Humans have a glass-half-empty problem.
Photo via Flickr
Human beings have a glass-half-empty problem. We spend a lot of time and energy lamenting all the problems in the world—which granted are plentiful and worth considering—because, for whatever reason, it's more fun to freak out about the future than look appreciatively back through history at the steady progress humanity has made. In fact, good on you for having even clicked on this relatively uplifting headline.
I'll take my share of the blame: The gap between public perception and actual facts is no doubt exacerbated by the news media—partly because fear sells and partly because it makes zero sense to report on every person that wasn't murdered today, or on every time someone dutifully recycles.
To that end, the Cato Institute has launched a website called humanprogress.org, to highlight all the good stuff that gets lost in the chaos as we fret about our dystopian present and the looming apocalypse.
Cato, a public policy think tank, compiled information from academia and global organizations that shows dramatic social improvements through history, particularly in recent decades and in developing nations. The whole introductory article is worth a read, especially if you're a history buff and/or enjoyed Steven Johnson's book on this very subject, Future Perfect.
But let's leave aside what life was like for Neanderthals rubbing sticks together to stay warm, or medieval peasants during the bubonic plague, or wounded soldiers for whom amputation meant a knife and a slug of whiskey. Most of the site's data focuses on well-being and socioeconomics in modern-day society—throughout the 20th century and the past decade. The overall rate of social progress over time, the group explains, can be compared to the shape of a hockey stick: slow and steady, and then skyrocketing up.
The site uses charts and interactive data visualizations to depict changes across various areas of life: health, wealth, happiness, education, environment, human development, and so on. I went through and pulled out some examples. Hopefully they'll make you feel a little less depressed about the world.
Fewer people are dying:
People are working fewer hours:
The gender wage gap is shrinking:
And more girls get to go to school:
What gives, New Zealand?
People are killing each other less:
Global poverty is on the decline:
People are better educated:
I'm sure for every one of these encouraging charts you could find an equally discouraging depiction of the state of humanity. Statistics are fickle, social issues are nuanced, and the website's still a bit jenky. But the goal is a sensible one: Conversations about the future should be smart, and rooted as much as possible in facts and not exaggeration, or else any progress going forward will move much more slowly.