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Why Now Is The Best Time To Be Alive, Ever

It might not feel like it, but the world is wealthier, healthier, longer-lived, and safer than it has ever been.

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The world feels pretty dark at the moment, doesn't it?

John Moore / Getty Images / Reuters / Gonzalo Fuentes / Darren Whiteside / Rodi Said / Kai Pfaffenbach

The news is full of blood and starvation and disease and just really, really sad stuff. Plane crashes; terrorist attacks; Ebola. Every time you open a newspaper there's a new threat, more people dying. It's frightening. "Sensible people are scared in scary times," says Michael White of The Guardian, and most people feel like that.

But it's not. This is a golden age.

The Golden Age by Lucas Cranach the Elder / Via en.wikipedia.org

There's so much horrible stuff around that it sounds ridiculous to say that you are probably one of the healthiest, wealthiest, longest-lived people ever. But it's true: The world you're living in is safer than it's ever been.

For most of human history, lives have been solitary, poor, nasty, brutish – and very, very short.

PA Archive/Press Association Images Danny Lawson

Take life expectancy. Humans have existed in their modern form for about 200,000 years; you could take someone born in 150,000BC and plonk them in Shoreditch and they wouldn't attract much attention, except for admiring glances at their vintage clothing. People then were, as far as we can tell, pretty much just like us.

But their lives were much, much shorter. For 99.9% of our species' existence, a newborn baby could expect to live, on average, to about the age of 30. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that age dropped even lower in classical times, to perhaps 28 for ancient Greece and Rome. And as late as the start of the 20th century, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it was still just 31.

But now we're living longer...

View this video on YouTube

Hans Rosling/YouTube/BBC 4

Today, the global average life expectancy is a whopping 71.5 years, according to a study last month in The Lancet. Admittedly, a lot of this is because so many more of us survive childhood, which brings the average up dramatically. But even taking that into account, we are much more likely to live long, healthy lives than any of our ancestors.

And, as the amazing, heartening clip by Hans Rosling above shows, that's true around the world, not just in the developed West. The global average life expectancy has gone up by six years since 1990 – but in the developing world, the average has gone up by nine years. The WHO reports that the biggest jumps have come in poorer countries. Someone born in Liberia now can expect to live 20 years longer than if they were born in 1990. The gap between rich countries and poorer ones is narrowing.

...and not killing each other so much.

View this video on YouTube

YouTube/TED

It might not be that surprising that we're all living longer. After all, medical technology has improved, as has nutrition. But surely the world is more dangerous now? With all the terrorism and wars and murders?

Well: no. The world has been getting safer for millennia. For most of human history, about 15% of people died violently. That means that about one person in six was murdered or killed in a war. The academic Steven Pinker estimates that in prehistoric times about 500 people out of every 100,000 were killed by other humans every year. Today, he says, that figure is more like 6 to 8, worldwide. In the West, it's even lower, but the decline is noticeable around the world.

Incidentally, we think of the 20th century as uniquely bloody, because of its two world wars. But it wasn't. Pinker calculates that there were at least eight pre-20th-century wars that killed a greater percentage of the world population than the Second World War; the First World War doesn't even make the top 10. They were terrible wars, but terrible wars have happened throughout history.

And since the second, it's got much better: We've managed to avoid any wars between major global powers at all (touch wood). Pinker calls this the "long peace".

We're feeding people better, even though there are more of us.

AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam / Via theatlantic.com

Even though there are billions more of us than there have ever been before, we're doing better than we ever have at feeding everybody. In the 1960s, people predicted that the world would be racked with famine in the decades to come. But instead, even though the population more than doubled, the amount of food available per person went up by a quarter.

And that hasn't just meant more rich people getting fatter: The International Food Policy Research Institute releases a yearly Global Hunger Index (GHI), which looks at the problem of malnutrition and hunger in the developing world using three measures: how many people are undernourished, the levels of child mortality, and how many children are underweight. The worldwide GHI score has dropped by 39% since 1990, which means a lot fewer children dying or going hungry. That's because technological and agricultural revolutions have made it possible to feed far more people off the same amount of land.

Of course, that doesn't mean everything is fine. About 1 person in 9 is still hungry, worldwide – about 800 million people. Far, far too many. And a lot of our success in feeding people comes from the use of fossil-fuel-based fertilisers, which isn't a permanent solution. But you are less likely to be hungry now than ever before.

And the population isn't growing as quickly.

View this video on YouTube

Hans Rosling/YouTube/BBC 4

Surely it can't continue, can it? We've just reached 7 billion people, and we're still growing. Eventually we'll simply run out of ways of making the Earth produce more food, and the crunch will hit, and we'll all starve.

Or maybe not. Because while the population is still growing, the rate at which it's growing has slowed. Back in the 1960s, the average woman had 4.5 children. In 2012, it was 2.5. That's not in Europe or America, that's worldwide. That's because of improved family planning, but also because of improved education of women, and because of the increased likelihood that babies will survive to adulthood: You no longer need to have six kids to be sure that one will survive.

If you've got an hour, the BBC documentary on this topic (also by Hans Rosling), above, is really worth it, and will make you feel much better about the world.

This isn't just in rich countries, either. The whole world is getting richer and healthier.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Since 1999, the income gap between the West and the developing world has been dropping: Global inequality is actually falling. At the turn of the millennium, the US average income was 4.5 times the world average; now it's just 3.9. And that's not because the US has got poorer – it hasn't, despite the 2008 crash – but because the developing world (especially India and China; just look at what's happened to Shanghai, above) has got richer. Admittedly that's the first time the level of global inequality has dropped since the Industrial Revolution, but it's got to start somewhere – and for most of history, the world may have been much more equal, but every country was equally poor.

And we're not just getting richer and healthier: We're actually getting smarter.

View this video on YouTube

James Flynn/YouTube/TED

People tend to think the kids today are stupid and feckless, but they're not: They're cleverer than their parents. There's something called the Flynn effect, named after a political scientist called James Flynn, who talks about it in the video above. He noticed that every few years, companies that set IQ tests have to recalibrate their scores every so often. That's because they define 100 as the average score. The average person in the population will always have a score of 100.

The average person now would have had an IQ of 118 if they took a test in 1950, and 130 if they'd taken one in 1910, putting them in the top 2% of the population. And an average person from 1950 taking the test today would have a score which would put them "at the border of mental retardation", according to Pinker.

The Flynn effect has been put down to improvements in education, nutrition, and health, and has been recorded in dozens of countries around the world. We are all getting cleverer.

(Yes, IQ doesn't equal intelligence, but it correlates very well with success in education and jobs, and with your life chances in general.)

And things will probably get better still.

Via 20th Century Fox / giphy.com

So remember this when you see people worrying that the world is dangerous, or that we're all going to die of cancer or obesity or Ebola or MRSA, or that education isn't what it used to be, or that we're all going to starve because of overpopulation, or that we're having too many babies.

The world is full of dangerous things, of course. Nothing's perfect and these improvements are not guaranteed to continue, and it looks like we've buggered the climate up, which could be a problem. But still, this is the safest, best, happiest time to be a human being there has ever been.

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