Faith in Taranaki: Don't believe the hype - the world is getting better

It may seem like war is everywhere these days when, in fact, the chances of dying in a conflict have never been lower.
Hani Mohammed
It may seem like war is everywhere these days when, in fact, the chances of dying in a conflict have never been lower.

My holiday reading often has some escapism built into it.  A good novel can take me to another place and allow me to put my routines and responsibilities on a shelf for a while.

Sometimes I run across an article or a blog that provokes my thinking and helps me recover some of my perspective about the world I keep hearing about through the media.

In an Indian paper I was reading one of those people who make predictions was quoted making some very specific and scary predictions for this year. I want to share with you the content of a different perspective that I also read.

Is the world getting better, worse or staying the same?

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Statistically a majority of people who are asked this question incline to the view things were indeed getting worse in our world. But is this true?

Until his death two years ago, Swedish health professor Hans Rosling battled deeply-rooted misconceptions held by top academics, economists, UN officials, politicians, military brass and journalists concerning the state of the world, in board rooms, lecture halls, and forums from Davos to TED talks.

A medical doctor with vast hands-on experience in many countries, Rosling challenged his listeners to seek out the facts and develop a lifestyle of what he called 'Factfulness', the title of the book he completed in the last months of his life.

Here are some facts he liked to quote;

• extreme global poverty has fallen from 85 per cent in 1800 to 9 per cent in 2017, the biggest drop from 50 per cent happening since 1966.

• average life expectancy has risen from 31 years in 1800 to 72 years in 2017.

• today there are no countries with a life expectancy below 50 years.

• in 1800, 44 per cent of children died before the age of 5 years, but in 2016 only 4 per cent died.

• battle deaths per 100,000 people was 201 in 1942, but today is merely 1.

• plane crash deaths per 10 billion passenger miles over 5-year averages was 2100 in 1929-1933, but 2012-16 was 1.

• deaths from disasters annually over 10-year averages per million people was 453 in the 1930's, reduced to 10 over the period 2010-16.

• child labour of those 5-14 years working full-time under bad conditions  dropped from 28 per cent in 1950 to 10 per cent in 2012.

• nuclear arms reached a peak of 64,000 warheads in 1986, but was reduced to 15,000 in 2017.

• 148 countries had cases of smallpox in 1850, yet smallpox was eradicated by 1979.

• world hunger has dropped from 28 per cent of people undernourished in 1970 to 11 per cent in 2015.

Facts about good things increasing that Rosling would tell his audiences included:

• cereal harvests (tonnes per hectare) have increased from 1.4 in 1961 to 4 in 2014.

• adult literacy has increased from 10 per cent in 1800 to 86 per cent in 2016.

• the share of humanity living in a democracy has risen from 1 per cent in 1816 to 56 per cent in 2015.

• the countries with equal voting rights from women and men was 1 in 1893, but today is 193.

• child cancer survival has risen from 58 per cent in 1975 to 80 per cent in 2010.

• the share of girls enrolled in primary schools was 65 per cent in 1970 and in 2015 was 90 per cent.

• one-year-olds vaccinated at least once have risen from 22 per cent in 1980 to 88 per cent in 2016.

• those with access to water from a protected source is 85 per cent in 2015, up from 58 per cent in 1980.

Our problem, Rosling suggest is our' negativity instinct'. We tend to romanticise the past as the 'good old days'. Our 'now' culture robs us of proper reference points.

Our news media surveillance of suffering had improved tremendously, yet stories about gradual improvements impacting millions of lives doesn't make the front pages.

Activists and lobbyists create alarm to raise funding, for causes. Politicians, journalists and terrorists also exploit the 'fear instinct'.

While terrorism has increased worldwide, it has decreased in the richer nations (less than 1500 were killed from 2007-2016, a third of the number killed in the previous decade); most of the increase has been in Iraq (about half), Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. 

Rosling was a man of deep humanitarian and humanist compassion. He was criticised for 'one-sidedness', Factfulness challenges our world perceptions.

His passion for those still trapped in poverty and sickness is evident in his many Youtube videos. He unmasks many of the populist arguments which create fear of foreigners and scapegoat outsiders, 

There remain challenges before us all, big ones. Yet there stands the progress of the good he describes, (and Rosling was not known as a religious; he  was shaped by grace, compassion, respect for one another and a belief that all persons are equal and to be honoured by us as they are honoured in the eyes and actions of God.)

There is hope, and that's worth a prayer of thanks.

Martein Kelderman is the pastor at New Plymouth Central Baptist Church.

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