The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving

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The 1980 Global 2000 Report to the President began bystating that “if present trends continue, the world in 2000will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically,and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live innow.” In the Introduction to The Resourceful Earth,which I edited in 1984 with the late Herman Kahn, we rewrote thatpassage, stating, “If present trends continue, the world in2000 will be less crowded (though more populated), lesspolluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable toresource‐​supply disruption than the world we live in now.”

The years have been kind to our forecasts — or more important,the years have been good for humanity. The benign trends we thenobserved have continued. Our species is better off in just about every measurablematerial way. And there is stronger reason than ever to believethat progressive trends will continue past the year 2000, pastthe year 2100, and indefinitely.

When we widen our scope beyond such physical matters asnatural resources and the environment — to mortality, the standard ofliving, slavery and freedom, housing, and the like — we find thatthe trends pertaining to economic welfare are heartening also.Please notice that this benign assessment does not imply thatthere will not be increases in some troubles — AIDS at present,for example, and other diseases in the future, as well as socialand political upheavals. New problems always will arise. But the assessmentrefers to broad aggregate measures of effects upon people ratherthan the bad phenomena themselves — life expectancy rather thanAIDS, skin cancers (or even better, lifetime healthy days) rather thana hole in the ozone layer (if that is indeed a problem), and agriculturerather than global warming.

We have seen extraordinary progress for the human enterprise,especially in the past two centuries. Yet many people believe thatconditions of life are generally worse than in the past, ratherthan better. We must therefore begin by discussing that perception,because it affects a reader’s reaction to the facts. Pessimismabout the environment and resources is so universal that it needsno documentation. The comparison one chooses is always crucial. Apremise of The State of Humanity is that it usually makes senseto compare our present state of affairs with how it was before.That is the comparison that is usually relevant for policypurposes because it measures our progress. But many private and public discussionsinstead compare the present state of one group to the presentstate of other groups, as a supposed measure of“equity,” or as the basis for indignation andrighteousness, or to support political positions. Others comparethe actual situation to the best possible, or to ideal purity,ostensibly to motivate improvement. A typical front‐​page storyfrom the Washington Post (July 5, 1991) does both; itheadlines a complaint of blacks that a nearby county Isn’tDrawing Upscale Stores, and the caption under a picture says,Prince George’s resident Howard Stone is angered by the shortageof upscale retail stores in his community. (Yes, that was on thefront page.) This issue is very different from the sorts ofproblems that most of humanity has faced throughout most of itshistory.

The Path of Material Human Welfare

Let us distinguish three types of economic change: 1) Changethat is mainly absolute rather than relative. Anexample is health improvement that benefits everyone worldwide.2) Change that is mainly relative but also has animportant overall effect. An example is a productivityimprovement, due to people working smarter in one country, thatallows that country to greatly increase its exports to the benefitof both exporters and importers but causes problems for someother exporting countries. 3) Change that is wholly relative.An example is a change in the price charged by one tradingpartner to another, or in the terms of trade between rawmaterials and consumer goods, or the dollar‐​yen exchange rate; insuch zero‐​sum situations there is no on‐​balance change for bad orgood. It is only the third category in which one finds bad news,and indeed bad news is inevitable for one party or the other.

This is my central assertion: Almost every absolute change,and the absolute component of almost every economic and social changeor trend, points in a positive direction, as long as we view the matterover a reasonably long period of time. That is, all aspects ofmaterial human welfare are improving in the aggregate.

For proper understanding of the important aspects of aneconomy, we should look at the long‐​run movement. But short‐​run comparisons — betweenthe sexes, age groups, races, political groups, which are usuallypurely relative — make more news.

Let’s start with the longest and deepest trends. Surprisingthough they may be, these trends represent the uncontroversial settledfindings of the economists and other experts who work in thesefields.

Length of Life

The most important and amazing demographic fact — the greatesthuman achievement in history, in my view — is the decrease in theworld’s death rate. It took thousands of years to increase lifeexpectancy at birth from just over 20 years to the high 20s. Thenin just the past two centuries, the length of life one couldexpect for a newborn in the advanced countries jumped from lessthan 30 years to perhaps 75 years.

Starting in the 1950s, well after World War II, length of lifein the poor countries leaped upward by perhaps 15 or even 20 yearsbecause of advances in agriculture, sanitation, and medicine.(China excelled in this respect before developing its economy,which is exceptional.)

The extraordinary decline in child mortality is an importantelement in increased life expectancy, for which every parent must givefervent thanks. But contrary to common belief, in the richcountries such as the United States the gains in life expectancy amongthe oldest cohorts have been particularly large in recent years.For example, among American males aged 65 to 74, mortality fell26 percent from 1970 to 1988, and among females of that age,mortality fell 29 percent and 21 percent from 1960 and 1970 to1988, respectively (Statistical Abstract of the United States,1990, p. 75).

The decrease in the death rate is the root cause of therebeing a much larger world population nowadays than in formertimes. In the 19th century, the planet Earth could sustain only 1billion people. Ten thousand years ago, only 4 million could keep themselvesalive. Now, more than 5 billion people are living longer and morehealthily than ever before, on average. This increase in theworld’s population represents humanity’s victory against death.

The trends in health are more complex. The decline inmortality is the most important overall indicator of health, ofcourse. But whether keeping more people alive to older ages isaccompanied by better or poorer health, on average, in thoseolder years is in doubt.

Agricultural Labor Force

The best single measure of a country’s standard of living isthe proportion of the labor force devoted to agriculture. When everyonemust work at farming, as was the case only two centuries ago,there can be little production of nonagricultural goods. In theadvanced countries there has been an astonishing decline over thecenturies in the proportion of the population working inagriculture, now only about 1 person in 50. That shift hasenabled consumption per person to multiply by a factor of 20 or40.

Raw Materials

People have since antiquity worried about running out ofnatural resources — flint, game animals, what‐​have‐​you. Yet, amazingly,all the historical evidence shows that raw materials — all ofthem — have become less scarce rather than more. It is beyond anydoubt that natural resource scarcity — as measured by theeconomically meaningful indicator of cost or price — has beendecreasing rather than increasing in the long run for all rawmaterials, with only temporary and local exceptions. And there is no reasonwhy this trend should not continue forever. The trend towardgreater availability includes the most counterintuitive case ofall — oil.

Food is an especially important resource. The evidence isparticularly strong that the trend in nutrition is benign despiterising population. The long‐​run price of food is down sharply,even relative to consumer products, as a result of increased productivity.And per person food consumption is up over the last 30 years. Theincrease of height in the West is another mark of improvednutrition.

(Africa’s food production per person is down, but in the1990s, few people any longer claim that Africa’s suffering has anythingto do with a shortage of land or water or sun. Hunger in Africaclearly stems from civil wars and government interference withagriculture, which periodic droughts have made more murderous.)

Only one important resource has shown a trend of increasingscarcity rather than increasing abundance. It is the most importantand valuable resource of all — human beings. Certainly, there are morepeople on earth now than ever before. But if we measure thescarcity of people the same way that we measure the scarcity ofother economic goods — by how much we must pay to obtain their services — wesee that wages and salaries have been going up all over theworld, in poor countries as well as in rich countries. The amountthat one must pay to obtain the services of a barber or a professorhas risen in India, just as the price of a barber or professorhas risen in the United States over the decades. That increase inthe price of people’s services is a clear indication that peopleare becoming more scarce even though there are more of us.

The Standard of Living

The data show unmistakably how the standard of living hasincreased in the world and in the United States through therecent centuries and decades, right up through the 1980s.Aggregate data always bring forth the question: But are not thegains mainly by the rich classes, and at the expense of the poor? Fora portion of U.S. history, income distribution did widen (thoughthis is hardly proof that the rich were exploiting the poor). Butthere has been little or no such tendency during, say, the 20th century. Anda widening gap does not negate the fact of a rising absolutestandard of living for the poor. Nor is there evidence that anincreasing proportion of the population lives below some fixed absolutepoverty line. There have been extraordinary gains by the poor inAmerica in consumption during this century, as well as a highstandard of living by any historical and cross‐ nationalstandards.

A related question concerns possible exploitation by the richcountries that might cause misery for the poor countries. But the distributionof the most important element of “real wealth” — life expectancy — has narrowedbetween rich and poor countries (as well as between the rich andpoor segments of populations within countries) over previousdecades — to wit, the extraordinary reduction in the gap betweenthe mortality rate of China and those of the rich countries sinceWorld War II. The reduction in the gap between literacy rates andother measures of amount of education in rich and poor countries corroboratesthis convergence. The convergence in economic productivity in therich countries, along with general growth, dovetails with theother measures of income distribution. Data on the absolute gap betweenyearly incomes of the rich and poor countries are beside thepoint; widening is inevitable if all get rich at the sameproportional rate, and the absolute gap can increase even if thepoor improve their incomes at a faster proportional rate than therich. Here one should notice that increased life expectancy amongthe poor relative to the rich reduces the gap in lifetime income,which is a more meaningful measure than yearly income.

Cleanliness of the Environment

Ask an average roomful of people if our environment isbecoming dirtier or cleaner, and most will say “dirtier.“Yet the air in the United States and in other rich countries isirrefutably safer to breathe now than in decades past; thequantities of pollutants — especially particulates, which are themain threat to health — have been declining. And water quality hasimproved; the proportion of monitoring sites in the United Stateswith water of good drinkability has increased since datacollection began in 1961. More generally, the environment isincreasingly healthy, with every prospect that this trend willcontinue.

When considering the state of the environment, we should thinkfirst of the terrible pollutions that were banished in the past centuryor so — the typhoid that polluted such rivers as the Hudson,smallpox that humanity has finally pursued to the ends of theearth and just about eradicated, the dysentery that distressedand killed people all over the world as it still does in India, theplagues and other epidemics that trouble us much less than ingenerations past, or not at all. Not only are we in the rich countries free ofmalaria (largely due to our intensive occupation of the land),but even the mosquitoes that do no more than cause itches withtheir bites are so absent from many urban areas that people nolonger need screens for their homes and can have garden partiesat dusk. It is a mark of our extraordinary success that these areno longer even thought of as pollutions.

The root cause of these victorious campaigns against theharshest pollutions was the nexus of increased technical capacityand increased affluence — wealth being the capacity to dealeffectively with one’s surroundings.

I am not saying that all is well everywhere, and I do notpredict that all will be rosy in the future. Children are hungry,and sick people live out lives of physical or intellectualpoverty and lack of opportunity; irrational war (not even foreconomic gain) or some new pollution may finish us off. For mostrelevant economic matters, however, the aggregate trends areimproving.

Can All This Good News Be True?

Readers of articles like this often ask, “But what aboutthe other side’s data?” There are no other data. Test foryourself the assertion that the physical conditions of humanityhave gotten better. Pick up the U.S. Census Bureau’s StatisticalAbstract of the United States and Historical Statistics of the UnitedStates at the nearest library and consult the data on the measuresof human welfare that depend on physical resources, for theUnited States or for the world as a whole. See the index for suchtopics as pollution, life expectancy, and the price indexes, plusthe prices of the individual natural resources. While you’re atit, check the amount of space per person in our homes and thepresence of such amenities as inside toilets and telephones. Youwill find “official” data showing that just about every singlemeasure of the quality of life shows improvement rather than thedeterioration that the doomsayers claim has occurred.

What Is the Mechanism That Produces Progress Rather ThanIncreasing Misery?

How can it be that economic welfare grows over time along withpopulation, instead of humanity’s being reduced to misery andpoverty as population grows and we use more and more resources?We need some theory to explain this controversion of commonsense.

The process operates as follows: More people and increasedincome cause problems in the short run — shortages and pollutions.Short-run scarcity raises prices and pollution causes outcries.Those problems present opportunity and prompt the search forsolutions. In a free society solutions are eventually found,though many people seek and fail to find solutions at cost tothemselves. In the long run the new developments leave us betteroff than if the problems had not arisen. This theory fits the factsof history.

Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustiblequantities just about all the products made bynature — foodstuffs, oil, even pearls and diamonds — and make themcheaper in most cases than the cost of gathering them in theirnatural state. And the standard of living of commoners is highertoday than that of royalty only two centuries ago — especiallytheir health and life expectancy, and their mobility to all partsof the world.

The extent to which the political‐​social‐​economic systemprovides personal freedom from government coercion is a crucial elementin the economics of resources and population. Skilled personsrequire an appropriate social and economic framework thatprovides incentives for working hard and taking risks, enablingtheir talents to flower and come to fruition. The key elements ofsuch a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, andfair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equallyfor all.

We have in our hands now — actually, in our libraries — thetechnology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever‐​growing populationfor the next 7 billion years. Most amazing is that most of this specific bodyof knowledge was developed within just the past two centuries orso, though it rests, of course, on basic knowledge that hadaccumulated for millennia.

Indeed, the last necessary additions to this body oftechnology — nuclear fission and space travel — occurred decadesago. Even if no new knowledge were ever gained after thoseadvances, we would be able to go on increasing our population forever,while improving our standard of living and our control over ourenvironment. The discovery of genetic manipulation certainlyenhances our powers greatly, but even without it we could havecontinued our progress forever. Conclusion

Progress toward a more abundant material life does not comelike manna from heaven, however. My message certainly is not oneof complacency. The ultimate resource is people — especiallyskilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty — whowill exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit andinevitably benefit the rest of us as well.

Julian L. Simon

Julian L. Simon is a professor of business and management at the University of Maryland and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. This essay is based on the introduction to his latest book, The State of Humanity, just published by the Cato Institute and Blackwell Publishers.