Worldwide, the media believes that bad news sells better than the good. The belief is so ingrained in our heads that it will take an extraordinarily brave editor to go against the flow, but the truth is that things are getting better all the time
According to the World Poverty Clock, about 70 people on earth escape extreme poverty every minute (extreme poverty defined as living on less than $1.9 per day, on purchasing power parity basis). We should be reducing extreme poverty at a faster rate (about 100 people per minute) to attain the United Nations’ ambitious Sustainable Development Goal target of eradicating it altogether by 2030, but even then, this is certainly a statistic that will make anyone happy.
The truth is that the world has been becoming a better and better place over the years, but you would never know if you read the papers.
Recently, on his blog, Bill Gates asked Oxford University economist Max Roser to share three facts he feels the world should know. These were the three numbers Roser chose:
- Since 1960, child deaths (children below the age of five) have plummeted from 20 million a year to 5.6 million a year.
- Since 1960, the fertility rate has fallen by half.
- 137,000 people escaped extreme poverty every day between 1990 and 2015.
There is nothing more horrible than the death of a child, and in the last 50 years, we have been able to dramatically bring down the number. That is an amazingly good development. Of course, 5.6 million deaths a year still means that even today, 11 children are dying every minute, and that is a completely unacceptable fact, but we are definitely on the way to a reality where it will be extremely rare for parents to lose their child.
Until the late 1960s, globally, each woman had on average about five children. Today, she has less than 2.5. This is a clear indicator that the health of general humankind and the condition of women across the world are improving. With better education and better opportunities in the job market, women decide to have fewer children. As child mortality rates fall, families do not fear that their children will die, and have fewer children in the first place.
In 1990, 1.86 billion people were living on less than $1.9 per day—more than every third person in the world. Today, the number of people living in extreme poverty is about 640 million, every 12th person. That’s a vast improvement.
There are all sorts of other good news also. Here are some, from Factfulness, the mesmerising bestseller by the late Swedish medical researcher and data scientist Hans Rosling:
- In 1850, 148 countries reported cases of smallpox. We managed to wipe out the disease in 1979.
- In 1970, 28% of the people of the world were undernourished. In 2015, the figure was 11%.
- In 1970, more than 1.66 million tonnes of ozone-depleting substances were used around the planet. By 2016, the amount had fallen to a mere 22,000 tonnes.
- In 1986, there were 64,000 nuclear warheads on earth. In 2017 (North Korea notwithstanding), the number was 15,000.
- In 1980, only 22% of all one-year-olds around the world had got at least one vaccination. In 2016, the number was 88%.
- In 1980, 58% people could have water from a protected source. In 2015, 88% had that access.
- 72% people had access to electricity in 1991. In 2014, 85% of humanity could switch on a light.
- In 1800, only 10% of people above the age of 15 had basic reading-writing skills. In 2016, the number was 86%.
One could go on. The point is that humanity has been making progress on almost every front, and much of the time, we haven’t been noticing. This is because good things often happen slowly and quietly, while bad things occur suddenly and with a thunderous clap.
Progress is a gradient, while setbacks are sharp slidedowns. Also, especially in the area of science, medicine and technology, the men and women who bring about positive change rarely draw attention to themselves or appear in the limelight. Maybe a TED talk now and then which some of us watch on YouTube. That’s about it.
Worldwide, the media too believes that bad news sells better than the good. But is there any empirical basis for this belief? The belief is so ingrained in our heads that it will take an extraordinarily brave editor to go against the flow.
But the truth is that things are getting better all the time. One needs to only check the facts.
Sandipan Deb is a senior journalist
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Last Updated Jul 6, 2018, 12:19 AM IST