TIME Magazine proclaimed the 2000s "the decade from hell." Reason Magazine called it the "worst decade ever." And perhaps it's true that there have been more crises and disasters in the headlines than normal...from the disputed 2000 presidential election, to the dot-com crash, to the 9/11 attacks, to the war in Iraq, to the Indian Ocean tsunami, to Hurricane Katrina, to the financial collapse in September 2008.
But is the world really a worse place than it was ten years ago? I'm not so sure. Behind the headlines of disasters galore, there are less sexy stories showing constant improvements on many fronts. Yahoo and The Economist each compiled a "by the numbers" comparison of the world today with the world in the recent past. While not all of the trends are positive, I think the majority of them are. Here are a few trends I found interesting:
The number of people living in dire poverty (less than $1 per day in constant dollars) is dramatically falling. The number of people living in these conditions is declining by a Russia-sized population each year.
Global fertility rates continue to decline, meaning we are reaching the point where the global population will level off in a few decades. The global fertility rate is 2.6 and falling...which is just slightly above the replacement rate of 2.1.
Oil consumption has leveled off in the developed world. In 1999, the US consumed 19.5 million barrels of oil. In 2008, it was still 19.5 million barrels. Europe had a similar story: In 1999, Europe consumed 16.0 million barrels; in 2008, they consumed 16.1 million barrels. (However, this good news should be qualified with the news that the developing world continues to increase its consumption)
The number of ongoing wars continues to decline. There were 50 active conflicts (as The Economist defined them) in 1990, and about 30 today. The number of people without access to safe drinking water declined from 1.1 billion in 2000, to 884 million in 2009. The global child mortality rate declined from 87 (1999) to 65 (2009). Life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 46 (1999) to 51 (2009).
And this isn't even considering all the technological goodies that revolutionized the world in the last ten years. In 1999, we didn't have any good social networking websites, easy-to-use cell phones, affordable GPS systems, Wikipedia, Twitter, blogs, or digital television. The Human Genome Project had not yet been completed, and stem-cell research was in its infancy. The average personal computer had less space on its hard drive than my phone does today.
So even though most of the headlines were unusually bad this decade, I don't think they capture the true vision of the progress we made. What do you think? Overall, is the world better off or worse off than it was ten years ago?