Dallas Morning News: Is the world getting better?
Centre College professor Beau Weston operates an interesting blog, the Gruntled Center. He put up a post last week that draws from a lecture he recently gave at his Kentucky college. In the post and lecture, Weston, a Presbyterian, makes the argument that the world has gotten better.
He notes how violence is down in most "competent" nations, authoritarianism is in retreat worldwide, various forms of discrimination have diminished, food production is growing exponentially, air quality has improved, the population bomb has been a dud and transportation costs are cheaper. He lists a number of other indices, which you can read about on this link.
So, here is the question for the week:
Is the world getting better?
We certainly read a lot in, yes, newspapers about things going awry. Republican candidates making the case against Barack Obama offer ample examples of the world being a mess. And many a book has been sold about the next coming crisis.
But are we looking at all this the wrong way. Is it indeed the case that the world is getting better? ...
The article goes on to list the responses by several religious leaders. Weston looked at a wide range of social indicators. While we can quibble about precise definitions of better, it is without question that on balance the overwhelming majority of manifestations of what social scientists generally associate with well-being are getting better for more people.
Now because I have written on this topic several times, and I know how determined people are to hear me (and people like Weston) say what was not said, let me be clear. "Better" is not a synonym for perfect. "Better" is not a synonym for the consummated Kingdom of God. "Better" is an adjective that speaks to the condition of something being in a more desirable state relative to another state. On most of the key measures of human well-being, things are getting better.
The profound reluctance by so many people in theological institutions to acknowledge that the world is getting better on a host of measures never ceases to amaze me. If you read some of the responses, people counter the claim that we are living in a period of rapid decline in worldwide violence by pointing to events in Syria. Imagine if there were 100 house fires in your city last year and this year there year there were only ten. Would you say there has been an improvement in the rate of house fires? And what would you say to someone who pointed to a neighbor's house (one of the ten that burned) as evidence that there was no improvement in house fires?
One of the respondents was Cynthia Rigby at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She writes:
In the year 2000, the United Nations made a "Millenium Goal" of eradicating extreme global poverty by the year 2015. This goal will not be reached, nor will any significant strides have been made toward reaching it.
The goal was not eliminate poverty but to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015. From yesterday's New York Times: Dire Poverty Falls Despite Global Slump, Report Finds:
WASHINGTON — A World Bank report shows a broad reduction in extreme poverty — and indicates that the global recession, contrary to economists’ expectations, did not increase poverty in the developing world.
The report shows that for the first time the proportion of people living in extreme poverty — on less than $1.25 a day — fell in every developing region from 2005 to 2008. And the biggest recession since the Great Depression seems not to have thrown that trend off course, preliminary data from 2010 indicate.
The progress is so drastic that the world has met the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals to cut extreme poverty in half five years before its 2015 deadline.
“This is very good news,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the United Nations’ special adviser on the Millennium Development Goals. “There has been broad-based progress in fighting poverty, and accelerating progress. There’s a lot to be happy about.” ...
Food production may be growing, but there are more undernourished people living on the planet than there were fifteen years ago (the Food and Agricultural Association of the United Nations reports that there were 824 million undernourished people in 1996 and 925 million in 2010). This is the case even though (according to statistics provided by the Word Bank), the number of people in the world making less than $1.25 a day decreased from 1.94 billion to 1.29 billion from 2005-2008. The large number of natural disasters, in recent years, is one reason why there are more undernourished people even though there are fewer people who make less than $1.25 a day. There are roughly 100 million people, worldwide, who do not have homes (think: 12 times the population of New York City).
How should people of faith interpret these statistics?
Here is how this person of faith interprets those statistics. There were 5,766,435,620 people in 1996 and there were 6,840,423,256 in 2010. So lets do some math:
Percentage of the world population undernourished:
- 1996: 14.3% = 825 million / 5,766 million
- 2010: 13.5% = 925 million / 6,840 million
We have a modest improvement in the percentage of people that are undernourished. The growth in the absolute number of people who are undernourished is about to plateau and then begin to decline. In other words, the world is getting better! Responses like the ones in the newspaper article are indicative of the mindset in the Mainline theological establishment.
I routinely reflect on where this hyper-sensitivity to acknowledge improvement comes from. What I think I read between the lines is a fear that if improvement is acknowledged that this somehow is an invitation to stop pursuing an even better world. If I have a friend who is trying to lose 50 pounds and he tells be me that so far he has lost 35 pounds, then is acknowledging that his weight has gotten "better" a signal that he should stop trying? Can there can be no celebration until the fiftieth pound is lost? If anything, my friend will be motivated to press on. Celebration of milestones give us greater motivation just as those who are wrestling with human flourishing issues around the world get encouraged by improvement and want to see more of it, better and faster.
At any rate, Bill Clinton was right, "There is a lot of good news out there. We are going to have to learn to deal with it."
For some excellent resources I would recommend three interesting books:
Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of our World by Bradley Wright
For the single best video that illustrates what is happening in the world you need to see Hans Rosling’s four minute video below. The Diamandis video just come out and it is very helpful as well.