A triumph of human well-being

1: Consider this fact: Well into the 19th century, in Sweden, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, between a quarter and a third of all children died before their fifth birthday.  And, in some years the death toll was close to 40%, Steven Pinker shares in his powerful book Enlightenment Now.

This week we are continuing our review of the incredible progress human beings have made following the Industrial Revolution.  Many people believe we live in the “worst of times.”  The data tells us otherwise.  Today, we look at infant mortality.

Our chart shows the decline in child mortality in five countries in from different continents.  What Steven refers to as the “spikiness” of the curve before 1900 shows the difficulty of life for most of human history: ” An epidemic, war, or famine could bring death to one’s door at any time.”

Tragedy struck all parts of society.  Charles Darwin lost two children in infancy and his beloved daughter Annie at the age of 10.

2: Then, something incredible happened.  “The rate of child mortality plunged a hundredfold, to a fraction of a percentage point in developed countries, and the plunge went global,” Steven notes.  The greatest innovation of the Industrial Revolution was innovation itself.  

“In sub-Saharan Africa, the child mortality rate has fallen from around one in four in the 1960s to less than one in ten in 2015, and the global rate has fallen from 18 to 4 percent–still too high, but sure to come down if the current thrust to improve global health continues.”

One counter-intuitive result of this trend is when fewer children die, parents have fewer children because they do not have to “hedge their bets against losing their entire families,” Steven writes.  

“So contrary to the worry that saving children’s lives would only set off a ‘population bomb’ (a major eco-panic of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to calls for reducing health care in the developing world), the decline in child mortality has defused it,” notes Steven.

3: And, on a more personal note: when fewer children die, human happiness increases exponentially.  “The loss of a child is among the most devastating experiences,” Steven notes.  “Imagine the tragedy; then try to imagine it another million times.  That’s a quarter of the number of children who did not die last year alone who would have died had they been born fifteen years earlier.  Now repeat, two hundred times or so, for the years since the decline in child mortality began.”

The lines on our graph represent “a triumph of human well-being whose magnitude the mind cannot begin to comprehend.”  Amen.

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  What surprises me about the data shared above?  Why does it surprise me?

Action:  Share this information with a friend or colleague who is convinced we live in the “worst of times.”

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