Curtain to fall on the ‘best decade in history’

The march of progress: Between 2010 and 2019, the world took these incredible strides.

Were the 2010s really the best decade ever? Swedish historian Johan Norberg says the statistics prove that the world is happier, healthier, freer and richer than ever.

There are lots of reasons to feel gloomy in 2019.

The climate crisis is beginning to ravage our homes and landscapes. Democracy is choking as autocratic leaders gain footholds around the world. Social media has unleashed a cacophony of abuse, misinformation and distrust.

So, a recent tweet from Swedish author and historian Johan Norberg came as a surprise to many.

“Just one month left of the best decade in history,” wrote the self-described classical liberal.

He pointed out that extreme poverty has more than halved since 2010. In fact, an average of 158,000 people were lifted out of poverty every day. As of last year, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population enjoys a middle-class lifestyle.

That’s just the beginning. The child mortality rate has fallen by a third, saving roughly 2.1 million children this year. Meanwhile, global life expectancy has risen from 69.5 years to 72.6 years.

Vulnerable groups are freer and safer than ever before. In just 10 years, the proportion of the Earth’s population who live in countries where same-sex acts are criminalised fell from 40% to 27%. Back in 1969, almost three quarters of people lived under anti-LGBT laws.

Is it time to cheer up? Many of the most worrying trends in the 2010s are not borne out in the statistics.

We may fear for liberal democracy amid the rise of strongman leaders like Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Jair Bolsonaro, but the share of the world population who live in “not free” countries has in fact fallen from 34% to 26%.

And despite the planet having endured its hottest decade on record, deaths from climate-related disasters fell by a third to 0.35 per 100,000 since 2010 — or by 95% since the 1960s.

Some among Norberg’s Twitter followers disputed his argument, pointing out the atrocities, disasters, civil wars and vast inequalities of the last 10 years.

“Yes, horrible things also happened in the 2010s,” Norberg ackowledged. “Averages are just averages.”

Were the 2010s really the best decade in history?

Gilded age?

The facts speak for themselves. Thanks to modern medicine, fewer children are dying and those who live to adulthood can expect longer, healthier lives. The majority of humanity is enjoying a level of prosperity and security that would have been unthinkable not long ago. Every era has its challenges from populism, war and financial instability — but, on a broad scale, the world is becoming a better place to live with every passing day.

As Jeff O’Connell points out, however, “It was progress made by mortgaging the future.” Carbon emissions are still rising and future generations will pay the price. The 2010s produced 28% of all wealth in human history, but who benefited? The poor are working harder and longer for lower pay. Meanwhile, the consequences of our high-tech, connected society for democracy, privacy and freedom are just beginning to emerge.

You Decide

  1. If you could live in any decade in history, which one would you choose?
  2. Is the world better than ever in 2019?

Activities

  1. Make a list of the top five problems that the world will face in the 2020s.
  2. Class debate time! “This house believes that the 2010s were the best decade in history.” Research your own statistics to support your argument.

Some People Say...

“History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future.”

John F. Kennedy, (1917-1963), 35th US President

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Johan Norberg, who calls himself an “historian of ideas”, is best known for his two books In Defence of Global Capitalism and Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. In addition to the statistics mentioned in our article, the proportion of countries with laws protecting women from domestic abuse rose from 53% to 78%.
What do we not know?
Strangely, there is disagreement over exactly when this decade will end. According to official calendars, the decade will not end until 31 December 2020. However, most of us generally consider a decade to begin and end when the penultimate (second-to-last) number in the year changes.

Word Watch

Misinformation
Lies and fake news that are deliberately spread across the internet to mislead the public.
Classical liberal
According to Politico, classical liberals typically prize “unfettered free markets, the rule of law and civil liberties”, as set out in the work of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith.
Middle-class
Around 3.6 billion are middle class, compared with 3.1 billion considered to be economically vulnerable and 630 million who live in poverty. The middle class was described as those who can buy large consumer items, enjoy leisure entertainments like the cinema, and pay to go on family holidays.
72.6 years
On average, life expectancy rose by eight hours per day over the last decade.
“not free”
According to the Freedom in the World survey. The figure was at its lowest in 2005 at 23%.
On record
The World Meteorological Organisation says the last decade has been one of “exceptional” heat.
Mortgaging
When a bank lends you money to buy something now, but you must pay the money back in the future.

Subjects

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