Was 2012 the best year to be alive?
It’s fashionable to be doom-laden about mankind, but the progress we’ve made in recent years is astounding.
At the end of 2012, the UK economy is going nowhere. Unemployment is stuck at around 2.5million; wage rises have failed to keep pace with inflation; most welfare benefits are being cut in real terms over the next few years; the cost of energy and food is rising. Meanwhile, the past decade has been the hottest on record, and greenhouse gas emissions are still rising. Maybe we’ll appreciate the warmth when the planet cooks – if there’s any space left on the overcrowded Spaceship Earth.
But before we all run a hot bath and get the razors out, a bit of perspective is required. Because while things in the UK (and in many other developed economies) may not exactly be going swimmingly, for humanity in general this is the greatest time to be alive. There are more people on planet Earth, not because we’re having more children – birth rates are falling – but because people are living longer. Much longer.
According to the UN: ‘Life expectancy at birth for the world’s population grew by 20 years between 1950-1955 and 2005-2010, from 48 years to 68 years.’ A major factor has been a fall of 60 per cent in infant mortality, according to a recent Lancet report. Infectious disease has declined dramatically, such that two thirds of deaths are now from non-communicable diseases like heart disease and cancer – which tend to be diseases of old age.
There are still hundreds of millions of hungry people in the world, but that number is declining, despite rising populations and rising prices. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes: ‘The global number of hungry people declined by 132million between 1990-92 and 2010-12, or from 18.6 per cent to 12.5 per cent of the world’s population, and from 23.2 per cent to 14.9 per cent in developing countries’. Putting it another way, the FAO reports: ‘For the world as a whole, per capita food availability has risen from about 2,220 kcal/person/day in the early 1960s to 2,790 kcal/person/day in 2006-08, while developing countries even recorded a leap from 1,850 kcal/person/day to over 2,640 kcal/person/day.’
People are getting richer, too. At the extreme end of the scale, the number of people in ‘extreme poverty’ halved between 1990 and 2008. World GDP per capita rose from $6,798 in 1990 to $9,868, and income levels are rising faster in developing countries than in developed ones.
And this is not necessarily a meagre step up to some grim form of basic survival. The amount of relatively luxury ‘stuff’ people have is increasing, too. The number of cars in the world passed the one billion mark last year, driven by growth in rapidly developing countries like China, India and Brazil. Will there be enough energy to power these vehicles? Where once it looked like we had reached ‘peak oil’, new technologies commercialised in the past few years have made it possible to extract oil from shales and tar sands on an enormous scale, while supplies of gas and coal mean that greens now complain about too much fossil fuel being available rather than scaremongering about a shortage.
As for climate change, it’s worth bearing in mind that there has been little or no warming worldwide for a decade-and-a-half, despite the rapid rise in greenhouse-gas emissions from fast-industrialising nations like China and India. At the very least, temperature rises have been right at the bottom end of official predictions (or even below them altogether). Could this be a case of Apocalypse Never?
Even in the UK, living standards have improved substantially in the past few decades, even if they have slipped back a bit during the economic crisis. So, for example, average earnings (at 2010 prices) were £15,188 per year in 1980. In 2010, they were £23,504 per year – below their 2008 peak, but still higher than in 2004, which was apparently the middle of a boom (if you believed Gordon Brown, that is). That doesn’t mean that everything is rosy. Apart from high unemployment, we still have a chronic shortage of housing, for example, and the effects of recession have hit some people very hard. But even so, the vast majority of the UK population is still considerably better off than a generation ago.
We’re even living longer than we thought. The UK Office for National Statistics reported this week that the age that people actually die at – rather than the usual guesses about life expectancy – has been about six years higher than originally thought. On average, both men and women have been living well into their eighties.
But then again, 2012 is little different from any other year. It is highly unusual for living standards to decline worldwide. Given the absence of war, governments that don’t suck their populations dry and in spite of the vagaries of capitalism, human beings have been very successful at mastering nature and raising productivity. The result is more wealth, more food, more energy and less disease, leading to more comfortable lives.
Yet it is not the spirit of the age to praise the progress we have made. Instead, ours is an era of panic about societal decline, of gloom and doom, of fear of the future. At the end of a year when we have constantly been told that everything from the economy to the environment to society is getting worse, it is worth taking a step back both historically and geographically and realising that the future is much brighter than people think. That’s worth a glass of something fizzy, don’t you think?