This should not need saying, but it does. There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquillity, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost, but a virtue too. The rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet. Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow's milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.
Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father's Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 - not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour's lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week's wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father's jacket cost him a month's wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.
If my fictional family is not to your taste, perhaps you prefer statistics. Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times. Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diptheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, curvy or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease or stroke. She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is by any standard, an astonishing human accomplishment.
Averages conceal a lot. But even if you break down the world into bits, it is hard to find any region that was worse off in 2005 than it was in 1955. Over that half-century, real income per head ended a little lower in only six countries (Afghanistan, Haiti, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia), life expectancy in three (Russia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe), and infant survival in none. In the rest they have rocketed upward. Africa's rate of improvement has been distressingly slow and patchy compared with the rest of the world, and many southern African countries saw life expectancy plunge in the 1990s as the AIDS epidemic took hold (before recovering in recent years). There were also moments in the half-century when you could have caught countries in episodes of dreadful deterioration of living standards or life chances - China in the 1960s, Cambodia in the 1970s, Ethiopia in the 1980s, Rwanda in the 1990s, Congo in the 2000s, North Korea throughout. Argentina had a disapointingly stagnant twentieth century. But overall, after fifty years, the outcome for the world is remarkably, astonishingly, dramatically positive. The average South Korean lives twenty-six more years and earns fifteen times as much as income each year as he did in 1955 (and earns fifteen times as much as his North Korean counterpart). The average Mexican lives longer now than the average Britain did in 1955. The average Botswanan earns more than the average Finn did in 1955. Infant mortality is lower in Nepal today than it was in Italy in 1951. The proportion of Vietnamese living on less than $2 a day has dropped from 90 per cent to 30 per cent in twenty years.
The rich have got richer, but the poor have done even better. The poor in the developing world grew their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole between 1980 and 2000. The Chinese are ten times as rich, one-third as fecund and twenty-eight years longer-lived than they were in 1955. Despite a doubliing of the world population, even the raw number of people living in absolute poverty (defined as less than a 1985 dollar a day) has fallen since the 1950s. The percentage living in such absolute poverty has dropped by more than half - to less than 18 per cent.