I’m re-reading Gregg Easterbrook’s 2003 book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. The first few chapters marshall a good deal of evidence that in the main, life for most people has gotten amazingly better. It's definitely true in America and Europe, he says, and even to a certain extent in developing countries.
(I can't help but notice that these improvements in life seem to fly in the face of the universal tendency toward disorder, as exemplified in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That's an attention-getter, at least to me. I have a notion, no more than a hunch, that some sort of sophisticated divine intervention may be at work here. My hunch is that this intervention comes very indirectly, via the human race's abilities to desire and to learn. Some other time I need to explore this in more detail.)
Easterbrook’s book is chock-full of statistics, although only some are supported with citations. He summarizes many of his main points at the beginning of chapter 2 (extra paragraphing added):
Public health is improving by nearly every measure, including rising longevity and falling rates of most diseases; even many forms of cancer are in decline. Doomsday claims to the contrary, environmental trends are nearly all positive, with all forms of pollution except greenhouse gases in steady decline in the United States and the European Union.
Drinking, smoking, and most forms of drug use are declining. Teen pregnancy is declining. Welfare rolls are shrinking without increase in poverty. Women, immigrants, and minority group members are acquiring ever larger slices of national pies. The divorce rate has stopped increasing. Personal freedom has never been greater.
Book sales hit new records every year. Movies and television may at times be excruciating, but otherwise art and culture have never been more active, interesting, or diverse.
Nearly all forms of death due to accident are declining.
Crime has declined so rapidly that the fall has been almost eerie. [Ed.: University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt, in his recent best-seller Freakonomics, suggests that statistically the most plausible explanation is the sudden, nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973, which resulted in many babies never being born who otherwise would have grown up in environments putting them at high risk of becoming criminals.]
Education levels keep rising, while test scores and public-school performance show guarded improvement.
Despite what evening-news carnage suggests, armed conflicts and combat deaths worldwide are in a cycle of decline. Global democracy is rising, military dictatorships and communism are on the run. Each year the number of nuclear warheads in the world declines. The single worst threat to the world—the Cold War—has ended, with complete victory for the West and the hand of friendship extended to former adversaries.
Easterbrook doesn’t neglect the less-rosy areas of life. And at times, the second half of his book can veer off into preachiness. But one still marvels at the positives he cites.
Easterbrook's thesis is probably best summed up by a thought experiment he proposes at the beginning of chapter 3:
If the means existed, would you exchange places with a typical person living in any year before your birth? Exchange places permanently—not, say, observe the Battle of Hastings and then rematerialize in the present…. [Y]ou could not specify that you would be a lord or lady or hold some similar advantage. In this deal you’d be transported back to the year and society of your choosing to live out the rest of your life as an ordinary person.
A good guess is that hardly anyone in the United States or the European Union today would accept a one-way ticket to the life of the past.…