Next year marks a millennium since the sermon given in 1014 by Archbishop Wulfstan in York where he declared that “the world is in a rush and is getting close to its end.” Ever since, people (especially clergy) have had a similar story to tell: the world is moving too fast, people are too selfish and things are going to the dogs. The truth is that the world is in a better shape now than any time in history – a claim which may sound bizarre, but it’s borne out by the facts.
I was on LBC radio earlier, discussing the leading article in the Spectator Christmas special which explained why 2013 was the best year in human history. Never has the world been wealthier, never has the growth been more fairly distributed. Never has there been more of us but never has there been less hunger. People now talk about the ‘end of Aids’. Progress against one of the biggest killers, Malaria, was slow ten years ago. Now it’s rapid, as the below graph shows:-
Countries who grow richer can afford malaria nets and places like Cambodia believe they’re three years away from extinguishing Malaria deaths. The UN believes Africa could be just 12 years away from the end of famine.
When Louis Armstrong sang ‘Wonderful World’ more than 80 per cent of China lived below the poverty line. Now it’s just 10 per cent. China’s embrace of trade – and, yes, global capitalism – has seen lead the fastest progress against poverty that mankind has ever witnessed. We’re living in a golden age.
The LBC interviewer joked that I’d have my journalistic credentials stripped from me: isn’t journalism about telling folk how bad things are going?
It’s a very good point. Good news seldom makes good copy, and not because of a wicked conspiracy by the press. The positive stuff is less likely to be read, or to sell newspapers. This is due to human nature: as a species we’re more interested in what’s going wrong than going right. If you’re down the pub and see a friend and you say your neighbor has just ditched her husband after a massive bust-up etc – people will listen. Say your neighbour’s had a good 2013 and expects a better 2014 and no one would care. The same is true in journalism – which creates a heavy bias in the media towards what’s going wrong.
Judging a country, or the world, by newspapers is like judging a city by spending a night in its A&E ward. But it’s not just journalists: aid agencies have a interest in projecting a picture of Africa as one big famine zone; Western governments seeking Brownie points from large aid budgets also like to portray the third world as a place that is entirely dependent on the largesse of virtuous politicians in rich countries. Right now, for example, there’s an appeal on for the victims of the Syrian civil war – who are all too real. But it’s the exception. We’re actually living in the most peaceful age in modern history as Steven Pinker outlined recently. Here’s some of his evidence:-
Ah, you may say, war’s one thing. But what about that climate chaos? Aren’t we seeing a new era of floods, storms and other extreme weather events inflicting a massive death toll? Quite the reverse. The storms still come, of course, but a richer world is better-prepared for them. The graph below, from Indur Goklany’s 2008 study (pdf) shows how flood defences, stronger houses etc, mean deaths from weather are down by an astonishing 93pc since the 1920s. The developing world is never been better able to confront the fury of nature.
We tend not to hear about all this because journalists, like politicians, are in the business of identifying and drawing attention to problems. And rightly: it’s human nature to be never satisfied, to always raise the definition of success, to always strive for something better. For as long as food banks remain needed, for as long as people are sleeping rough in Britain and hungry in Asia, for as long as anyone dies of a preventable disease like Malaria then there’s still plenty to be outraged about.
But what is going wrong with the world is vastly outweighed by what is going right. And the run of depressing news stories can actually blind us to the greatest story of our age: we really are on our way to making poverty history. Thanks to the way millions of people trade with each other, via a system known by its detractors as global capitalism.
It’s a story that no one organisation or government can take credit for – and a story that doesn’t particularly suit anyone’s agenda. But the story is there, for those with an eye to see it.
PS And for anyone interested in this general idea, I can heartily recommend two things. One is a subscription to the Spectator (we’re extending our Christmas deal, our best-ever offer). The other is a short book that explained it all to me – and changed my mind about a lot of things (and one I still give as a present to friends) : In Defence of Global Capitalism by Johan Norberg.Tags: Archbishop Wulfstan, Global Capitalism, Johan Norberg, Optimism, Steven Pinker, What a wonderful world, Wonderful World