When you see human history, in a single graph, you can see how better we have to get... at being human

From the ever-lucid Vox, a straightforward but startling article that shows just how dramatic a turn recent human history has taken. An extract below:

Luke Muehlhauser is a researcher who studies risks to human civilization. Last year, he embarked on an amateur macrohistory project: collecting all the data we have available for six different metrics of human well-being, and graphing those metrics to get a picture of how the world has changed over time. 

The six metrics he charted were life expectancy; GDP per capita; the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty; “war-making capacity,” a measure of technological advancement for which we have the most historical data; “energy capture,” which reflects access to food, livestock, firewood, and, in the modern day, electricity; and the percentage of people living in a democracy. Obviously, we don’t have a precise measure of many of these things for most of history — but we have enough to get a strong sense of some trends.

The lessons we should draw from these charts?

We often think about history as a gradual arc of progress, with setbacks such as wars and famines and gains such as new ideas and technologies. Muehlhauser’s chart suggests a remarkable lack of correlation between those forms of progress and gains in human well-being. 

While there was absolutely important technological and political progress occurring over centuries — new forms of government, new forms of warfare, new understandings of the world — global average well-being barely budged. The fluctuations associated with nearly all historical events are dwarfed by the changes associated with just one event: the Industrial Revolution. 

One of the most striking things about the chart is how little most historical events affected it. The 1918 flu epidemic killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people. It shows up on the chart, but as a brief blip in a general upward trajectory. World War II surpassed that death toll, killing more than 60 million people; it’s not even visible on the graph. Even though our capacity to slaughter each other has been growing — and the 20th century was rife with such atrocities — the overall trajectory has been that things keep getting better.

If you took a look at these numbers in 1800, you might have concluded that it’s impossible to really change anything about the human experience. Every change up to that point had not affected life span, not really affected political freedom, and not affected wealth or personal capacity to affect the world. It’d be easy to just conclude that the human condition was immutable. 

That would have been a mistake, though. In ways that were hard to predict, things were about to change.

It’s a great little study - but for us, it makes concrete how we need to be as futuristic about our values and mindsets, as we are about our technologies. Look at how contradictory the spikes are: both a reduction in poverty and increase in democracy, but also an increase in energy capture and GDP which - according to climate reports - are a huge threat to life and security across the world. Life expectancy spikes - but also does our capacity for war-making.

As we wrote in last week’s editorial, this is what the radical animal called “human” does - generates polarities and extremes, by the application of its smarts and imagination upon the materials of the planet. But can our capacities for empathy, agreement and participation, harnessing these productivities and transformation, be equally as radical?

Indeed, do we have any other choice than to hope that they will be?