Allister Heath

The world is richer and healthier

Gloom and doom are in fashion. But, writes Allister Heath, a remarkable collection of economic statistics shows that the reality is much, much cheerier. For all our laments to the contrary, the human race has never had it so good

Text settings

For billions of people around the world, these are the best of times to be alive. From Beijing to Bratislava, more of us are living longer, healthier and more comfortable lives than at any time in history; fewer of us are suffering from poverty, hunger or illiteracy. Pestilence, famine, death and even war, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, are in retreat, thanks to the liberating forces of capitalism and technology.

If you believe that such apparently outlandish claims cannot possibly be true, think again. In a book which will trigger intense controversy when it is published later this month, the acclaimed American economist Indur Goklany, former US delegate to the United Nations’ intergovernmental panel on climate change, demonstrates that on every objective measure of the human condition — be it life expectancy, food availability, access to clean water, infant mortality, literacy rates or child labour — well-being and quality of life are improving around the world.

A remarkable compendium of inform-ation at odds with the present fashionable pessimism, Goklany’s The Improving State of the World, published by the Cato Institute, reveals that, contrary to popular belief, it is the poorest who are enjoying the most dramatic rise in living standards. Refuting a central premise of the modern green movement, it also demonstrates that as countries become richer, they also become cleaner, healthier and more environmentally conscious. 

Needless to say, Goklany has already been accused of naive Panglossianism by the doom and gloom merchants, to whom all must always be for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. This is deeply unfair to Goklany: like the rest of us, he is concerned at the shameful deprivation, disease and misery that continue to affect hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, North Korea and all the rest of the world’s horror spots. But he argues convincingly that to recognise their horrific plight should not prevent us from also acknowledging our progress in liberating even larger numbers of people from extreme poverty.

We should be especially proud of the fact that humanity has never been better fed: the daily food intake in poor countries has increased by 38 per cent since the 1960s to 2,666 calories per person per day on average. The population of those countries has soared by 83 per cent during that time, so this is a stupendous achievement which puts the final nail in the coffin of Malthusianism.

Together with a 75 per cent decline in global food prices in real terms in the second half of the 20th century, caused by improved agricultural productivity and freer trade, fewer people than ever before are going hungry. The rate of chronic undernourishment in poor countries has halved to 17 per cent, compared with a little over a third 45 years ago. In wealthy countries, the cost of essential foods has collapsed, with the price of flour, bacon and potatoes relative to incomes dropping by between 82 and 92 per cent over the past century; similar trends are now visible in developing countries too.

There is still a long way to go; but never before in human history have so many people been liberated from extreme poverty so quickly. The number of people subsisting on $1 a day has declined from 16 per cent of the world population in the late 1970s to 6 per cent today, while those living on $2 a day dropped from 39 per cent to 18 per cent. In 1820, 84 per cent of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty; today this is down to about a fifth.

Famine and declining life expectancy are problems now limited to the small number of countries unfortunate enough to continue to suffer from horrendous misgovernment by kleptocratic elites or which persist in rejecting capitalism and globalisation. There is only one way to ensure that the most deprived in the poorest countries are fed and clothed: their governments must embrace the market economy, strong property rights, sound money, free trade and technological progress. That is the only road to higher economic growth; and increased wealth is the prerequisite to better living standards.

To see how far we have come, consider that anyone born in Britain during the Middle Ages would have been exceptionally lucky to live to see their 30th birthday. The average person could expect to live only to the age of 22, before succumbing to disease, injury or famine. By 1800, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, life expectancy in Britain had climbed to 36 years, then the highest ever seen but less than the life expectancy enjoyed today in even the most war-torn and deprived countries. By the 1950s the average Briton could expect to live to the age of 69; today this has increased to almost 78 years.

Life expectancy in poorer countries has improved even faster. In China it has surged from 41 years in the 1950s to 71 years today; in India it is up from 39 years to 63 years, almost doubling the average lifespan of 2 billion people. In 1900 average life expectancy around the world was a mere 31 years; today it is 67 years and rising.

Just as remarkably, the gap between poor and rich countries has been shrinking fast. By the early 1950s a child born in a wealthy country such as Britain could expect to live 25 years longer than a child born in a poor country such as Algeria; today accidents of birth matter far less. The gap has closed to 12.2 years, thanks to diffusion and transfer of public health practices and medical advances pioneered in the West.

We are not only living longer; we are also living healthier lives, in poor as well as in rich countries. Disability rates in the leading developed countries have declined strikingly and the onset of chronic diseases has been significantly delayed during the course of the past century — by nine years for heart disease (despite increased obesity), by 11 years for respiratory disease (despite smoking) and by nearly eight years for cancer.

All of these and other improvements to well-being have come despite a hundredfold increase in the use of man-made chemicals, demolishing the oft-repeated but obstinately incorrect claim that pollution, urbanisation and modernity have made life more dangerous. In truth, before industrialisation, at least 200 out of every 1,000 children died before reaching their first birthday. Infant mortality globally is now down to 57 per 1,000, thanks to huge strides made in nutrition, hygiene and medical care in the developing world.

Children are not only much more likely to survive infancy; they are also far more likely to spend their childhood in school. Child labour, while still all too prevalent, has been in steady decline for years. In 1960 a quarter of all children aged ten to 14 were in work, a share which has fallen to a tenth today. Partly as a result, the global illiteracy rate has declined from 46 per cent in 1970 to about 18 per cent today.

There are many other ways in which life has improved across the developing world. Compared with 20 years ago, people are generally more free to choose their rulers and express their views; more likely to live under the rule of law and less likely to be deprived of their life, liberty or property through the whim of a ruler. Social and professional mobility is less circumscribed by accidents of birth and location. Fewer people are toiling 18 hours a day in mines; more are working in offices and able to afford holidays.

When Charles Dickens depicted the industrial town as hell on earth in The Old Curiosity Shop, he was chronicling the dark phase of economic development which some parts of China and India are undergoing today. But the forces that eventually lifted Britain from that Stygian gloom had already been set in motion, as they have in emerging economies today. Remark ably, there is mounting evidence that as countries become richer, they eventually also become greener, cleaner and healthier. 

Increased productivity and better technology have allowed us to conserve energy resources, cut emissions of noxious substances such as lead and sulphur dioxide, provide cleaner drinking water and ensure better quality air. London’s great smog of December 1952, which killed 4,000 people, is now a mere historical footnote, as is the Great Stink of 1858, when the Thames was so filthy and polluted that Parliament had to be evacuated.

The widespread view that Western societies are squandering natural resources on an unprecedented scale doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A ton of coal produces 12 times more electricity in modern power stations than a century ago. Energy intensity in the rich countries has been falling by 1.3 per cent a year for the past century and a half. This year the demand for oil from rich countries will actually fall, despite buoyant economic growth. Because one acre of agricultural land produces so much more food today than it did even a decade ago, Western countries have been able to cut back on the amount of space devoted to agriculture. Forests are growing again, replacing fields.

To the doom merchants, however, none of this really matters. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are on the rise globally which, they claim, will trigger devastating global warming and a catastrophic relapse in living standards. But Goklany begs to differ. Climate change might exacerbate existing problems, such as malaria, coastal flooding and habitat loss, he acknowledges, but this doesn’t justify the heavy-handed interventionism called for in Sir Nicholas Stern’s recent report.  

In fact, equally rigorous modelling using different assumptions suggests that, for the next 80 years at least, the benefits of faster economic growth in further improving quality of life across the developing world will outweigh any cost of global warming. Some reductions in carbon emissions may eventually be needed, Goklany says, but in most cases it would be cheaper to adapt to higher temperatures than to try to stop them.

Our best bet, therefore, is to allow technology, trade and the global economy to continue growing unimpeded. Such is Goklany’s plea: if the present rate of improvement continues, he argues, we could soon be living in a world where ‘hunger and malnutrition have been virtually banished; where malaria, TB, Aids and other infectious and parasitic diseases are distant memories; and where humanity meets its needs while ceding land and water back to the rest of nature ... even in sub-Saharan Africa infant mortality could be as low as it is today in the United States, and life expectancies as high’.

Hope has become a commodity in short supply in the West. Even though more progress will always be required, our vic-tories over famine and extreme poverty during the past two centuries are civilisation’s greatest achievement. It is time we took a well-deserved break from worrying about terrorism, rising crime, social dislocation and all our other problems to celebrate what we have actually got right.  

Allister Heath is associate editor of The Spectator and deputy editor of the Business. The Improving State of the World, by Indur Goklany, is to be published later this month by the Cato Institute,, at $19.95.