The news headlines this year have been frightening: terrorist attacks from Berlin to Bangkok, the war in Syria, refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, the ongoing Euro crisis, and even the threat of nuclear proliferation keeps people up at night. With these events in mind, the polarization and rising populist movements across the world seem almost unsurprising.
And still, 2016 has been the best year in human history.
We are richer than ever before. Incomes are rising and consumer goods are increasingly more affordable. In 1800, the average person had to work 6 hours to afford the sesame oil needed for an hour of reading light. By 1880, the kerosene lamp cut the cost for reading to 15 minutes of work. Today less than 0.5 seconds of your work-time are needed to afford an hour of light.
Poverty is down all around the world. The National Bureau of Economic Research has estimated that extreme poverty has dropped by 80 percent since 1970, and that the number of people living on less than a dollar per day has fallen from 30 percent of the world population to five percent. Ending extreme poverty is no longer just a dream, but a possibility we can achieve in our lifetime.
Not only are we economically better off, our social behavior has improved as well. Violence, rape, and homicide rates have decreased in Europe and the United States. Even the likelihood of dying in an armed conflict is decreasing when we look at the bigger picture. Despite upticks from the ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq, despite terrorism and mass shootings, the world is slowly becoming a friendlier place.
We are more prosperous and safe than any generation before us.
Innovation has made much of this progress possible. People have higher incomes, because machines support their labor and raise their productivity. We live longer and healthier lives because diseases that would lead to certain death in the past have either been completely eradicated by vaccinations or can be easily cured. Billions of people once living close to starvation have been able to lift themselves out of poverty by becoming part of the global value chain. In 1980, more than half of the population in developing countries lived from $1.25 or less. As a result of particularly Asian countries entering the global market, this number is now close to 10 percent.
Humans have the amazing capability to improve their lives with new innovations, and 2016 is no exception. Improvements in prosthetics, using technologies such as 3D printing, were thought of as science fiction just a few years ago, but are now about to become available on a large scale. Tesla’s autopilot might change our society as much as the invention of the car itself. From artificial intelligence to the sharing economy to Nano-sensors, the list of technological advancements is as long as it is exciting.
However, these innovations and increases in living standards should not be treated as a given. They rely on an environment that secures property rights and free trade. Property protections allow for innovators to keep the benefits of their ideas, which motivate them to strive for greater improvements. Profits and losses tell the innovator if her ideas are indeed as amazing as she imagined. Only the ability to trade and consume products from not only our immediate neighbors, but from countries all around the world, enables us to benefit from the ideas of billions of people instead of just a few. And only when these goods and services are allowed to cross borders, soldiers stay at home.
Free trade and capitalism has made our world a better place, but it is still far from perfect. Praising the advancements of human society should not lead us to ignore the persisting problems around the world. Some demographic groups, like blue-collar workers, feel left behind in a world where everyone but themselves seems better off. Globalization, the main driver for progress, starts to look like an attack on their identities and their economic well-being as they feel their jobs have gone abroad or are taken by immigrants. Older generations want to preserve their culture in an increasingly diverse society. Almost everyone feels increasingly scared from aggression within and outside their own countries. More people are disillusioned with the political “establishment” and the media and business “elites” who seem unwilling to address these concerns.
Solutions to those problems are needed, but they have to preserve the principles that made our society great. Responding to the problems associated with globalization must not devolve into fear mongering. With global problems, more international cooperation is needed — not less. With weakening global demand and slowing economic growth, more trade, not protectionism, should be on the political agenda. The world is not a zero-sum game. We can all win from working together more closely instead of isolating each other. Only then can support for the ones struggling in these changing times be effectively provided and peaceful co-existence sustained. If these principles are kept in mind, then 2017 is going to be the best year in human history.
Max Wirth graduated recently with a MA in Political Economy from King’s College London. He works now in the field of international development and trade policies in Washington, D.C.