The world is actually getting better: Part 2

9 min read
11 Dec 2018

lobal poverty, greenhouse gases and inequalities in wealth distribution are only some of the challenges our world is faced with today. But amidst these problems is a future that looks brighter each day.

This is the second in a two-part series about how our world is continually improving, and what more can be done to continue this progress. Read the first part here.

This article was written by the original owner of, Ryan Allis, and published on his website in 2012. Read more about why Ryan was happy to hand over his website domain to us here.

The most peaceful time in human history

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard professor Steven Pinker makes the case that we may be living in the most peaceful time in human history, at least since the advent of agriculture and the beginnings of more densely populated civilizations 12,000 years ago.

After a tumultuous 20th century which saw events like the First and Second World War, the Holocaust, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Gulf War, the Bosnian War, and the Rwandan genocide, it seems that over the last quarter century since the fall of the USSR and the beginning of the widespread use of the internet, we’ve entered a time of substantially less deadly conflict between and within nations, even including events from terrorism.

By the mid-1990s, global trade was greatly expanding, creating interconnections that increased human understanding and reduced the likelihood of armed conflict. The 1990s also brought us the World Wide Web, providing a way to share information with people anywhere in the world.

Technology as a tool for interconnectivity

The internet has just begun to create an interconnected web of humanity which no “Berlin Wall” could stop. Today in 2013, 35 percent of us are on the internet. We are on track to reach half of humanity on the internet by 2016 and nearly all of humanity on the internet by 2030. In the next 15 years, the number of people on the internet will triple from 2.5 billion today to 7.5 billion.

Globalization combined with the global expansion of information sharing via the Internet so far has coincided with a trend in the reduction of violence. As Facebook, Twitter, and internet-enabled smartphones are reaching mass global distribution, humanity has finally found a tool through which it could spread information and understanding across cultures. This greatly reduces the likelihood of popular support for armed conflict except in the most egregious situations.

Another example of our newly interconnected species was shown during the Arab Spring of 2011. In this new time period of empowered and connected citizens, only governments that truly work for the benefit of its people will survive.

In mid-2011, Saudi Arabia’s government even went to the lengths of paying $130 billion to provide for two months of extra civil servant salaries and building 500,000 units of low-income housing in order to gain greater legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens.

Today with global per capita income at $10,070 (up from $700 in 1800 and $2,000 in 1900 in today’s dollars) and a connected network of 2.5 billion humans in every country in the world, we may have surprisingly created, after a tumultuous 20th century, a foundation for a long time of relative peace.

Increasing access to education

Today in 2013 we have access to Wikipedia, Khan Academy, EdX, Coursera, SkillShare, and iTunes University. Fifteen years ago none of these resources for self-directed learning existed.

Today 35 percent of the world has access to the internet. It must be a top priority (along with moving to a clean energy economy) of every national, state, and city government to reach universal access to the internet by 2030. Imagine a world with 7.5 billion people with access to the educational power of the internet.

Since the mid-19th century, global adult literacy rates have greatly improved, from an estimated 10 percent in 1850 to 84 percent today in 2013. Ensuring that all people can read and write should also be a primary goal of every developing country leader. Without the ability to read or write, you cannot fill out a job application or participate in the global economy.

Here’s what UNESCO has to say about the progress we’ve made over the last 150 years.

“In the mid-nineteenth century, only 10 percent of the world’s adult population could read or write. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, UNESCO estimates that over 80 percent of adults worldwide can read and write at some minimum level.” -UNESCO Education for All Monitoring Report

Imagine a world with 7.5 billion people with access to the educational power of the internet.

What about the environment?

Unless we make pretty rapid changes to a clean energy economy and away from fossil fuels over the next 20 years, we risk much of the progress we’ve made since 1900.

The earth’s environment is not an “issue delinked from human progress.” The Earth is the place on which nearly all human progress has taken place. As the noted biologist E.O. Wilson says, “the planet… is a little sphere with a razor-thin coat of life too fragile to bear careless tampering.”

Yet even E.O. Wilson himself sees technology, science, and human progress as part of the solution to a sustainable future, not as part of the problem. He says in The Future of Life (2002), “Science and technology also promise the means for raising per-capita food production while decreasing materials and energy consumption, both of which are preconditions for successful long-term conservation and a sustainable economy.”

Perhaps, then, it is the discovery of petroleum in 1859 in Edward Drake’s steam engine well in Pennsylvania that has, in part, led to humanity having such high-standards of living today – standards which allow us to afford to invest in creating a carbon neutral world by 2040 that is prosperous for all of us.

Historically, fossil fuels have been a great thing for humanity. Now that we know that the continued use of fossil fuels will threaten the progress they have so far enabled, we must use our wealth and scientific energy to move towards clean energy as quickly as possible.

Moving to a clean energy economy is essential for continued progress

As the chart at the beginning of this section shows, while humanity has made immense progress in health, education, and economic measures, we are getting a failing grade in the realm of moving away from using carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are increasing the surface temperature.

The science is simple. Increased CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere, and increased heat in the atmosphere raises the surface temperature, disrupting weather patterns and rising sea levels.

We passed 400 PPM of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in a May 2013 measurement at the Mauna Loa Observatory. The safe level is 350 PPM. It’s clear that if we go above 450 PPM we will see major disruptions to global climate and potentially trigger systemic effects that accelerate carbon dioxide (such as the release of greenhouse gas methane from the melting of the Siberian permafrost, or the desertification of the Brazilian rainforests).

The goal should not be to stay under 450 PPM, however. The goal should be to return to 350 PPM as quickly as possible. To do this, we must reduce our annual carbon output from 37 gigatons to under 5 gigatons over the next two decades.

We need to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, invest in companies and institutions researching synthetic algae, biofuels, wind, solar, and fusion power, tax carbon dioxide emissions, and invest in new carbon capture technologies like Bioenergy Carbon Capture & Storage (BECCS).

On the topic of biodiversity, the World Wildlife Fund has been tracking the populations of 2,688 species of animals since 1970. Their Living Planet Index shows a 28 percent decline in the populations of these species from 1970 to 2008.

As we create a prosperous world without poverty, we must develop cleanly and sustainably to stop the destruction of habitats. This is not only the right thing to do, it’s in our own best interest.

Many species of plant and animal life may prove essential to medical advancements and the full, complex ecosystem of millions of species provide essential services in keeping our planet in balance.

Unless we make pretty rapid changes to a clean energy economy and away from fossil fuels over the next 20 years, we risk much of the progress we’ve made since 1900.

Other challenges we face

Through a very tumultuous 20th century, we’ve made tremendous progress across major measures of human progress like life expectancy, infant mortality, per person income, literacy, and access to the internet.

In addition to environmental challenges, our species does face some other real challenges that require substantial focus in order to not destabilize the great progress our species has been making. Here’s are just a few additional examples.

Nuclear proliferation – There are still about 17,200 nuclear bombs in the world, down from about 70,000 in 1987 . One hundred B83 nuclear explosions would end human civilization as we know it. Do we really need 17,000?

Solar flares – In 1859, a large solar flare from the sun took out part of the American telegraph system. If a similar sized solar flare happened today on the sun, it could take out the electrical grid for weeks, causing quite a bit of chaos as credit card machines, ATMs, heating/cooling, food, supply chains, and the internet went down for a time.

Our global production system is so distributed today that losing electricity over a large area for more than a few days would pose a major challenge to the progress of our species.

Cyber hacking – The large majority of hackers (computer programmers) are working to build solutions to human challenges and make the world a better place. However, it is now possible in an interconnected world to use hacking to reduce, rather than advance, human progress.

As an example of the power of sophisticated computer hacking, in 2010 the US government partially disabled a uranium enrichment facility in Iran through the use of introducing a computer virus known as Stuxnet. To say the least, the cyber security industry will be a growing industry in the 21st century.

Fifty examples of possible risks to our continued progress can be found from the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2013 Report.

There are indeed a number of reasons to be cautious about what the 21st century will bring. However, in general, the data shows that our species has made immense progress in the last century, and that today we are by far living in the most prosperous time in human history.

Main photo: Unsplash/Avel Chuklanov

*This article was originally published on October 17th, 2018 and updated on December 11th, 2018.