The question this week: is the world getting better or worse?

In a nutshell: while there are some positive global trends, there are important ways the world is getting worse. We’ve looked at how your career can help solve these, in particular:

This blog post was first released to our newsletter subscribers.

Join over 400,000 newsletter subscribers who get content like this in their inboxes weekly — and we’ll also mail you a free book!

Three ways the world’s getting better

1. Poverty has decreased.

Lots of stats about trends in the world – even ones that seem good to some people – are complicated to evaluate overall.1

But here’s a long-term trend, based on solid data, that seems uncontroversially good:

Living in extreme poverty is exceedingly difficult. And it’s not just the share of the population in extreme poverty that’s fallen. Since 1990, the absolute number has fallen too.

2. We’re healthier than ever before.

For a start, child mortality rates have fallen steeply in the last 100 years, as has the absolute number of children dying before reaching the age of five.

We’re close to eradicating polio and guinea worm disease, and we’re gradually getting a grip on malaria.

Overall, life expectancy in every continent is at its highest point ever and is increasing.

3. Renewable energy generation is rising.

While global temperatures are soaring and carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, we’re also producing more renewable energy than ever before:

The share of energy produced by renewables has been increasing since around 2005. And the fact that renewable energy has rapidly become so cheap relative to fossil fuels suggests this trend is likely to continue.

Three ways the world’s getting worse

1. Not everything’s getting better for humans. For example, the number of people living in autocracies is increasing.

This one’s slightly more controversial, because exactly how you classify a country as an autocracy rather than a democracy is tricky (see here for more on how researchers measure democracy). And the share of people living in autocracies is also decreasing.

But the absolute number of people living in autocracies has been rising since around 1950.

It’s also possible that autocracies don’t treat people as badly as they did in the past – but there again, maybe they treat people worse.

2. Non-human animals exploited by humans suffer worse conditions and in greater numbers than ever.

At this moment there are likely over 100 billion animals living in captivity, largely living in the abhorrent conditions of factory farms.

The numbers are even more shocking if you look at deaths rather than the number alive at any one moment: we’re slaughtering many hundreds of billions – and according to higher estimates, possibly trillions – of animals a year in our farms.

Meat consumption tends to rise as we get richer. So it looks like global meat consumption is going to continue to rise – although there are some ways we might work to prevent this, which we discuss in our article on factory farming.

3. The risk of catastrophes is probably higher than in any previous century.

Since 1945, we’ve possessed the capacity to destroy ourselves. The number of countries with nuclear weapons rose rapidly until the 1960s and hasn’t decreased (the absolute number of nuclear warheads has fallen since the 1980s, although there are still more than enough to cause a major catastrophe).

And we face new threats as we develop more dangerous technology. We’re particularly concerned about engineered pandemics and the possibility of an AI-related catastrophe. It’s possible new developments will create threats we haven’t even imagined.

We think that the problem you work on in your career is the biggest driver of your impact. And we think that these existential risks are the biggest problems we currently face.

Overall, it’s really unclear whether the world is getting better or worse — any conclusion is going to be based on some difficult subjective judgements, like how much we should care about the lives of non-human animals.

Personally, my best guess is that the negative effects of factory farming alone make the world worse than it’s ever been. That’s before we consider things like pandemic risks or the risk of nuclear war.

That said, this also provides an opportunity. There are ways we can work to fix these problems — and ways in which you could use your career to help.

Learn more:

Notes and references

  1. For example, I’ve heard the argument that the world is getting better because global GDP is rising (and so is GDP per capita). And that definitely seems like good evidence that we’re, on average, richer than in the past. Some of that wealth seems almost certainly good – I’m certainly glad I’m not a serf in mediaeval Europe! But whether being richer actually improves people’s lives is much harder to determine, and that’s before you start considering the negative side-effects of GDP growth.