ELLIOT: Revealing a better world


While we sing and pray for peace and prosperity on Earth this Christmas season, the headlines of the past few weeks are ponderous: War, terror, and disaster abroad; political disunity and economic uncertainty at home. It is all too easy to conclude that misery and strife are intractable to the human experience.
Fortunately, if we use some perspective, we can see that by many very important measures, we are much better off now than at any point in history. Max Roser, an economist at the University of Oxford, has compiled statistics that show how far we’ve come, and it’s a long way.
Poverty, health, freedom, literacy, and education are just some of the areas Roser examined. And while anyone could quibble about the metrics he used on an annual basis or over a decade, Roser’s choice of a 200-plus-year field of view makes his conclusions unassailable, so great is the change in the categories he examines.
Take poverty. In 1820, about 94 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty — defined as living on less than $1.90 a day in today’s money. Productivity gains associated with industrialization have nearly turned that statistic upside-down. In 2015, only 9.6 percent of humans lived in extreme poverty. What’s even more amazing about the poverty measures is that, as Rosen points out, the figure was still 44 percent as late as 1981. One fact is clear — more than industrialization is needed to alleviate poverty. Economic and political freedom is necessary as well.
Child mortality has also seen spectacular improvement. We often associate Christmastide with childhood wonder, excitement, and innocence. This sanguine view of childhood is mostly a modern invention. Historian Barbara Tuchman writes in her study of the 14th Century that children are conspicuously absent from historical records, art, and literature of the time. She reckons that, since children were about as likely to die as to survive childhood, adults tried not to attach themselves too much to their progeny.
The “cult of childhood” began in Victorian times, when the few who did not live in extreme poverty began to expect their children to survive. Advancements in sanitation, nutrition, and medicine led the way — for some of the world.
For the great mass of humanity, however, child mortality rates improved slowly but steadily from 1800 (43.3 percent) to 1900 (36.2 percent), and then much faster in the 20th Century. Today, a child faces only a 4.25 percent chance of death by age 5, or about a hundredfold improvement in a little over 200 years. Literacy (from 12 percent in 1800 to 85 percent in 2014) and education to at least a primary level (34.2 percent in 1970 versus 60 percent today) have also improved bit by bit.
What about freedom? Roser writes that political freedom and civil liberties “are both a means for development and an end of development.” The percentage of world population that lives in open societies has increased from less than 1 percent in 1816 to 66 percent today, with communist China accounting for the dragon’s share of those who live in an autocracy.
Red China is a reminder that there is plenty of work to do to improve our world, and we must remember that the path to freedom for many was not inevitable; it was paid for with much blood and treasure.
Christians know that we will never perfect this world, but our duty to our neighbors, and the experience of the past two centuries, shows that we have much to be thankful for and hopeful about. Remember well what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard in the bells of Christmas day:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Drew Elliot is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.