For centuries, optimists and pessimists have argued over the state of the world.
For centuries, optimists and pessimists have argued over the state of the world. Pessimists see a world where more people means less food, where rising demand for resources means depletion and war, and, in recent decades, where boosting production capacity means more pollution and global warming. One of the current generation of pessimists’ sacred texts, The Limits to Growth, influences the environmental movement to this day.
The optimists, by contrast, cheerfully claim that everything—human health, living standards, environmental quality, and so on—is getting better. Their opponents think of them as “cornucopian” economists, placing their faith in the market to fix any and all problems.
But, rather than picking facts and stories to fit some grand narrative of decline or progress, we should try to compare across all areas of human existence to see if the world really is doing better or worse. Together with 21 of the world’s top economists, I have tried to do just that, developing a scorecard spanning 150 years. Across 10 areas—including health, education, war, gender, air pollution, climate change, and biodiversity—the economists all answered the same question: What was the relative cost of this problem in every year since 1900, all the way to 2013, with predictions to 2050.