For most Americans, these feel like bleak times. More than 750,000 Americans and 5 million people worldwide have died from Covid-19. A mob tried to violently stop the winner of our most recent presidential election from taking office through an attack on the Capitol. Climate change is exacerbating wildfires and other natural disasters, and we are not on track to avoid large-scale warming by 2100.
This is all real, and truly alarming. But it would be a mistake to view that as the sum total of the world in 2021. Under the radar, some aspects of life on Earth — in areas like public health, the economy, science and technology, and animal welfare, among others — are getting better, sometimes dramatically so.
Many of us aren’t aware of the ways the world is getting better because the press — and humans in general — have a strong negativity bias. To be sure, some objective conditions aren’t mere spin: This pandemic has been a horror. But it also happens to be the case that negative experiences affect people more, and for longer, than positive ones. Survey evidence consistently indicates that few people in rich countries have any clue that the world has taken a happier turn in recent decades — one poll in 2016 found that only 8 percent of US residents knew that global poverty had fallen since 1996.
It’s worth paying some attention to this huge progress. The people benefiting aren’t missing it — 50 percent of Chinese respondents in the 2016 poll said they knew poverty had fallen — and you shouldn’t either.
Nothing’s permanent, and big challenges like climate change and the fraying of liberal democracy remain. But as dismal as many things are right now, the world has gotten much better on a variety of important, underappreciated dimensions. The progress we have made on these fronts makes me optimistic that we can overcome the setbacks and tragedies of the last couple of years.
1) Poverty fell substantially during Covid-19 in the US
In 2020 and 2021, the federal government responded to the economic shock of the pandemic by doing something unprecedented: It shoveled money to most Americans to help them weather the storm.
Unlike stimulus checks passed during the 2001 and 2008 downturns, the 2020-2021 checks were universal at the bottom of the income scale. They had no work requirement, nor were recipients required to have paid federal taxes in the past to get the checks. That means that the stimulus checks should have had a profound effect on poverty this past year or so — and that’s exactly what researchers are finding.
In March, researchers at Columbia led by Zachary Parolin estimated that as a result of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the US poverty rate would fall to 8.5 percent in 2021, the lowest figure on record and well below 2018’s figure of 12.8 percent. The Columbia authors find that if you compare 2021 to every year for which the US census has data, from 1967 to 2019, and use a consistent poverty line, 2021 is projected to have the lowest poverty rate on record.
That was hardly the expected outcome given the depth of the Covid-induced recession, but it’s a huge silver lining amid the chaos of the past year.
2) Global poverty is down dramatically in the last 40 years, even with Covid-19
One of the most important developments of the past few decades of human history is the dramatic decline of extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1.90 per day. That’s a very, very low bar, and in 1981, 42.7 percent of humans fell below it, living in absolutely dire poverty.
But by 2017, the rate had fallen by more than three-quarters, to 9.3 percent.
Some development experts argue we should be using a global poverty line of $10-$15 a day instead (you can read more in detail about those debates here). But even a higher poverty line shows a big reduction in hardship — in 1981, 75.1 percent of humanity lived on less than $10 a day ($3,650 per year); by 2018, that figure was at 62.4 percent.
The Covid-19 pandemic, of course, blunted progress on global poverty; an estimated 97 million people fell into poverty in 2020 compared to the year before, per the latest estimates from the World Bank. The pandemic also increased global inequality, as incomes fell in poor countries like India but rose among the poor and middle class in rich countries due to government support.
But those projections also suggest the world is already reversing this setback. The Bank’s researchers estimate that the number of people in extreme poverty shot up from 655 million in 2019 to 732 million in 2020 — but will fall in 2021, to 711 million. To put those numbers in further context, the 2021 poverty estimate is lower than the number of people in poverty in 2016, and even the elevated 2020 figure was lower than the number of people in poverty in 2015, despite population growth.
Covid-19 certainly interrupted progress on global poverty, and uninterrupted progress would obviously be preferable. But while there’s still a lot of work to be done, the world is already showing signs of recovering, and the medium- to long-run trends are positive.
3) Cancer death rates in the US have been falling substantially for years
The US is a fairly rich country where maladies that tend to hit later in life — like cancer — have come to dominate the list of top causes of death. The good news is that in recent decades we have made considerable progress in developing and deploying better treatments for cancer.
A recent study from researchers at the American Cancer Society estimates how many more people would have died between 1991 and 2018 had cancer death rates stayed at their 1991 level. That was the year cancer deaths peaked, in part because that’s when lung cancer deaths (mostly from smoking) were peaking for men.
Reductions in cancer death rates since then have averted nearly 2.2 million deaths in men and 1 million in women. That’s a huge number of people who got to enjoy longer lives due to progress in preventing and treating cancer.
That said, experts believe the pandemic hampered diagnosis and treatment of the disease these past couple of years and expect an uptick in advanced disease and mortality from cancer to show up in data in coming years. It doesn’t wipe away the progress of the last couple of decades, but it’s fair to temper our enthusiasm.
4) Cigarette smoking is on the way out in America
Even with decades of progress against smoking, lung cancer still represents over 20 percent of all cancer deaths.
But as of 2018, deaths from lung cancer had fallen from their peak by 54 percent among men and by 30 percent among women. That progress is largely attributable to progress against smoking. We’ve come a long way from 1955, when 45 percent of Americans reported smoking in a given week to Gallup, to 2021, when a mere 16 percent do (which is itself a big drop from 21 percent in 2014).
With the FDA working (slowly) on rules that would ban cigarettes with addictive levels of nicotine, traditional cigarettes could soon be a thing of the past in the US. The next frontier in the battle against smoking is in the developing world, where progress has been harder. We also aren’t fully sure of the risks posed by e-cigarettes, but they remain safer than the cigarettes they have replaced.
5) Child mortality has fallen by over half worldwide
One of the big unqualified wins for the world in the last few decades has been the decline in child mortality.
Worldwide, under-5 deaths fell by more than half between 1990 and 2019, with some of the fastest progress in the world’s poorest regions, like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Childhood mortality tends to be driven by preventable causes like malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia, and the world has made progress on preventing them through interventions like bednets and better water sanitation.
These estimates stop in 2019 — global public health statistics take a while to compile — and we’ve obviously had a pandemic in the interim. But as we’ve now learned, Covid-19 is not very lethal among young children. Yes, there have been deaths, and they’ve been tragic, but the UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation finds that 11,700 children under 20 have died of the illness worldwide — only 0.4 percent of total Covid-19 deaths in their estimate.
The bigger concern is that Covid-related economic slowdowns and lockdowns have disrupted other health and nutrition programs and thus indirectly increased child mortality by increasing deaths from other diseases, like malaria. For malaria-driven mortality, at least, the evidence for such an effect is mixed, with high-malaria countries reporting lower malaria levels in 2020 despite Covid-19, and countries with low levels seeing them rise somewhat.
But we will have to wait for more definitive data to see how child mortality has evolved in 2020-21 and beyond. Whatever the answer, the trends from 1990 to 2019 are worth celebrating, even as early estimates of the pandemic’s effects should give us pause.
6) Countries are showing it’s possible to de-link economic growth and emissions
By far the most significant negative trend in the world over the past few decades has been climate change, which may have already cost thousands of lives and may well cost millions more in the future.
To avoid that outcome, the world needs to cut emissions — and fast. While rich countries are not making as much progress as they should, one exciting trend to highlight here is that several countries (including the US) have managed to cut per capita emissions relative to 1990 levels while achieving substantial economic growth. In other words, they’ve been able to show that fighting climate change need not be at odds with improving economic well-being.
This cuts against the warnings of both conservative opponents of climate action and people on the left in the “degrowth” movement that action to prevent climate change will necessitate a halt to economic growth (which, realistically, would translate into declining living standards and slowed progress against global poverty). It suggests that a more robust emissions-reduction regime, like the one outlined in the Build Back Better plan, can avert the worst consequences of climate change without making Americans or (more importantly) the global poor worse off.
7) More and more chickens are living cage-free
In some important ways, life has been improving for the billions of sentient farm animals, capable of feeling emotions and pain, living in factory farms in the US and abroad.
By far the most numerous species of farm animal is the chicken, and chickens, both for meat and eggs, have historically been treated very poorly. In 2010, per the United Egg Producers trade group (hardly an organization with an interest in making egg farms look bad), 97 percent of egg-laying hens were confined to what are known as “battery cages.”
These cages typically hold five to 10 birds each, and United Egg Producers’ minimum standards state that each bird be given 67 square inches — a smaller space than a standard 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper. And that’s for farms that comply with the voluntary standards; many didn’t, and offered even less space.
But as the above chart shows, more and more egg producers are transitioning away from battery cages. As my colleague Kenny Torrella explains, this progress was spurred in large part by bans on the cages in states like California, Michigan, and Oregon, and sped along by pledges from egg companies secured by advocates in response to bad publicity. Life on egg farms outside a cage is hardly a picnic, but it’s a vast improvement, one that represents some 70 million fewer hens living in cages in 2021 compared to 2015.
8) Over half the world has gotten a Covid-19 shot already
Considerable media attention on Covid-19 has focused, fairly, on the communities of anti-vaxxers who’ve held out against getting protection against the illness. Some attention has also, correctly, been paid to the inadequate amount the US and other rich countries have pledged to fund Covid-19 vaccination in the developing world.
But it’s still worth taking a moment to appreciate the largest and fastest vaccination campaign the world has ever seen. Less than a year after US regulators gave emergency approval to the first Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine candidate, over half the world has gotten at least one shot, and two out of five people on Earth have been fully inoculated.
As the chart above shows, there are deep inequities in the allocation of those doses. Africa, in particular, has been neglected in vaccine provision, and rich countries need to do much better in providing doses there.
But South America, hardly the richest region on Earth, has the highest vaccination rates of any continent, and Asia is near European and North American levels (albeit in part because many Asian countries have relied on less effective Chinese vaccines).
That’s an enormous public health success that we shouldn’t take for granted, even as we recognize that there’s still plenty of work to be done.
9) Covid-19 vaccines emerged astonishingly fast
Also notable is just how fast Covid-19 vaccines were developed. There are illnesses whose biological origins have been known for over a century — like tuberculosis — for which a reliable vaccine still does not exist. Malaria’s underlying parasite was identified in 1880 and the World Health Organization first recommended a vaccine against it this year.
Covid-19, by contrast, was first detected in China in December 2019, and a year later, the FDA had approved Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine against it.
In some ways, that timeline understates how fast the progress toward a vaccine has been. Moderna designed its Covid-19 vaccine over a weekend in January 2020, two months before the pandemic hit full force in the US. A virologist named Eddie Holmes had tweeted out the genome of the virus on January 10; on January 13, Moderna used that genome to develop a vaccine candidate. It took another 11 months of rigorous testing for the FDA to allow the vaccine to be used. Adenovirus-based vaccine candidates weren’t developed quite as fast, but the process wasn’t too shabby — AstraZeneca’s trials started in April 2020.
Best of all, the speedy development process has shown that mRNA and adenovirus-based vaccine “platforms” can work at scale, which raises the prospect of more effective vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV, especially through mRNA technology. If even a fraction of those efforts succeed, the benefits to global health will be enormous.