2013: The Best Year in Human History

Five Reasons to Celebrate Progress

Between the brutal civil war in Syria, the government shutdown and all of the deadly dysfunction it represents, the NSA spying revelations, and massive inequality, it’d be easy to for you to enter 2014 thinking the last year has been an awful one.

But you’d be wrong. We have every reason to believe that 2013 was, in fact, the best year on the planet for humankind.

Contrary to what you might have heard, virtually all of the most important forces that determine what make people’s lives good — the things that determine how long they live, and whether they live happily and freely — are trending in an extremely happy direction. While it’s possible that this progress could be reversed by something like runaway climate change, the effects will have to be dramatic to overcome the extraordinary and growing progress we’ve made in making the world a better place.

Here are the five big reasons why.

1. Fewer people are dying young, and more are living longer.

The greatest story in recent human history is the simplest: we’re winning the fight against death. “There is not a single country in the world where infant or child mortality today is not lower than it was in 1950,” writes Angus Deaton, a Princeton economist who works on global health issues.

The most up-to-date numbers on global health, the 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) statistical compendium, confirm Deaton’s estimation. Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of children who died before their fifth birthday dropped by almost half. Measles deaths declined by 71 percent, and both tuberculosis and maternal deaths by half again. HIV, that modern plague, is also being held back, with deaths from AIDS-related illnesses down by 24 percent since 2005.

In short, fewer people are dying untimely deaths. And that’s not only true in rich countries: life expectancy has gone up between 1990 and 2011 in every WHO income bracket. The gains are even more dramatic if you take the long view: global life expectancy was 47 in the early 1950s, but had risen to 70 — a 50 percent jump — by 2011. For even more perspective, the average Briton in 1850 — when the British Empire had reached its apex —was 40. The average person today should expect to live almost twice as long as the average citizen of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country in 1850.

In real terms, this means millions of fewer dead adults and children a year, millions fewer people who spend their lives suffering the pains and unfreedoms imposed by illness, and millions more people spending their twilight years with loved ones. And the trends are all positive — “progress has accelerated in recent years in many countries with the highest rates of mortality,” as the WHO rather bloodlessly put it.

What’s going on? Obviously, it’s fairly complicated, but the most important drivers have been technological and political innovation. The Enlightenment-era advances in the scientific method got people doing high-quality research, which brought us modern medicine and the information technologies that allow us to spread medical breakthroughs around the world at increasingly faster rates. Scientific discoveries also fueled the Industrial Revolution and the birth of modern capitalism, giving us more resources to devote to large-scale application of live-saving technologies. And the global spread of liberal democracy made governments accountable to citizens, forcing them to attend to their health needs or pay the electoral price.

We’ll see the enormously beneficial impact of these two forces, technology and democracy, repeatedly throughout this list, which should tell you something about the foundations of human progress. But when talking about improvements in health, we shouldn’t neglect foreign aid. Nations donating huge amounts of money out of an altruistic interest in the welfare of foreigners is historically unprecedented, and while not all aid has been helpful, health aid has been a huge boon.

Even Deaton, who wrote one of 2013′s harshest assessments of foreign aid, believes “the case for assistance to fight disease such as HIV/AIDS or smallpox is strong.” That’s because these programs have demonstrably saved lives — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a 2003 program pushed by President Bush, paid for anti-retroviral treatment for over 5.1 million people in the poor countries hardest-hit by the AIDS epidemic.

So we’re outracing the Four Horseman, extending our lives faster than pestilence, war, famine, and death can take them. That alone should be enough to say the world is getting better.

2. Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, and the world is getting happier.

There are fewer people in abject penury than at any other point in human history, and middle class people enjoy their highest standard of living ever. We haven’t come close to solving poverty: a number of African countries in particular have chronic problems generating growth, a nut foreign aid hasn’t yet cracked. So this isn’t a call for complacency about poverty any more than acknowledging victories over disease is an argument against tackling malaria. But make no mistake: as a whole, the world is much richer in 2013 than it was before.

721 million fewer people lived in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day) in 2010 than in 1981, according to a new World Bank study from October. That’s astounding — a decline from 40 to about 14 percent of the world’s population suffering from abject want. And poverty rates are declining in every national income bracket: even in low income countries, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day in 2005 dollars) a day gone down from 63 in 1981 to 44 in 2010.

We can be fairly confident that these trends are continuing. For one thing, they survived the Great Recession in 2008. For another, the decline in poverty has been fueled by global economic growth, which looks to be continuing: global GDP grew by 2.3 percent in 2012, a number that’ll rise to 2.9 percent in 2013 according to IMF projections.

The bulk of the recent decline in poverty comes form India and China — about 80 percent from China *alone*. Chinese economic and social reform, a delayed reaction to the mass slaughter and starvation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, has been the engine of poverty’s global decline. If you subtract China, there are actually more poor people today than there were in 1981 (population growth trumping the percentage declines in poverty).

But we shouldn’t discount China. If what we care about is fewer people suffering the misery of poverty, then it shouldn’t matter what nation the less-poor people call home. Chinese growth should be celebrated, not shunted aside.

The poor haven’t been the only people benefitting from global growth. Middle class people have access to an ever-greater stock of life-improving goods. Televisions and refrigerators, once luxury goods, are now comparatively cheap and commonplace. That’s why large-percentage improvements in a nation’s GDP appear to correlate strongly with higher levels of happiness among the nation’s citizens; people like having things that make their lives easier and more worry-free.

Global economic growth in the past five decades has dramatically reduced poverty and made people around the world happier. Once again, we’re better off.

3. War is becoming rarer and less deadly.

Another massive conflict could overturn the global progress against disease and poverty. But it appears war, too, may be losing its fangs.

Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels Of Our Nature is the gold standard in this debate. Pinker brought a treasure trove of data to bear on the question of whether the world has gotten more peaceful, and found that, in the long arc of human history, both war and other forms of violence (the death penalty, for instance) are on a centuries-long downward slope.

Pinker summarizes his argument here if you don’t own the book. Most eye-popping are the numbers for the past 50 years; Pinker finds that “the worldwide rate of death from interstate and civil war combined has juddered downward…from almost 300 per 100,000 world population during World War II, to almost 30 during the Korean War, to the low teens during the era of the Vietnam War, to single digits in the 1970s and 1980s, to less than 1 in the twenty-first century.” Here’s what that looks like graphed:

So it looks like the smallest percentage of humans alive since World War II, and in all likelihood in human history, are living through the horrors of war. Did 2013 give us any reason to believe that Pinker and the other scholars who agree with him have been proven wrong?

Probably not. The academic debate over the decline of war really exploded in 2013, but the “declinist” thesis has fared pretty well. Challenges to Pinker’s conclusion that battle deaths have gone down over time have not withstood scrutiny. The most compelling critique, a new paper by Bear F. Braumoeller, argues that if you control for the larger number of countries in the last 50 years, war happens at roughly the same rates as it has historically.

There are lots of things you might say about Braumoeller’s argument, and I’ve asked Pinker for his two cents (update: Pinker’s response here). But most importantly, if battle deaths per 100,000 people really has declined, then his argument doesn’t mean very much. If (percentage-wise) fewer people are dying from war, then what we call “war” now is a lot less deadly than “war” used to be. Braumoeller suggests population growth and improvements in battle medicine explain the decline, but that’s not convincing: tell me with a straight face that the only differences in deadliness between World War II, Vietnam, and the wars you see today is that there are more people and better doctors.

There’s a more rigorous way of putting that: today, we see many more civil wars than we do wars between nations. The former tend to be less deadly than the latter. That’s why the other major challenge to Pinker’s thesis in 2013, the deepening of the Syrian civil war, isn’t likely to upset the overall trend. Syria’s war is an unimaginable tragedy, one responsible for the rare, depressing increase in battle deaths from 2011 to 2012. However, the overall 2011-2012 trend “fits well with the observed long-term decline in battle deaths,” according to researchers at the authoritative Uppsala Conflict Data Program, because the uptick is not enough to suggest an overall change in trend. We should expect something similar when the 2013 numbers are published.

Why are smaller and smaller percentages of people being exposed to the horrors of war? There are lots of reasons one could point to, but two of the biggest ones are the spread of democracy and humans getting, for lack of a better word, better.

That democracies never, or almost never, go to war with each other is not seriously in dispute: the statistical evidence is ridiculously strong. While some argue that the “democratic peace,” as it’s called, is caused by things other than democracy itself, there’s good experimental evidence that democratic leaders and citizens just don’t want to fight each other.

Since 1950, democracy has spread around the world like wildfire. There were only a handful of democracies after World War II, but that grew to roughly 40 percent of all by the end of the Cold War. Today, a comfortable majority — about 60 percent — of all states are democracies. This freer world is also a safer one.

Second — and this is Pinker’s preferred explanation — people have developed strategies for dealing with war’s causes and consequences. “Human ingenuity and experience have gradually been brought to bear,” Pinker writes, “just as they have chipped away at hunger and disease.” A series of human inventions, things like U.N. peacekeeping operations, which nowadays are very successful at reducing violence, have given us a set of social tools increasingly well suited to reducing the harm caused by armed conflict.

War’s decline isn’t accidental, in other words. It’s by design.

4. Rates of murder and other violent crimes are in free-fall.

Pinker’s trend against violence isn’t limited just to war. It seems likes crimes, both of the sort states commit against their citizens and citizens commit against each other, are also on the decline.

Take a few examples. Slavery, once commonly sanctioned by governments, is illegal everywhere on earth. The use of torture as legal punishment has gone down dramatically. The European murder rate fell 35-fold from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century (check out this amazing 2003 paper from Michael Eisner, who dredged up medieval records to estimate European homicide rates in the swords-and-chivalry era, if you don’t believe me).

The decline has been especially marked in recent years. Though homicide crime rates climbed back up from their historic lows between the 1970s and 1990s, reversing progress made since the late 19th century, they have collapsed worldwide in the 21st century. 557,000 people were murdered in 2001 — almost three times as many as were killed in war that year. In 2008, that number was 289,000, and the homicide rate has been declining in 75 percent of nations since then.

Statistics from around the developed world, where numbers are particularly reliable, show that it’s not just homicide that’s on the wane: it’s almost all violent crime. US government numbers show that violent crime in the United States declined from a peak of about 750 crimes per 100,000 Americans to under 450 by 2009. G7 as a whole countries show huge declines in homicide, robbery, and vehicle theft.

So even in countries that aren’t at poor or at war, most people’s lives are getting safer and more secure. Why?

We know it’s not incarceration. While the United States and Britain have dramatically increased their prison populations, others, like Canada, the Netherlands, and Estonia, reduced their incarceration rates and saw similar declines in violent crime. Same thing state-to-state in the United States; New York imprisoned fewer people and saw the fastest crime decline in the country.

The Economist’s deep dive into the explanations for crime’s collapse provides a few answers. Globally, police have gotten better at working with communities and targeting areas with the most crime. They’ve also gotten new toys, like DNA testing, that make it easier to catch criminals.

The crack epidemic in the United States and its heroin twin in Europe have both slowed down dramatically. Rapid gentrification has made inner-city crime harder. And the increasing cheapness of “luxury” goods like iPods and DVD players has reduced incentives for crime on both the supply and demand sides: stealing a DVD player isn’t as profitable, and it’s easier for a would-be thief to buy one in the first place.

But there’s one explanation The Economist dismissed that strikes me as hugely important: the abolition of lead gasoline. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones wrote what’s universally acknowledged to be the definitive argument for the lead/crime link, and it’s incredibly compelling. We know for a fact that lead exposure damages people’s brains and can potentially be fatal; that’s why an international campaign to ban leaded gasoline started around 1970. Today, leaded gasoline is almost unheard of — it’s banned in 175 countries, and there’s been a decline in lead blood levels by about 90 percent.

Drum marshals a wealth of evidence that the parts of the brain damaged by lead are the same ones that check people’s aggressive impulses. Moreover, the timing matches up: crime shot up in the mid-to-late-20th century as cars spread around the world, and started to decline in the 70s as the anti-lead campaign was succeeding. Here’s close the relationship is, using data from the United States:

Now, non-homicide violent crime appears to have ticked up in 2012, based on U.S. government surveys of victims of crime, but it’s very possible that’s just a blip: the official Department of Justice report says up-front that “the apparent increase in the rate of violent crimes reported to police from 2011 to 2012 was not statistically significant.”

So we have no reason to believe crime is making a come back, and every reason to believe the historical decline in criminal violence is here to stay.

5. There’s less racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world.

Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination remain, without a doubt, extraordinarily powerful forces. The statistical and experimental evidence is overwhelming — this irrefutable proof of widespread discrimination against African Americans, for instance, should put the “racism is dead” fantasy to bed.

Yet the need to combat discrimination denial shouldn’t blind us to the good news. Over the centuries, humanity has made extraordinary progress in taming its hate for and ill-treatment of other humans on the basis of difference alone. Indeed, it is very likely that we live in the least discriminatory era in the history of modern civilization. It’s not a huge prize given how bad the past had been, but there are still gains worth celebrating.

Go back 150 years in time and the point should be obvious. Take four prominent groups in 1860: African Americans were in chains, European Jews were routinely massacred in the ghettos and shtetls they were confined to, women around the world were denied the opportunity to work outside the home and made almost entirely subordinate to their husbands, and LGBT people were invisible. The improvements in each of these group’s statuses today, both in the United States and internationally, are incontestable.

On closer look, we have reason to believe the happy trends are likely to continue. Take racial discrimination. In 2000, Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo penned a comprehensive assessment of the data on racial attitudes in the United States. He found a “national consensus” on the ideals of racial equality and integration. “A nation once comfortable as a deliberately segregationist and racially discriminatory society has not only abandoned that view,” Bobo writes, “but now overtly positively endorses the goals of racial integration and equal treatment. There is no sign whatsoever of retreat from this ideal, despite events that many thought would call it into question. The magnitude, steadiness, and breadth of this change should be lost on no one.”

The norm against overt racism has gone global. In her book on the international anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, Syracuse’s Audie Klotz says flatly that “the illegitimacy of white minority rule led to South Africa’s persistent diplomatic, cultural, and economic isolation.” The belief that racial discrimination could not be tolerated had become so widespread, Klotz argues, that it united the globe — including governments that had strategic interests in supporting South Africa’s whites — in opposition to apartheid. In 2011, 91 percent of respondents in a sample of 21 diverse countries said that equal treatment of people of different races or ethnicities was important to them.

Racism obviously survived both American and South African apartheid, albeit in subtler, insidious forms. “The death of Jim Crow racism has left us in an uncomfortable place,” Bobo writes, “a state of laissez-faire racism” where racial discrimination and disparities still exist, but support for the kind of aggressive government policies needed to address them is racially polarized. But there’s reason to hope that’ll change as well: two massive studies of the political views of younger Americans by my TP Ideas colleagues, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, found that millennials were significantly more racially tolerant and supportive of government action to address racial disparities than the generations that preceded them. Though I’m not aware of any similar research of on a global scale, it’s hard not to imagine they’d find similar results, suggesting that we should have hope that the power of racial prejudice may be waning.

The story about gender discrimination is very similar: after the feminist movement’s enormous victories in the 20th century, structural sexism still shapes the world in profound ways, but the cause of gender equality is making progress. In 2011, 86 percent of people in a diverse 21-country sample said that equal treatment on the basis of gender was an important value. The U.N.’s Human Development Report’s Gender Inequality Index — a comprehensive study of reproductive health, social empowerment, and labor market equity — saw a 20 percent decline in observable gender inequalities from 1995 to 2011. IMF data show consistent global declines in wage disparities between genders, labor force participation, and educational attainment around the world. While enormous inequality remains, 2013 is looking to be the worst year for sexism in history.

Finally, we’ve made astonishing progress on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination — largely in the past 15 years. At the beginning of 2003, zero Americans lived in marriage equality states; by the end of 2013, 38 percent of Americans will. Article 13 of the European Community Treaty bans discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and, in 2011, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution committing the council to documenting and exposing discrimination on orientation or identity grounds around the world. The public opinion trends are positive worldwide: all of the major shifts from 2007 to 2013 in Pew’s “acceptance of homosexuality” poll were towards greater tolerance, and young people everywhere are more open to equality for LGBT individuals than their older peers.

Once again, these victories are partial and by no means inevitable. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination aren’t just “going away” on their own. They’re losing their hold on us because people are working to change other people’s minds and because governments are passing laws aimed at promoting equality. Positive trends don’t mean the problems are close to solved, and certainly aren’t excuses for sitting on our hands.

That’s true of everything on this list. The fact that fewer people are dying from war and disease doesn’t lessen the moral imperative to do something about those that are; the fact that people are getting richer and safer in their homes isn’t an excuse for doing more to address poverty and crime.

But too often, the worst parts about the world are treated as inevitable, the prospect of radical victory over pain and suffering dismissed as utopian fantasy. The overwhelming force of the evidence shows that to be false. As best we can tell, the reason humanity is getting better is because humans have decided to make the world a better place. We consciously chose to develop lifesaving medicine and build freer political systems; we’ve passed laws against workplace discrimination and poisoning children’s minds with lead.

So far, these choices have more than paid off. It’s up to us to make sure they continue to.

UPDDATE: After publication, Steven Pinker wrote back with some criticisms of Bear Braumoeller’s claim that the decline of war is a myth. Here’s Pinker’s response, lightly edited for clarity:

Braumoeller’s conclusions are unwarranted for several reasons. First, the Correlates of War database he uses treats minor skirmishes that kill no one the same as major wars. Even if there are as many trivial shots fired across a bow as before, the fact that there are fewer wars that actually kill lots of people is significant.

Second, it’s not true that only per capita measures show a decline in war — the absolute number of people killed shows a steep decline as well — though even if it were only per capita, that is still significant, since with more people more densely packed there are more opportunities to kill them and more of them to kill (but, as I said, this is moot anyway).

Third, by “controlling for” the number of countries, he’s simply making a real effect go away by a statistical trick –- the fact is that people are far less likely to get killed in a war.

Fourth, the idea that countries are no less likely to go to war now than they were before is clearly false, for reasons I lay out in detail in The Better Angels of Our Nature — conscription is down, war expenditures per GDP are down, and the recent debate on intervening in Syria shows that great powers like the UK and US are very skittish about getting into wars.

Zack Beauchamp is a Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress.org, where this post originally appeared. He previously contributed to Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish at Newsweek/Daily Beast, and has also written for Foreign Policy and Tablet magazines. Zack holds B.A.s in Philosophy and Political Science from Brown University and an M.Sc in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Adam Peck contributed graphics to this story.