Life has never been so good for our species


It is fashionable among environmentalists today to paint a gloomy portrait of our future. Although there are many environmental issues yet to be solved, too many species endangered, more pollution than most of us would like and far too many people still going hungry each day, let’s not forget how far we’ve come, starting 10,000 years ago.

Before that time, all people lived as hunter-gatherers in relative poverty compared with today. How poor were they? If you walk into a Yanomamö village in Brazil today — a good analogue for how our ancestors lived — and count up the stone tools, baskets, arrow points, arrow shafts, bows, hammocks, clay pots, assorted other tools, various medicinal remedies, pets, food products, articles of clothing and the like, you would end up with a figure of about 300. Before 10,000 years ago, this was the approximate material wealth of each village on the planet.

By contrast, if you walk into the Manhattan village today and count up all the different products available at retail stores and restaurants, factory outlets and superstores, you would end up with an estimated figure of about 10 billion (based on the UPC bar code system count). Economic anthropologists estimate the average annual income of hunter-gatherers to have been about $100 per person and the average annual income of big-city dwellers to be about $40,000 per person.

If ever there was a great leap forward, this is evidence of it. It has been estimated by Eric Beinhocker in his book, “The Origin of Wealth,” that the $100-per-person annual income rose to only about $150 per person by 1000 BC and did not exceed $200 per person until after 1750 and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Today the average is $6,600 per person per year for the entire world. Of course, the magnitude of the increase is much higher for the wealthiest people in the richest nations.

As Gregg Easterbrook shows in “The Progress Paradox,” over the last 50 years, standards of living have risen dramatically. The 1950 gross domestic product per capita, computed in 1996 dollars, was only $11,087, compared with the 2000 figure of $34,365. And more people are moving up the economic hierarchy. Way up. In 2000, 1 in 4 Americans earned at least $75,000 a year, putting them in the upper middle class, compared with 1890, when only 1% earned the equivalent of that figure. That is a 25-fold expansion of the upper middle class, redrawing class boundaries and redefining what it means to be average. And rich. Since 1980, the percentage of people earning $100,000 or more per year, in today’s dollars, has doubled. What we can buy with that money has also grown significantly. A McDonald’s cheeseburger cost 30 minutes of work in the 1950s, three minutes of work today, and in 2002, Americans bought 50% more healthcare coverage per person than they did in 1982.

We also have more material goods — SUVs, DVDs, PCs, TVs, designer clothes, name-brand jewelry, home appliances and gadgets of all kinds. The homes in which we keep all of our goodies have doubled in size in just the last half a century, from about 1,100 square feet in the 1950s to more than 2,200 square feet today. And 95% of these homes have central heating, compared with 15% a century ago, and 78% have air conditioning, compared with the number in our grandparents’ generation — zip.

That’s not all. Crime is down. Most crime rates everywhere tumbled throughout the 1990s. Easterbrook found that homicides, for example, plummeted between 50% and 75% in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Baltimore and San Diego. Domestic violence against women dropped 21%, while teen criminal acts fell by more than 66%.

Americans also now enjoy a shorter workweek, with the total hours of life spent working steadily declining for the last 15 decades. In the mid-19th century, for example, the average person invested 50% of his waking hours in the year working, compared with a mere 20% before the current recession. Fewer working hours translates into more leisure time. In 1880, the average American enjoyed just 11 hours per week in leisure time, compared with the 40 hours per week average today. And those working environments are cleaner, safer and more pleasant.

And despite the environmental impact of our more prosperous lifestyle, on balance things really are getting better, as documented by Matt Ridley in his forthcoming book, “The Rational Optimist.” For instance, over the last half a century, pollution is down in most cities, even in my own Los Angeles. When I took up bicycle racing in 1979, the air was so bad that summer training rides had to be completed well before noon to avoid the pain caused by fine particulate matter — dirt, dust, mold, ash, soot, aerosols, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — becoming deeply embedded in your lungs. Today, I can ride practically any time of the day on most days of the year and feel no ill effects.

Despite the American Lung Assn.’s report this week that L.A. is the smoggiest city in America, thanks to the Clean Air Act and improved engine and fuel technologies, the trend line has been and continues to be moving in the direction of cleaner air. In fact, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, during the 1980s L.A. averaged 150 “health advisory” days per year and 50 “stage one” ozone alerts, but in 2000 there were only 20 health advisory days and zero stage one ozone alerts.

Given these facts, and many more quantitative measures, it would be perfectly sane to decline a trip in a time machine to any point in the past if you had to actually live out your life there. These are the good old days, and without neglecting problems that still need solving, it’s high time we recognized that it is a better life for more people in more places more of the time.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American, is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mind of the Market.”