 today. There are fewer autocracies. In 1976 there were over 80. Only 22 remain. Crime is down. In the 1970s, for example, 50 out of 1,000 Americans were victims of violent crime. Now it is less than 15. In Canada, crime rates are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years. Other social indicators, like global literacy rates? Never better. In the last 40 years the number of people who can read has climbed from 57 per cent to 84 per cent.

What about our own health? In the Middle Ages, ironically, very few people actually lived to middle age. Now, the global average is 70 years and climbing, while in North America it has already reached 80. Child mortality has fallen by half since 1990. Malnourished children? Dropped by 25 per cent in the last decade. Similarly, the maternal mortality rate was cut in half since 1990. Malaria? Down. Teen pregnancy? Down. Smoking? Down.

For virtually every indicator, it’s the same thing: Good news. The numbers are almost tediously positive. This is a Golden Age. For you, your family, everyone you know, and everyone else around the planet, there has never been a better time to be alive.

But it does not feel that way, does it? Your mind is likely filled with thoughts of recent terrorist attacks, racial tensions and economic crises. Unfortunately, we are trapped in this pessimistic quagmire by both our brains and our smartphones. In evolutionary terms, we have only just climbed out of the trees, and our bodies are still wired to survive in the wild. As Dan Gardner, the author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, has eloquently written, our natural fight-or-flight instincts persist. When we were foraging on the savannah, the sight of one of our own being eaten by a lion scorched a lesson into our brain: fear lions. Now, the TV images of terrorist attacks on the other side of the ocean produce the same reaction. Our minds cannot help themselves. Stories and images influence us far more than numbers.

Which brings us to the second problem: information technology. Humans have never been exposed to as many of these stories and images as we are now. From the moment we wake up, a flood of radio reports, newspaper columns, TV dramas, Twitter links and Buzzfeed lists wash over us. Once, you needed to personally watch someone in your clan teach you a lesson about not petting lions. Now, there are 496,000 YouTube videos of lion attacks viewable from the phone in your pocket. It is no wonder we remain nervous wrecks.

This creates a perverse dilemma, which may actually lead to our own demise as a species. When we fixate on visceral but unlikely threats like terrorism or child abductions, we ignore the intangible but genuinely dangerous risks such as climate change. Sadly, our political class has discovered this bug in our code, and happily exploits it. Cynically they know the minuscule threat of Ebola carriers is more important to you than the inevitable threat of climate change.

So, for 2015, take a deep breath. Appreciate that these are best of times, but acknowledge that unless we overcome our evolutionary handicaps the worst of times are coming. Then call your MP and tell him to do the same.

Editor’s note, Feb. 10: We’ve updated this story with a correction on literacy rates in Canada — now 84 per cent. 

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Believe it or not, this is the best time to be alive

  1. Great article and great reminder!

    And it’s not just the political class that has figured out this bug in our software. Advertisers (every home alarm company that ever existed) and religions (particularly Christianity’s insistence on our depravity).

    From Stephen Harper’s “steady hand at the helm in a time of great uncertainty” to AlarmForce’s “be able to see who is at your door even when you’re not home” to Christianity’s “total depravity and fires of hell,” everybody is selling the one and only true thing that will save us from the one great threat we should fear above all else.

  2. Scot Gilmore may have the Canadian low income picture upside down. He says that “In Canada the number of people living on low incomes has never been smaller.” and he quotes from a Globe and Mail article to support his statement. Unfortunately the data in that article is for 2012 and before. There is no data for 2013 or 2014. So he has no basis whatever for claiming anything about current low income rates in Canada. To make matters worse as the Globe and Mail article also indicates there is actually no strict comparison between the data from 2012 and earlier years because the survey instrument has been changed. The article says,

    “Nearly five million Canadians were considered low income in 2012. That equates to 13.8 per cent of the country’s population, or 4.7 million people to be exact. (While not comparable, the 2011 SLID showed three million Canadians, or 8.8 per cent of the population – based on the low-income cut-off measure – were low income in that year.”

    So if one were to compare the years 2012 to 2011 we would have to say there are substantially MORE low income people in Canada in 2012 than in 2011 (4.7 million versus 3.0 million). But, of course, we should NOT compare these data as the surveys are different. Scott Gilmore is wagging his finger at Maclean’s readers for making superficial judgements based on superficial analysis of data and telling us that we are living in the best of times. It is a nice, but profoundly superficial, sentiment.

    Do I hear music wafting in from the deck chair section of the Titanic?

    • The Globe and Mail reference may not include the data you’re looking for, but it’s not too hard to find: http://www4.hrsdc.gc.ca/.3ndic.1t.4r@-eng.jsp?iid=23#M_1

      According to the previous methodology, 2011 low income rates were at their lowest since 1976. As the Globe article states, the change in measurement for 2012 makes the direct comparison difficult.

      Not having data for 2013 or 2014 is hardly a damning criticism of the article – this sort of information often not available for a year or two. But even if the lack of immediately recent data were significant, low income rates in Canada are just one of many examples cited to support the article’s thesis. You’re suggestion that a possible rise in low income rates in Canada over the past three years somehow equates to the sinking of the Titanic is yet another excellent example of the author’s point.

  3. So what you’re saying is that things are better in the present when rated by the criteria of the present… not a shocking statement. However, judging the past by present standards of what makes life good, etc., is bad historical methodology, and also doesn’t account for the diversity of histories (i.e. varying amongst individuals, cultures, geographic regions, etc.).

    For instance, I imagine that there are lots of Tibetans who would prefer a pre-1950 Tibet to what they have now (and some who wouldn’t), and the same goes for Tamils in Sri Lanka, Palestinians, Syrians, etc. It’s pretty easy to sit here in Canada and judge the world based on our present values and at a scale of abstraction that hides the different situations people have lived in and continue to live in at present.

    TL;DR: Buck up Syrians, it’s better overall than ever. You’d know that if you lived in Canada.

  4. It is indeed the best time in history….thus far….to be alive.

    Onward and upward, as they say.

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