1: We certainly have our challenges. We are dealing with a deadly pandemic and with second and third-order effects of that pandemic, including an increase in the murder rate, drug overdoses, and alcoholism. Recent new stories detail an increase in the number of patients who are being abusive toward nurses and students who are being disruptive in the classroom.
That said, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. Because the overall trends about human progress over the past fifty years are incredibly positive. We’ve experienced incredible gains in worldwide prosperity and corresponding declines in poverty, expansive breakthroughs in health care, a tremendous increase in human longevity, and a dramatic reduction in infant mortality.
Another area of incredible progress? Gains against famine, starvation, and undernourishment.
Famine has been part of the human condition since the beginning of recorded time. “The Hebrew Bible tells of seven lean years in Egypt; the Christian Bible has Famine as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. “Well into the 19th century, a crop failure could bring sudden misery even to privileged parts of the world.”
Historians such as Fernand Braudel have documented that premodern Europe and other parts of the world suffered from famines every few decades.
Fernand recounts the reporting of a Dutch merchant who was in India during a famine in 1630–31: “Men abandoned towns and villages and wandered helplessly. It was easy to recognize their condition: eyes sunk deep in the head, lips pale and covered with slime, the skin hard, with the bones showing through, the belly nothing but a pouch hanging down empty. . . Many hundred thousands of men died of hunger, so that the whole country was covered in corpses lying unburied, which caused such a stench that the whole air was filled and infected with it.”
In The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100, economist Robert Fogel writes: “The energy value of the typical diet in France at the start of the eighteenth century was as low as that of Rwanda in 1965, the most malnourished nation for that year.
“Hungry Europeans titillated themselves with food pornography, such as tales of Cockaigne, a country where pancakes grew on trees, the streets were paved with pastry, roasted pigs wandered around with knives in their backs for easy carving, and cooked fish jumped out of the water and landed at one’s feet.”
2: Today we live in Cockaigne, Steven observes. In the developed world, obesity, not famine, is our greatest food challenge.
In recent decades, the developing world has also experienced incredible gains against starvation. “In spite of burgeoning numbers, the developing world is feeding itself,” Steven writes. “This is most obvious in China, whose 1.3 billion people now have access to an average of 3,100 calories per person per day, which, according to US government guidelines, is the number needed by a highly active young man.”
In the continent of Africa, the average number of calories consumed a day is 2,600. In India, it is 2,400, the number recommended for a highly active young woman or an active middle-aged man.
3: The trends regarding undernourishment show a consistent pattern: “Hardship everywhere before the 19th century, rapid improvement in Europe and the U.S. over the next two centuries, and in recent decades, the developing world catching up,” Steven notes.
The economist Stephen Devereux, writing in the year 2000, summed up the world’s progress during the 20th century: “Vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated from all regions outside Africa. . . . Famine as an endemic problem in Asia and Europe seems to have been consigned to history. The grim label ‘land of famine’ has left China, Russia, India and Bangladesh, and since the 1970s has resided only in Ethiopia and Sudan.
“If this trend continues, the 20th century should go down as the last during which tens of millions of people died for lack of access to food.”
Reflection: What are my assumptions about human progress?
Action: Spend some time looking at the metrics in the Our World in Data