Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (10 page)

I never trust data 100 percent, and you never should either. There is always some uncertainty. In this case, I’d say these numbers are roughly right, but you shouldn’t jump to any conclusions based on small differences. (By the way, that is a good general principle with statistics: be careful jumping to any conclusions if the differences are smaller than say, roughly, 10 percent.) The big picture is still crystal clear though. The majority of people think the world is getting worse. No wonder we all feel so stressed.

Statistics as Therapy

It is easy to be aware of all the bad things happening in the world. It’s harder to know about the good things: billions of improvements that are never reported. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about some trivial positive news to supposedly balance out the negative. I’m talking about fundamental improvements that are world-changing but are too slow, too fragmented, or too small one-by-one to ever qualify as news. I’m talking about the secret silent miracle of human progress.

The basic facts about the world’s progress are so little known that I get invited to talk about them at conferences and corporate meetings all over the world. They sometimes call my lectures “inspirational,” and many people say they also have a comforting effect. That was never my intention. But it’s logical. What I show is mostly just official UN data. As long as people have a worldview that is so much more negative than reality, pure statistics can make them feel more positive. It is comforting, as well as inspiring, to learn that the world is much better than you think. A new kind of happy pill, completely free online!

Extreme Poverty

Let’s start by looking at the trend for extreme poverty.


In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has …

A: almost doubled

B: remained more or less the same

C: almost halved

The correct answer is C: over the last 20 years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved. But in our online polls, in most countries, less than 10 percent knew this.

Remember the four income levels from chapter 1? In the year 1800, roughly 85 percent of humanity lived on Level 1, in extreme poverty. All over the world, people simply did not have enough food. Most people went to bed hungry several times a year. Across Britain and its colonies, children had to work to eat, and the average child in the United Kingdom started work at age ten. One-fifth the entire Swedish population, including many of my relatives, fled starvation to the United States, and only 20 percent of them ever returned. When the harvest failed and your relatives, friends, and neighbors starved to death, what did you do? You escaped. You migrated. If you could.

Level 1 is where all of humanity started. It’s where the majority always lived, until 1966. Until then, extreme poverty was the rule, not the exception.

The curve you see above shows how the extreme poverty rate has been falling since 1800. And look at the last 20 years. Extreme poverty dropped faster than ever in world history.

In 1997, 42 percent of the population of both India and China were living in extreme poverty. By 2017, in India, that share had dropped to 12 percent: there were 270 million fewer people living in extreme poverty than there had been just 20 years earlier. In China, that share dropped to a stunning 0.7 percent over the same period, meaning another half a billion people over this crucial threshold. Meanwhile, Latin America took its proportion from 14 percent to 4 percent: another 35 million people. While all estimates of extreme poverty are very uncertain, when the change appears to be like this, then beyond all doubt something huge is happening.

How old were you 20 years ago? Close your eyes for a second and remember your younger self. How much has
world changed? A lot? A little? Well, this is how much
world has changed: just 20 years ago, 29 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Now that number is 9 percent. Today almost everybody has escaped hell. The original source of all human suffering is about to be eradicated. We should plan a party! A big party! And when I say “we,” I mean humanity!

Instead, we are gloomy. On our Level 4 TVs, we still see people in extreme poverty and it seems that nothing has changed. Billions of people have escaped misery and become consumers and producers for the world market, billions of people have managed to slide up from Level 1 to Levels 2 and 3, without the people on Level 4 noticing.

Life Expectancy


What is the life expectancy of the world today?

A: 50 years

B: 60 years

C: 70 years

Showing all the causes of deaths and suffering in one number is nearly impossible. But the average life expectancy gets very close. Every child death, every premature death from man-made or natural disasters, every mother dying in childbirth, and every elderly person’s prolonged life is reflected in this measure.

Back in 1800, when Swedes starved to death and British children worked in coal mines, life expectancy was roughly 30 years everywhere in the world. That was what it had been throughout history. Among all babies who were ever born, roughly half died during their childhood. Most of the other half died between the ages of 50 and 70. So the average was around 30. It doesn’t mean most people lived to be 30. It’s just an average, and with averages we must always remember that there’s a spread.

The average life expectancy across the world today is 70. Actually, it’s better than that: it’s 72. Here are the results of some polling.

This is one of those questions where the better educated you are, the more ignorant you seem to be. In most countries where we tested, members of the public just about beat the chimps. (The full country breakdown is in the appendix.) But in our more highly educated audiences, the most popular answer was 60 years. That would have been correct if we had asked the question in 1973 (the year when 200,000
people starved to death in Ethiopia). But we asked it in this decade, more than 40 years of progress later. People live on average ten years longer now. We humans have always struggled hard to make our families survive, and finally we are succeeding.

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