Turn on the news or listen to doom-mongers in politics and the media, and you could be forgiven for thinking the world is a more violent and unequal place than ever, but according to economist Max Roser, we’ve never had it so good in many ways.
Roser, based at the University of Oxford, spends his time digging through data on human living standards across countries and decades, and makes jazzy graphs and slides for his website OurWorldInData.org and his 30,000 Twitter followers.
Reams of data on living standards are pumped out every day by governments, charities and international organisations, said Roser, but much is hidden behind paywalls or buried in the footnotes of obscure reports. “Often they go and put their spreadsheets out on a server and think their job is done.”
Roser looks at factors like war, disease and poverty, which are all declining, as well as life expectancy, food provision and years of schooling, which are all rising.
His sunny disposition on most matters is grounded in the data, all cited on his website, but he stresses he is not an optimist as a matter of faith, pointing to climate change and government surveillance as things that are getting worse.
Some of his findings, such as increased life expectancy, are unsurprising, but others, like a decline in deaths caused by violence, are perhaps less obvious in a world in which a militant attack that kills one is more likely to grab the headlines than a vaccine which quietly saves millions.
Roser, currently a fellow at Oxford, thinks too much analysis focuses on very recent trends, leading us to miss the bigger picture which, with some hiccups and exceptions, is an overwhelmingly positive one, with huge changes coming due to vaccines, better nutrition and economic growth.
Millions of people are alive today because of the near-elimination of tetanus and polio, and the eradication of smallpox, a disease which killed more than 15% of Londoners during periods of the 18th century.
Deaths from malaria, the disease which Roser speculates may have killed more people than anything else in human history, have been decreasing in absolute terms since 2004 even as the global population continues to climb.
HIV/AIDS caused life expectancy in many African countries to plummet from the 60s to the 40s in the 1990s and 2000s, but antiretroviral treatments have made these rebound just as quickly in countries like Botswana, South Africa and Kenya.
Food production has more than kept pace with population growth, making hunger and famine rarer than they used to be, despite a more crowded planet.
This is because technology and innovation has made farming more productive, allowing more food to be made on less land. More than half of people in France and Italy worked on farms two centuries ago, while nowadays less than five% do.
Growing economic inequality is a common source of grievance in the Western world, and a legitimate one, according to Roser.
However, in countries like India and China, hundreds of millions of people have escaped rural poverty and joined the urban middle class, causing a huge decline in global inequality. “The incomes of the poor are rising faster than the incomes of the rich,” he said.
Having recently secured new funding, Roser is looking to continue his research on global living conditions and share his findings as widely as possible. “There are answers to these questions, they’re often just not very accessible,” he said.