The World Is Indeed Improving: A Response to Philipsen and Trebeck

I wish to thank Dr. Katherine Trebeck and Dr. Dirk Philipsen for their response to our lead essay. It is a pleasure to discuss important ideas with scholars who are searching for the truth and human betterment. Trebeck and Philipsen question “the human ability to invent itself out of the basic laws of physics” and call for “A Wellbeing Economy [that] positions the economy in service of human flourishing and true freedom; less precariousness and more dignity; fewer dirty industries and more businesses who put their workers and communities front and center.”

I agree that humanity still faces many problems, but I ask, along with the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay,On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us.”[1] Below, I outline a number of ways in which the world has become a better place over the last few decades and propose that many people are already living in a Wellbeing Economy—one that was, in large part, created by the market forces that Trebeck and Philipsen bemoan.

Let’s start with income, for richer societies can afford more food, better healthcare, higher levels of education, and so on. Between 1950 and 2019, the average income per person in the United States rose from $15,001 to $63,233, or 322 percent. In the United Kingdom, it rose from $12,008 to $44,960, or 274 percent. Between 1952 and 2019, the population-weighted average global income per person rose from $4,063 to $18,841, or 364 percent (all figures are in 2018 U.S. dollars).[2]

Increased prosperity was not confined to developed nations. Some of the world’s poorest countries benefited handsomely from income growth over the last few decades. The growth in Chinese incomes, from $238 in 1952 to $19,800 in 2019, amounts to a staggering 8,219 percent. India saw its average income rise from $930 to $8,148, or 776 percent. Even sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, saw its income per person rise from $2,222 to $3,866, or 74 percent (all figures are again in 2018 U.S. dollars).[3]

Except for a handful of war-torn African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and failing socialist countries, such as Venezuela, real incomes rose throughout the world over the last half-century—often substantially.

Now, consider the population-weighted average global life expectancy, which rose from 52.6 years in 1960 to 72.4 years in 2017, or 37.6 percent. In the United States, it rose from 69.8 years to 78.5 years, or 13 percent. In the United Kingdom, it rose from 71.1 years to 81.2 years, or 14 percent.

Once again, the world’s poorest nations experienced some of the greatest life expectancy gains: China, from 43.7 years to 76.4 years, or 75 percent; India, from 41.2 years to 68.8 years, or 67 percent; and sub-Saharan Africa, from 40.4 years to 60.9 years or 51 percent. There is not a single country in the world where life expectancy was lower in 2017 than it was in 1960.[4]

The reasons for increasing life spans include the dramatic decline in infant mortality and improved nutrition. Between 1960 and 2018, the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births fell from 25.9 to 5.6 in the United States, from 22.9 to 3.6 in the United Kingdom, and from 161 to 30 in India. That’s a reduction of 78 percent, 84 percent, and 81 percent, respectively. Between 1990 and 2018, the population-weighted average global infant mortality rate fell from 64.7 to 28.9, or 55 percent. In sub-Saharan Africa, it fell from 107 to 53, or 51 percent. In China, it fell from 83.7 in 1969 to 7.4 in 2018, or 91 percent.[5]

The population-weighted average global food supply per person per day rose from 2,115 calories in 1961 to 2,917 calories in 2017, or 38 percent. Over the same period, it rose from 2,880 calories to 3,766 calories, or 31 percent in the United States; from 3,231 calories to 3,428 calories, or 6 percent in the United Kingdom; from 1,415 calories to 3,197 calories, or 126 percent in China; and from 2,010 calories to 2,517 calories, or 25 percent in India.[6]

To put these figures in perspective, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that moderately active adult men consume between 2,400 and 2,600 calories a day, and moderately active adult women consume 2,000 calories a day.[7]

In sub-Saharan Africa, a region that once seemed destined for hunger, food supply rose from 2,004 calories in 1961 to 2,447 calories in 2017. That’s a 22 percent increase. Put differently, the world’s poorest region now enjoys access to food that is roughly equivalent to that of the Portuguese in the early 1960s.[8]

In fact, scientists from the African Population and Health Research Center in Kenya estimated that in four out of 24 African countries surveyed in 2017, obesity prevalence among urban women exceeded 20 percent. It ranged between 10 percent and 19 percent in the other 20 countries.[9] Today, obesity tends to be a bigger problem than starvation in many parts of the world, and famines have disappeared outside war zones, such as Yemen in 2020.

Speaking of violence, the global homicide rate, according to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, has dropped from 6.4 per 100,000 in 1990 to 5.3 per 100,000 in 2016. That’s a reduction of 17 percent over a remarkably short period of 26 years.[10]

Similarly, researchers at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo have documented a steep decline in the rate at which soldiers and civilians were killed in combat in the post–World War II era. The rate of battle deaths per 100,000 people reached a peak of 23 in 1953.[11] By 2016, it had fallen to just over 1. That’s a decline of about 95 percent.[12]

Genocides, noted the Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, tend to go hand in hand with wars. In the late 1930s, for example, the global genocide death rate among civilians hovered around 100 per 100,000 per year. During World War II, it reached a peak of 350. It then gradually declined. Since 2005, it has stood at zero.[13]

Also, more people go to school and are able to read. The population-weighted gross primary school enrollment rate in the world stood at 89 percent in 1970. By 2018, it stood at over 100 percent (because some students will be over-aged, under-aged, or grade repeaters, the gross rate can exceed 100 percent).[14] The population-weighted gross secondary school enrollment rate rose from 40 percent to 76 percent over the same period.[15] Finally, the population-weighted gross tertiary school enrollment rate rose from 9.7 percent to 38 percent.[16]

The population-weighted global literacy rate among men aged 15 and older came to 74 percent in 1975. That number rose to 90 percent in 2018.[17] The literacy rate among women aged 15 and older rose from 56 percent in 1976 to 83 percent in 2018.[18] In 2018, 90 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 24 were literate.[19] That number was almost 93 percent among men of the same age.[20] The age-old literacy gap between the sexes has all but disappeared.

Rates of extreme poverty have plummeted, with the share of people living on less than US$1.90 per day declining from 42 percent in 1981 to less than 10 percent in 2015. In China, it fell from 66 percent in 1990 to an astonishingly low 0.5 percent in 2016. In India, it fell from 62 percent in 1977 to 21 percent in 2011.[21]

Today, extreme poverty is no longer a global problem, but an African problem. Yet even the world’s poorest region saw extreme poverty decline from 55 percent in 1990 to 42 percent in 2015.[22] That reduction may seem underwhelming until we realize that the population of sub-Saharan Africa doubled from 512 million to 1.006 billion over the same period.

Speaking of Africa, Mauritania became the last country in the world to outlaw chattel slavery in 1981 and to criminalize the practice of enslavement in 2007.[23] A scourge of humanity for thousands of years, chattel slavery is legal no more.

Or consider political freedom. The Center for Systemic Peace in Virginia evaluates the characteristics of a political regime in each country on a 20-point scale from -10, which denotes a tyranny like North Korea, to 10, which denotes a politically free society like Norway. “As of the end of 2017, 96 out of 167 countries with populations of at least 500,000 (57 percent) were democracies of some kind, and only 21 (13 percent) were autocracies … [Some] 28 [percent of countries] exhibited elements of both democracy and autocracy. Broadly speaking, the share of democracies among the world’s governments has been on an upward trend since the mid-1970s, and now sits just shy of its post-World War II record (58 percent in 2016).”[24]

Other positive trends that I discussed in my recent book, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And many others you will find interesting, include the rise in global happiness, the decline in global income inequality, the falling share of the world’s population living in slums, the political and economic empowerment of women, the uneven but pronounced rise in IQ scores, the decriminalization of same-sex relationships, the continued rise in vaccinations against contagious diseases, the decline of contagious diseases (such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis), falling cancer death rates, the decline in the use of capital punishment, falling rates of military spending and conscription, the shrinkage of nuclear arsenals, the decline in working hours thus leaving more time for leisure, falling rates of child labor and workplace accidents, increasing access to electricity, improving access to sanitation and clean drinking water, and internet-driven access to information.[25]

In fact, it is much easier to compile a list of global trends that are worsening than a list of global trends that are improving, for the former is much shorter than the latter.

The most obvious worry to a diverse group of people—ranging from the apocalypticists at the one end to merely concerned citizens at the other end—is the state of the planet’s environment. Yet it is worth noting that even within the environmental sphere, there is plenty of positive news. Between 1982 and 2016, for example, the global tree canopy cover increased by an area larger than Alaska and Montana combined.[26] As Reason magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey put it, “Expanding woodlands suggests that humanity has begun the process of withdrawing from the natural world, which, in turn, will provide greater scope for other species to rebound and thrive.”[27]

According to the same author, “The chance of a person dying in a natural catastrophe—earthquake, flood, drought, storm, wildfire, landslide or epidemic—has declined by nearly 99 percent since the 1920s and 1930s … Buildings are better constructed to survive earthquakes; weather satellites and sophisticated computer models provide early storm warnings that give folks time to prepare and evacuate; and broad disease surveillance enables swift medical interventions to halt developing epidemics.”[28]

The Rockefeller University environmentalist Jesse H. Ausubel estimated in 2014 that due to the continued improvements in the efficiency of farming practices, including rising crop yields, the world will see “a net reduction in use of arable land (i.e., land used for farming) in about 50 years totaling 10 times the area of Iowa, and shrinking global cropland to the level of 1960.”[29]

In 2017, the World Database on Protected Areas reported that 15 percent of the planet’s land surface was covered by protected areas. That’s an area more than three times the size of the United States. Marine protected areas covered nearly 7 percent of the world’s oceans. That’s an area more than twice the size of South America.[30]

Part of the reason for rising marine conservancy is fish farming, which enables humans to consume increasing quantities of fish without decimating aquatic wildlife. “In 1950,” noted Bailey, “aquaculture produced less than a million metric tons of fish. In 2016, aquaculturists raised more than 80 million metric tons of fish—51 million tons on inland fish farms and 29 million tons at sea.”[31]

We are also getting better at producing goods and services in ways that are less harmful to the environment. Consider sulfur dioxide (SO2), a toxic gas that is a by-product of copper extraction and the burning of fossil fuels. Global sulfur dioxide emissions declined from a peak of 152 million tons in 1980 to 97 million tons in 2010—a reduction of 36 percent over a comparatively short period of 30 years.[32] The volume of SO₂ emissions in the United States decreased from about 31 million tons in 1970 to about 2 million tons in 2019—a reduction of 94 percent.[33]

Speaking of burning of fossil fuels, the average global CO2 emissions per dollar of output declined by 41 percent between 1960 and 2014 (i.e., from 0.84 kilograms to 0.5 kilograms).[34] Those are the latest figures that we had access to. We suspect that the recent switch from burning coal to burning natural gas in many countries will help to reduce CO2 emissions per dollar of output even further because natural gas emits between 50 and 60 percent less CO2 when combusted in a new, efficient natural gas power plant compared with emissions from a typical new coal plant.[35] And that’s not accounting for the rise in non-fossil fuel sources of power, such as wind and solar.

Moreover, note the long-term relationship between the intensity of CO2 emissions and economic development. “On average,” wrote the University of Oxford economist Max Roser, “we see low carbon intensities at low incomes; carbon intensity rises as countries transition from low-to-middle incomes, especially in rapidly growing industrial economies; and as countries move towards higher incomes, carbon intensity falls again.”[36]

That’s precisely what we are seeing in the data. To be sure, global CO2 emissions are still rising—they reached 36.44 billion tons in 2019—but looking at individual countries provides a more positive picture. For example, the U.S. CO2 emissions declined from a high of 6.13 billion tons in 2007 to 5.28 billion tons in 2019—a 14 percent reduction in 12 years. In the European Union, they fell from a peak of 4.1 billion tons in 1979 to 2.92 billion tons in 2019.[37]

We are also getting better at saving fresh water, which is used widely in agriculture and well as in industrial production. The World Bank estimates that the United States increased its water productivity, or inflation-adjusted dollars of GDP per cubic meter of fresh water withdrawn, from $13 in 1980 to $36 in 2010; China from $0.8 in 1980 to $15 in 2015; Japan from $34 in 1980 to $67 in 2009; Germany from $58 in 1991 to $104 in 2010 and the United Kingdom from $91 in 1980 to $314 in 2012.[38]

Finally, consider the revolutionary findings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Andrew McAfee in his 2019 book More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources―and What Happens Next. For a long time, economists knew that the profit motive compels companies to decrease the use of natural resources per dollar of output. When aluminum cans were introduced in 1959, for example, they weighed 85 grams. By 2011, they weighed 13 grams.[39] Why use more inputs for the same output if you don’t have to?

As McAfee discovered by looking at the U.S. consumption of 72 resources (from aluminum to zinc), the absolute annual use of 66 resources peaked prior to 2019.[40] Even energy use decreased between 2008 and 2017, even though the U.S. economy expanded by 15 percent over the same period. The U.S. economy, in other words, has reached such a level of efficiency and sophistication that it is possible for it to produce an ever-increasing amount of goods and services, while, at the same time, using ever fewer resources. There is every reason to expect that, as other economies become similarly advanced, they too will reduce their absolute consumption of resources.

The data above will not come as a total surprise to readers interested in the welfare of our species. Over the last decade alone, a number of highly regarded authors have turned their considerable intellects toward exploring the state of humanity. They include the British writer Matt Ridley in his 2010 book, The Rational Optimist; the Swedish scholar Johan Norberg in his 2017 book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future; Hans Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund in their 2018 book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think; the Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton in his 2013 book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality; the American writer Gregg Easterbrook in his 2018 book It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear; Ronald Bailey in his 2015 book The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century; Bailey and Tupy in their 2020 book Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting; and last but not least Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. All of them found considerable evidence for human progress.

Given how much humanity has accomplished in recent memory, we should be very careful about abandoning the economic and political mechanisms that have enabled so much progress to emerge in the first place.


[1] Thomas Babington Macaulay and Baron Macaulay, Essays, Critical and Miscellaneous (Boston: Philips, Sampson, and Company, 1859), 115.

[2] “Total Economy Database,” Conference Board (online dataset: “TED 1”), accessed March 27, 2020,

[3] “Total Economy Database,” Conference Board (online dataset: “TED 1”), accessed March 27, 2020,

[4] “Life expectancy at birth, total (years),” The World bank (online dataset), accessed March 27, 2020,

[5] “Mortality rate, infant (per 1,000 live births),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 27, 2020,

[6] “Food Supply, Per Person, Per Day, Calories,” Human Progress (online dataset), accessed September 12, 2019,… =2013&high=1&reg=3&reg1=0.

[7] “Health Facts,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, accessed September 12, 2019,….

[8] “Food Supply, Per Person, Per Day, Calories,” Human Progress (online dataset), accessed September 12, 2019,… =2013&high=1&reg=3&reg1=0.

[9] Dickson Abanimi Amugsi, et al., “Prevalence and Time Trends in Overweight and Obesity Among Urban Women: an Analysis of Demographic and Health Surveys Data from 24 African Countries,” BMJ Open 7, no. 10 (October 2017):

[10] Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others you Will Find Interesting (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2020), 81.

[11] Ronald Bailey, “Impending Defeat for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Reason, August 3, 2019,….

[12] Max Roser, “War and Peace,” Our World In Data, accessed September 12, 2019,

[13] Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (New York: Viking Press, 2018), 161.

[14] “School enrollment, primary (% net),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 27, 2020,

[15] “School enrollment, secondary (% gross),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[16] “School enrollment, tertiary (% gross),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[17] “Literacy rate, adult male (% of males ages 15 and above),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[18] “Literacy rate, adult female (% of females ages 15 and above),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[19] “Literacy rate, youth female (% of females ages 15-24),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[20] “Literacy rate, youth male (% of males ages 15-24),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[21] “Poverty headcount ratio at $1.90 a day (2011 PPP) (% of population),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[22] “Poverty headcount ratio at $1.90 a day (2011 PPP) (% of population),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[23] John D. Sutter, “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” CNN, accessed September 12, 2019, /interactive/2012/03/world/mauritania.slaverys.last.stronghold/index.html.

[24] Drew Desilver, “Despite global concerns about democracy, more than half of countries are democratic,” Pew Research Center, May 14, 2019 -of-countries-are-democratic/.

[25] Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others you Will Find Interesting (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2020).

[26] Xiao-Peng Song, et al., “Global Land Change from 1982 to 2016,” Nature 560, no. 1 (August 2018): 639,

[27] Ronald Bailey, “Global Tree Cover has Expanded More than 7 Percent Since 1982,” Reason,September 4, 2018,

[28] Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2020), 25.

[29] Jesse H. Ausubel, “Peak Farmland and Potatoes,” Plenary address, 2014 Potato Business Summit of the United Potato Growers of America, San Antonio, January 8, 2014, /Peak%20Farmland%20and%20Potatoes.pdf.

[30] UNEP-WCMW and IUCN, “Protected Planet Report 2016: How Protected Areas Contribute to Achieving Global Targets for Biodiversity,” Cambridge, England and Gland, Switzerland, (2016):….

[31] Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others you Will Find Interesting (Washington D.C.: Cato Institute, 2020), 133.

[32] Jan Luiten van Zanden, How Was Life? Global Well-being since 1820 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2014),; Z Klimont, S J Smith and J Cofala, “The last decade of global anthropogenic sulfur dioxide: 2000–2011 emissions,” Environmental Research Letters 8, no. 1 (January 9, 2013):

[33] “Volume of sulfur dioxide emissions in the U.S. from 1970 to 2019,” Statista (online dataset), April 2020,….

[34] “CO2 emissions (kg per 2010 US$ of GDP),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed March 30, 2020,

[35] “Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 19, 2014,

[36] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Our World in Data, accessed March 30, 2020,

[37] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO2 emissions,” Our World in Data, accessed February 3, 2021,

[38] “Water productivity, total (constant 2010 US$ GDP per Cubic Meter of Total Freshwater Withdrawal),” The World Bank (online dataset), accessed September 12, 2019, /ER.GDP.FWTL.M3.KD?locations=US&name_desc=true.

[39] Andrew McAfee, More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources―and What Happens Next (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2019), 101.

[40] “In sustainability parlance,” wrote Pierre Desrochers in a recent paper, “relative decoupling refers to environmental impacts growing at a slower rate than population or consumption. This is achieved through productivity gains, from increased agricultural yields to lower energy inputs per unit of output. Absolute decoupling describes declining overall impacts, independent of population and consumption trends. It is most commonly achieved through resource substitution such as the reduction in the number of work horses and mules brought about by the advent of the truck, tractor and the automobile; the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that resulted from the substitution of coal by natural gas in electricity generation; or the replacement of paper by electronic devices.” See Pierre Desrochers, “The Paradoxical Malthusian. A Promethean Perspective on Vaclav Smil’s Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (MIT Press, 2019) and Energy and Civilization: A History (MIT Press, 2017),” Energies 13, no. 20: 5306,

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley argue that empirically speaking, resources are growing more abundant, not just as measured by inflation-adjusted price, but as measured by time prices: An hour of labor today generally buys a lot more than a comparable hour in the past. Additional human beings add to our economic capacity rather than diminishing it, because people are the solvers of economic problems.

Response Essays

  • Giorgos Kallis argues that we shouldn’t want economic growth to continue indefinitely. Nor will it do so. The relentless pursuit of economic growth will eventually lead to a collapse. Better, says Kallis, is to aim for prosperity without growth, which he calls “the defining challenge for twenty-first century economics.”

  • Katherine Trebeck and Dirk Philipsen say that the relentless pursuit of economic growth is harmful in the long term. While poverty should be alleviated, there is such thing as material sufficiency, and unfortunately, markets don’t always point at it. Often, they encourage us to substitute harmful products for beneficial natural goods. Developed economies should reposition themselves to provide economic stability, human dignity, environmental protection, and healthy communities.