I am a little obsessed with fertilizer. I mean Iím fascinated with its role, not with using it. I go to meetings where itís a serious topic of conversation. I read books about its benefits and the problems with overusing it. Itís the kind of topic I have to remind myself not to talk about too much at cocktail parties, since most people donít find it as interesting as I do.
But like anyone with a mild obsession, I think mine is entirely justified. Two out of every five people on Earth today owe their lives to the higher crop outputs that fertilizer has made possible. It helped fuel the Green Revolution, an explosion of agricultural productivity that lifted hundreds of millions of people around the world out of poverty.
These days I get to spend a lot of time trying to advance innovation that improves peopleís lives in the same way that fertilizer did. Let me reiterate this: A full 40 percent of Earthís population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia. Another example: Polio cases are down more than 99 percent in the past 25 years, not because the disease is going away on its own but because Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk invented polio vaccines and the world rolled out a massive effort to deliver them.
Thanks to inventions like these, life has steadily gotten better. It can be easy to conclude otherwiseóas I write this essay, more than 100,000 people have died in a civil war in Syria, and big problems like climate change are bearing down on us with no simple solution in sight. But if you take the long view, by almost any measure of progress we are living in historyís greatest era. Wars are becoming less frequent. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the past century. More children than ever are going to primary school. The world is better than it has ever been.