A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The End Of The World

It has been another dismal year. The economy slouches along. Unemployment is high. Debt steadily mounts. Greece, Ireland, and half a dozen other countries cling to the edge of a cliff. Pakistan was flooded. Haiti got cholera. And it’s increasingly clear that the international community will do nothing serious about climate change. To top it all off, there is a long list of reasons – most involving oil, money, or nuclear bombs – to think things will soon get worse.

Merry Christmas. And happy freaking New Year.

But before you jump off that bridge, George Bailey, I want to take you back to another era when things were grim. Then I’m going to show you what happened between then and now. And you are going to cheer up considerably.

That other era was the 1970s.

Forget disco and Charlie’s Angels. Think stagflation and the end of Western civilization. It was a horrible, awful, depressing decade.

The Arab oil embargo of 1973 shocked the world and brought the postwar boom to a crashing halt. The subsequent combination of stagnation, high unemployment and high inflation – “stagflation” – defied conventional economics. Experts were confused. They squabbled endlessly. It seemed no one had a clue what was going on, or how to stop it.

Sound familiar?

The big best-seller of the day was the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, which forecast mass starvation, choking pollution, and the crashing conclusion of industrial society if we didn’t radically change our ways immediately. This sort of pessimism dominated the 1970s. Experts were sure the good times were over. Commodities of all sorts were running out and there wasn’t nearly enough food to fill the bellies of a spiralling global population. India and many other countries would collapse. The wretched of the Earth would get a whole lot more wretched, while the fortunate few in the rich world would get acquainted with life as our ancestors lived it in the Middle Ages.

“If you face what’s coming squarely,” wrote the wildly popular biologist Paul Ehrlich in his 1974 book The End of Affluence, “you may be able to ride the crest of the tidal wave that will engulf society, rather than be crushed beneath it.” By the standards of the time, that qualified as optimism. The esteemed economist Robert Heilbroner warned that humanity’s only chance of avoiding extinction was to adopt “iron” governments along the lines of Mao’s China.

By the end of the 1970s, the president of the United States was on live television telling Americans oil was running out fast and they’d better prepare for the worst. Try imagining Barack Obama doing the same – “My fellow Americans, we are screwed.” – and you have some idea what a bummer it was.

So what happened since then? Forget the events that made the news. That’s not the big picture.

Here’s the big picture: “Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services. Even in countries facing adverse economic conditions, people’s health and education have greatly improved. And there has been progress not only in improving health and education and raising income, but also in expanding people’s power to select leaders, influence public decisions, and share knowledge.”

That’s from the United Nations Human Development Report 2010, released last month. It summarizes what we have learned thanks to the UN’s “Human Development Index,” which is a composite of income, health, and education measures.

“All but three of the 135 countries have a higher level of human development today than in 1970.”

“A baby born today in almost any country can expect to live longer than at any time in history.”

“If children were still dying at the higher rates prevalent in the late 1970s, 6.7 million more children would die each year.”

“People around the world have much higher levels of education than ever before. … No country has seen declines in literacy or years of schooling since 1970.”

“Since 1970, 155 countries – home to 95 per cent of the world’s people – have experienced increases in real per capita income. The annual average today is $10,760, almost 1.5 times its level 20 years ago and twice its level 40 years ago.” These increases are evident “in all regions.”

“Between 1970 and 2010, China’s per capita income rose 21-fold, Botswana’s more than nine-fold and Malaysia’s and Thailand’s more than five-fold.”

“The share of formal democracies has increased from fewer than a third of countries in 1970 to half in the mid-1990s and to three-fifths in 2008.”

“Overall, poor countries are catching up with rich countries in the HDI.”

In the 1970s, if someone had predicted the future would unfold like this, most experts would have called him insane.

Now, I’m not Pollyanna. I know there’s still plenty wrong with the world. And there’s certainly nothing inevitable about progress. Complacency is a mistake.

But this is indisputable evidence that, no matter how bad things may look now, it is possible to make dramatic improvements in the world with slow, incremental progress. That sort of progress is seldom mentioned in the news. But it is far more important to far more people than the depressing stuff in the headlines.

Feel better, George? Good. Now get off that bridge, go home, and have an eggnog.