We are going from bad to better

Published: Apr 16, 2019, 07:37 IST | C Y Gopinath

Are you missing the good old days when life was far simpler and much better? Here is a splash of cold water

We are going from bad to better
In 1962, only 200 people in every million had guitars. By the time we reached 2014, there were 11,000 guitarists per million

C Y Gopinath When a bunch of retirees get together and start talking, the only place they go to is memory lane. I am not retired in any sense of the word, but most of my friends are. They have grandchildren (I have teenagers), they have gout (I walk 7,000 steps a day), they don't work any more (I don't get enough sleep), and they stopped learning years ago (I just joined a UX design course). They feel senior. When I'm with people my age, I instinctively call them sir.

Over tea, the talk will mostly drift towards the "good old days". Life was better, everyone would agree. The air was cleaner, the food fresher, the girls prettier. No one was fat or had osteoporosis. Countries had real statesmen for leaders, and people said quotable things. We had the best cricket teams, you could see the stars at night, and everyone was happy.

Now we have wars, refugees, global warming, Ebola, paedophilia, corruption and Donald Trump. What's happening to the world?

So I did what good journalists are supposed to: went fact-hunting. Were the good old days actually better than today? Here are my unadorned findings. (Mind though: these figures are for the entire planet, not India. And the world's population in 1900 was just 1.6 billion. It's 7.7 billion now.)

Literacy: In 1800, only 10% of adults over 15 could read and write. In 2016, it's 86%. That would be 10% of 1 billion people (1800) and 86% of 7.6 billion (now).

Girls in school: In 1970, 65% of girls of primary school age were enrolled. Today, it's over 90%.

Immunisation: In 1980, only 22% of one-year-old infants got any kind of immunisation. That percentage has quadrupled to 88%.

Mobile phones: In 1980, 0.0003% of the world's 4.5 billion people had mobile phones. That number is a terrifying, mind-numbing 65% of 7.7 billion people now.

Women's vote: In 1900, only one country in 195 had equal voting rights for women. Now it's 194. (The exception is Vatican City).

New movies: In 1906, one new movie was released every year. Over 11,000 were released in 2017.

Democracy: Only 1% of humanity enjoyed democracy in 1816. That's up to 56% now.

Endangered species: In 1959, only 34 species had been assessed to be endangered. That number is 87,967 now — and counting. Oh, and adding our own miserable species, it's 87,968.

Scientific papers: If the number of scientific researches conducted and written up is a good measure of human advancement, the number is up from 116 in 1695 to 2,550,000 in 2016.

That's just a list of good things getting better. Let me give you an equally long list of bad things that are decreasing dramatically.

Oil spills: In 1979, 636,000 tonnes of oil spilled from oil tankers. Three years ago? A mere 6,000 tonnes.

Plane crash deaths: Between 1929 and 1933, there were 2,100 deaths per 10 billion passenger-miles. That was down to 1 in the five years from 2012. Yes, even including the recent Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes.

Disaster deaths: In the 1930s, 970,000 deaths were from disasters. In the years from 2010, that's been down to just 16,000. And yes, despite the most horrific cyclones, tsunamis, wars, and earthquakes.

Nuclear arms: In 1986, there were 64,000 nuclear warheads. Believe it or not, that is down to 15,000.

Solar power: Back in 1976, a solar photovoltaic cell costs $66 per peak watt. That has become a trifling 60 cents now.

Battle deaths: In 1942 and through the world wars, 201,000,000 people died. Though it feels like we are surrounded by wars, there have been no more than 1,000,000 deaths in and because of battle.

Ozone depletion: In 1970, the world released 1,663,000 tonnes of ozone-depleting chemicals through air conditioners, refrigerators and so on. Today, even with a much higher population and many many more of those gadgets, we released only 22,000 tonnes of those chemicals.

Leaded gasoline: In 1986, 193 out of 195 countries in the world, allowed leaded gasoline. Today only six countries do — Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

Child labour: In 1950, 28% of children between 5 and 14 went to work, most often in abysmal conditions.

By 2010, that number had come down to 10%.

Child deaths: Around 1800, 44% of children died before their fifth birthdays. Nearly half the world's children just died as children. Only 4% under-fives die today.

But the number that literally sings to me is guitars. In 1962, only 200 people in every million had guitars. By the time we reached 2014, there were 11,000 guitarists per million. That should be sweet music to your ears.

PS: If you want the rest of the good news, go buy a book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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