Now for the Good News

Mankind has never been healthier, wealthier or freer. Surprised?

Environmentalists and globalization foes are united in their fear that greater population and consumption of energy, materials, and chemicals accompanying economic growth, technological change and free trade—the mainstays of globalization—degrade human and environmental well-being.

Indeed, the 20th century saw the United States’ population multiply by four, income by seven, carbon dioxide emissions by nine, use of materials by 27, and use of chemicals by more than 100.

Yet life expectancy increased from 47 years to 77 years. Onset of major disease such as cancer, heart, and respiratory disease has been postponed between eight and eleven years in the past century. Heart disease and cancer rates have been in rapid decline over the last two decades, and total cancer deaths have actually declined the last two years, despite increases in population. Among the very young, infant mortality has declined from 100 deaths per 1,000 births in 1913 to just seven per 1,000 today.

These improvements haven’t been restricted to the United States. It’s a global phenomenon. Worldwide, life expectancy has more than doubled, from 31 years in 1900 to 67 years today. India’s and China’s infant mortalities exceeded 190 per 1,000 births in the early 1950s; today they are 62 and 26, respectively. In the developing world, the proportion of the population suffering from chronic hunger declined from 37 percent to 17 percent between 1970 and 2001 despite a 83 percent increase in population. Globally average annual incomes in real dollars have tripled since 1950. Consequently, the proportion of the planet's developing-world population living in absolute poverty has halved since 1981, from 40 percent to 20 percent. Child labor in low income countries declined from 30 percent to 18 percent between 1960 and 2003.

Equally important, the world is more literate and better educated than ever. People are freer politically, economically, and socially to pursue their well-being as they see fit. More people choose their own rulers, and have freedom of expression. They are more likely to live under rule of law, and less likely to be arbitrarily deprived of life, limb, and property.

Social and professional mobility have also never been greater. It’s easier than ever for people across the world to transcend the bonds of caste, place, gender, and other accidents of birth. People today work fewer hours and have more money and better health to enjoy their leisure time than their ancestors.

Man’s environmental record is more complex. The early stages of development can indeed cause some environmental deterioration as societies pursue first-order problems affecting human well-being. These include hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, and lack of education, basic public health services, safe water, sanitation, mobility, and ready sources of energy.

Because greater wealth alleviates these problems while providing basic creature comforts, individuals and societies initially focus on economic development, often neglecting other aspects of environmental quality. In time, however, they recognize that environmental deterioration reduces their quality of life. Accordingly, they put more of their recently acquired wealth and human capital into developing and implementing cleaner technologies. This brings about an environmental transition via the twin forces of economic development and technological progress, which begin to provide solutions to environmental problems instead of creating those problems.

All of which is why we today find that the richest countries are also the cleanest. And while many developing countries have yet to get past the “green ceiling,” they are nevertheless ahead of where today’s developed countries used to be when they were equally wealthy. The point of transition from "industrial period" to "environmental conscious" continues to fall. For example, the US introduced unleaded gasoline only after its GDP per capita exceeded $16,000. India and China did the same before they reached $3,000 per capita.

This progress is a testament to the power of globalization and the transfer of ideas and knowledge (that lead is harmful, for example). It's also testament to the importance of trade in transferring technology from developed to developing countries—in this case, the technology needed to remove lead from gasoline.

This hints at the answer to the question of why some parts of the world have been left behind while the rest of the world has thrived. Why have improvements in well-being stalled in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world?

The proximate cause of improvements in well-being is a “cycle of progress” composed of the mutually reinforcing forces of economic development and technological progress. But that cycle itself is propelled by a web of essential institutions, particularly property rights, free markets, and rule of law. Other important institutions would include science- and technology-based problem-solving founded on skepticism and experimentation; receptiveness to new technologies and ideas; and freer trade in goods, services—most importantly in knowledge and ideas.

In short, free and open societies prosper. Isolation, intolerance, and hostility to the free exchange of knowledge, technology, people, and goods breed stagnation or regression.

Despite all of this progress and good news, then, there is still much unfinished business. Millions of people die from hunger, malnutrition, and preventable disease such as malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. Over a billion people still live in absolute poverty, defined as less than a dollar per day. A third of the world’s eligible population is still not enrolled in secondary school. Barriers to globalization, economic development, and technological change—such as the use of DDT to eradicate malaria, genetic engineering, and biotechnology—are a big source of the problem.

Moreover, the global population will grow 50 percent to 100 percent this century, and per capita consumption of energy and materials will likely increase with wealth. Merely preserving the status quo is not enough. We need to protect the important sustaining institutions responsible for all of this progress in the developed world, and we need to foster and nurture them in countries that are still developing.

Man’s remarkable progress over the last 100 years is unprecedented in human history. It’s also one of the more neglected big-picture stories. Ensuring that our incredible progress continues will require not only recognizing and appreciating the progress itself, but also recognizing and preserving the important ideas and institutions that caused it, and ensuring that they endure.

Indur M. Goklany is the author of The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet (Cato Institute, Washington, DC, 2007)

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