It has been one of the most difficult years in recent memory, but research shows life is actually getting better, and we are the most privileged human beings to have ever lived on this planet, writes Andrew Taberner 

2020 has been quite a difficult year for us all – perhaps the most difficult that many of us have experienced. As the year draws near to a close, our fears about climate change and the post-pandemic economic forecast may have left us feeling gloomy about our lives, and about our prospects for the future.

Now seems like a good time to take stock, and to remind ourselves, that in fact, life for most of us, around the globe, continues to get better, year upon year.

I’m not saying this in a ‘chin-up’ or ‘Pollyanna’ sort of way, but as an evidence-based statement. I have a professional background in physics, and have spent much of my professional life measuring things, particularly the way the human heart works and how it responds to stimuli, stressors and disease. As Lord Kelvin, perhaps the most important physicist of the 19th century said, “To measure is to know”.

Understanding and appreciating our lived lives is a complex and ultimately subjective experience, but it is still possible to measure the quality of life. Numerous researchers around the world have done so, and their data are largely indisputable: life is getting better, and we are the most privileged human beings to have lived on this planet. 

The Historical Index of Human Development is one objective index of human development, which allows us to measure how life quality changes over time. This index includes measures of life expectancy, access to information, literacy, education and so on. And according to these measures, life, for most of us, keeps improving.

Just because something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. We have reason be sceptical, but many more reasons to be optimistic.

This evidence may not align with our subjective assessments: in 2018, 18,000 adults across around the world were asked the question “is life getting better or worse?” Just over 40 percent of people in China thought life was getting better, and it turns out they were the most optimistic – few residents of western liberal democracies, in which life is demonstrably and measurably better, think life is improving. Perhaps it’s time to better appreciate what is good in our lives?

How we assess the quality of our lives is a personal matter, but there is value in obtaining a broader perspective, by comparing our lives, for instance, to those of our ancestors. When we do so, the evidence of progress is striking.

Two hundred years ago, most human beings could be expected to live for little more than 30-40 years. That’s if you survived childhood; 40 percent died before age five, even in wealthy ‘Western’ countries. Today, Kiwis have nearly the highest life expectancy in the world, at ~81 years. Much of this advance has been as a result of knowledge discovery and technology development in nutrition, food supply, sanitation and medical treatments.

Education is another important indicator of human development. In 1800, almost 90 percent of the world’s population could neither read nor write. My great grandfather, Thomas Taberner, according to our grandfather, could barely write his name and at the age of eleven began working in a coal mine. His first two wives died in their 20s; his third spouse, also illiterate, was my great-grandmother. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was sent to work in a flax mill at Raglan when he was nine. He never completed any more schooling.

In 1820, 90 percent of the world’s population, including many in ‘the West’, lived in extreme poverty and struggled every day just to survive. Now, fewer than 10 per cent are extremely poor. This millennium alone, 170,000 people been lifted out of extreme poverty every day. Although many remain poor, those numbers are still staggering.

And for those of us in wealthy societies, think of the impact of the development of household appliances, which have cut the number of hours that we as families spend on household chores from 60 hours a week in 1900 to less than 19 hours a week today. So much hassle has been removed from our lives by the invention of the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and also the refrigerator – the latter being perhaps the appliance most difficult to imagine life without.

These advances we’ve made have come at the expense of enormous amounts of energy and resources from the earth, and whether that’s sustainable, long-term, is another story. I hope that we will be able to raise the quality of all human lives, at lower energy cost and in a way that will be better for the planet. But it’s important that we don’t romanticise the lifestyles of our ancestors. If we want to go back to ‘the good old days’ we’ve got to be prepared for 44 percent of children dying before they’re five years old as a result of untreatable life-threatening diseases, so say nothing of near-continuous warfare and conflict.

Covid-19 has been referred to “unprecedented” and in many ways it is – including our ability to control its spread. In the six weeks that the so-called Spanish flu hit New Zealand in 1918, 8,500 people died. Samoa lost 22 percent of its population in that pandemic and in Aotearoa around 2500 Māori perished.

In terms of the number of deaths, and lives ruined, Covid-19 doesn’t compare to the Spanish flu. That’s because of the advances made by learning institutes and industries here and around the world, which means we have better information, better communication and better understanding of viruses and how to contain them. New Zealand has done well in the Covid-19 pandemic because it has listened to its scientists.

Yes, there are myriad reasons to be optimistic, and statistics that can help us take stock of how much better our lives have become. New Zealand has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, rates of violence are at historical lows, and we are living in a historically peaceful era that has been referred to as ‘the long peace’. In addition, leisure time, travel, information, freedoms and human rights are all increasing.

When considering whether life is getting better or worse, we need to remember to do the maths. The numbers show it’s not all bad news, and most of it is good news. Just because something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. We have reason be sceptical, but many more reasons to be optimistic, and especially to be grateful.

Professor Andrew Taberner is from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) at the University of Auckland.

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