First, we need to take into account that the quality of human life has been improving, not worsening, throughout history. Granted, there still are things that are not optimal, but there used to be many more. Sure, it sucks that your pet-peeve politician has been appointed president of your country (any reference to recent historical events is entirely coincidental), and it sucks that poverty and famine haven’t yet been entirely eradicated, but none of these implies that things will get worse. There’s a limit to how long a president can be such, and poverty and famine are disappearing all over the world. It takes time for changes to take place, and the fact the world isn’t perfect yet doesn’t mean it will never be. Especially people who are still chronologically young should appreciate the fact that by the time they’re 80 or 90, a long time will have passed, and the world will certainly have changed in the meanwhile. If we decided not to create rejuvenation because right now the world isn’t as nice a place as it could be, in 60 years we may well end up as a bunch of sick, decrepit suckers with a foot in the grave, regretting our decision because in the meantime the world has become much better than we had expected.
Also, let’s not forget that what we’re talking about here is rejuvenation and that life extension is just a trivial consequence of it. Without rejuvenation, your health will eventually go below a critical threshold and the pathologies of old age will start to emerge. Even if the world did become a worse place to live in over the next few decades, frankly I fail to see how being sick and decrepit would make it any better. If death ever became preferable over life on this planet, painless suicide would be a much more humane and efficient option than going through the whole ordeal of old age.
Additionally, if we’re really so convinced that the world has no hope of being better in the future, then there’s little point in making more babies. If we said we don’t want to extend our lives because the world is and will forever be too horrible a place to live in, it would be rather contradictory—or even cruel, depending on how you want to see it—to bring more people into it. Either the world is broken beyond repair and we’d better not leave any progeny to live on it, or it can be fixed, in which case we may just as well stick around and start fixing it instead of complaining about how bad the world is.
Hang on, though. I said again and again that the world has been constantly getting better. It’s time I provided some evidence to back up my case. In the following, you’ll see a quite definite trend showing the progress we’re making, and in some cases, this progress has relatively recently started picking up fast. All sources are indicated at the bottom of each section.
We’ve got a problem with poverty alright, but it is not as bad as you might think. As a matter of fact, the number of people living below the threshold of absolute poverty (i.e. 1.9$ a day) has been plummeting over the last two centuries, going from somewhere in between 84% and 94% of the world population to something around 11% in 2013, and data suggest this percentage went further down to 10% in 2015.
As Our World in Data (my main source) puts it, this is “[…] even more remarkable when we consider that the population increased 7-fold over the same time. […] In a time of unprecedented population growth we managed to lift more and more people out of poverty“. We don’t suck so badly at this after all, do we?
Put it in figures, it means that the current number of people below the extreme-poverty line is 746 million, mostly concentrated in Africa and Asia. This is still a huge number, of course, but it is much, much smaller than it used to be. Of course, the extreme-poverty line is really low, but even when we check the second poverty line, i.e. 3.10$ a day, the amount of people below it has been constantly falling down over the last two centuries. Again, this does not mean that most people are filthy rich and doing wonderfully, but it does mean that poverty is decreasing, steady and fast, all over the world, a fact of which people don’t seem to be aware: A recent UK survey (see below on this same article) has found out that 55% of people think that in the last 30 years poverty has gone up, while during that time poverty has fallen faster than ever before in history.
The World Bank has a declared objective to bring the percentage of population living in absolute poverty down to 0% by 2030; assuming current growth rates, they should manage to reduce it down to 4.8% only, but that’s not too bad.
Sources: Our World in Data: World Poverty.
Hunger and famines
Let’s talk about undernourishment—i.e., the condition of eating fewer calories per day than it is required to cover the energy requirement for an active and healthy life. The graph below illustrates the situation as of 2015, while here you can find an interactive graph showing the same data over the course of a couple of decades.
While there are quite a few countries for which there’s no data available, most of them are first-world countries, and we know full well that they probably have no undernourishment problem. For the rest, only one (one) of the other countries reaches an undernourishment rate of 50%. In other words, in almost no country of the world 50% of the people are undernourished. It’s not perfect, because in some countries we get pretty close to 50%, but it’s no so bad, especially when you have a look at previous years. Africa and some parts of Asia were a little more red back then, which in terms of the graph means more people were undernourished. Now, just how badly these undernourished people are doing?
According to the chart above, they’re not doing so bad. Again, we don’t have data for every country in the world, but yet again a bunch of the no-data countries are first-world ones. In 2015, the country that was doing the worst was Zambia, where the average person was lacking about 410 kilocalories a day in their diet. The rest of the map tends to rather pink colours; in other words, the undernourished people in those countries are such by few calories, in the order of a few dozens. Does this mean that everything’s alright and these people are just following a diet? NEIN! This is still bad, but hardly as bad as you probably thought—and at the cost of being pedantic, this is especially true if you consider that Africa used to be much more red a few years back (see the interactive graph; by the way, the interactive graphs offer many options to see the details of each individual country). The overall picture of the situation is shown here:
It could be better, but it could be also much worse. It used to be much worse. (Speaking of famines, the table at the bottom of this page shows that the number of famine victims has been going down a lot over time.)
Health and education
I’m gonna end up sued for plagiarism by the people at Our World in Data, but for your convenience I’m showing a few of their graphs from the Global Health page. I strongly encourage you to have a look at it; what I’m writing here is just a summary, and the bottom line is that global health has improved a lot in the relatively recent past.
Life expectancy has increased to the point that, in 2012, it was around 75 years and over for most countries of the world, with mainly Africa lacking behind with an average value of 50 years or so.
The interactive map will show you the increase over the years. In the 1800’s, the increase was minimal and mostly in Western countries; in the 1950’s, it was much more significant and again mostly in the West; in 2012, the increase was modest in the West and very significant in developing countries, meaning that today the situation is much more equal overall. We should take into account, though, that Western countries have pretty much hit the ceiling of age-related diseases, and until rejuvenation becomes a thing they can’t expect a much higher life expectancy. In other words: the West is a little stuck where it is, and the developing countries are catching up fast. Eventually, they too will get stuck where the West is—unless rejuvenation is implemented, that is.
Also, inequality in life expectancy within the same country used to be quite high historically, but has plummeted down significantly even in developing countries.
It is important to note that while the sum of early deaths (as in non-age-related) and years lost to disability are also quite low overall (with peaks in Africa, again), “[a]geing of the world’s population is leading to a substantial increase in the numbers of individuals with sequelae of diseases and injuries”. Translation: non-age-related diseases and injuries have been going down. Age-related ones are going up a lot.
Speaking of education, I’ll keep it short: literacy, school attendance, and years of schooling have been going up all over the world in the past decades (and even centuries, in some cases). Gender inequality gaps have been closed almost completely, and are expected to keep going down. The graph below is a breakdown of the total world population by level of education, spanning from 1970 to 2100.
The trend is clear: The number of people with little-to-no education is going down. More and more people are attaining and still will attain higher levels of education. If you want country-level details in the interval 1970-2050, you’ll find them in this graph.
War and violence
We are bombarded (pardon the pun) all the time with news of civil wars, terrorist attacks, homicides and what-you-have, and this can easily create the impression that we’re in deep shit. The question is, just how deep are we talking about? The answer is ‘not very’.
The chart above shows what happens if you divide the last 500 years of history in batches of 50 years, and sum together all the years during which individual European countries fought an international conflict within each batch. Between 1500 and 1550, Europe fought for a total of 504 years. That’s a lot to pack in such a short timeframe, eh? Talk about efficiency. However, between 1951 and 2000, we fought for ‘only’ 74 years, which is still a lot over 50 years, but you know, it’s still around 10 times less than between 1500 and 1550. As a matter of fact, the second half of the 20th century has been extraordinarily peaceful in Europe, and the declining trend can be observed on a larger scale too:
Have you noticed that large-scale conflicts have essentially disappeared between 2000 and 2015? Sure, we have smaller ones going on, and that sucks. War always sucks, no matter how small, but I’m sure you’ll concede that it’s better to have the relatively small conflicts we have today than the crazy large and long wars we fought in the past. While every life lost is a horrible thing, losing fewer lives is better than losing more lives, and smaller conflicts tend to cause much fewer deaths. This was the situation of war deaths up to 2007.
The bottom line is: Some wars are still fought, but the world is more peaceful now than ever.
Speaking of interpersonal violence, say homicides, we see that there’s still some work to do in Africa and Latin America, for example, but we’re not doing bad in the rest of the world, and in developed countries—for example the ones below— there’s a trend of dramatic improvement over the centuries.
There’s little point in more copypasting of data. I’ve whetted your appetite; if you wish, you can investigate more on your own, by having a deeper look at Our World in Data, at Peter Diamandis’ data, or at GapMinder, and then you can decide whether the world is so bad (or looks like it’s going to be so bad) that ageing and death are preferable over an extended healthy life. After all, each of us has his or her own definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, so I guess you just need to see if the world is good enough for your standards. I know for a fact that we’re nowhere near the point where I would prefer ageing and/or death.
Wait! We’re not done yet!
Regardless of whether or not you think the world is going to be worth living in in the near future, odds are the present situation is better than your average Joe thinks it is. Maybe this is not your case—maybe you’re well informed and you check your facts before jumping to conclusions—but you cannot possibly have not noticed the overall pessimism of people about issues like the ones above and the future in general. You don’t believe me? Here’s an example. In 2013, people in the UK were asked whether they thought extreme World poverty had increased, decreased, or stayed the same in the last 30 years. The correct answer was that, during that time, poverty had decreased faster than ever before in history; however, the jolly good chums of the United Kingdom begged to differ:
A whopping 55% thought that poverty had gone up. Only 12% got it right, and you should keep in mind that the interviewees were people holding university degrees. The US isn’t doing any better, really: Slide 8 here shows that 66% thought extreme poverty had almost doubled over the course of the previous 20 years, while it had in fact almost halved.
Why is this? Why is everyone prone to thinking we’re doing so bad and that the future is grim, despite all the evidence indicating that we’ve improved a lot, we’re doing far better than before, and we can expect to do even better? Here’s my two cents.
- We tend to see the details, but not the big picture. We pass beggars on the street, notice them, and think poverty’s gone up. We hear about a civil war in country X, and we think the World is at war. A single homicide by the hands of neonazis makes us think their movement is growing larger and is rampant. However, we’re not aware of statistical facts like the ones I’ve discussed thus far; we see what is in our immediate vicinity, or what the medias put in front of us, and we generalise it. We’re not stupid, really; the reason, to put it in the words of GapMinder, is that
“Statistical facts don’t come to people naturally. Quite the opposite. Most people understand the world by generalizing personal experiences which are very biased. In the media the “news-worthy” events exaggerate the unusual and put the focus on swift changes. Slow and steady changes in major trends don’t get much attention. Unintentionally, people end-up carrying around a sack of outdated facts that you got in school (including knowledge that often was outdated when acquired in school).”
- We have a flair for the dramatic. Personally, I think it’s quite normal to feel uneasy and worried for the future whenever we hear bad news. Bad news puts us in a bad mood, and in a bad mood it is easier to see everything negatively. It might well be an evolutionary adaptation (bear in mind this is purely my conjecture): A hint of pessimism whenever things go wrong might make us more careful and help us stay alive longer than those who underestimated just how bad the bad news was. Just a hint of pessimism is ok, perhaps even healthy, but overcatastrophising is not.
- Argumentum ad populum. When a lot of people all around you nod approvingly at stereotypes about poverty, tragedy, disgrace, all sort of catastrophes, supposed evilness of human race, etc, it is easy to think they’re right just because they’re many. Breaking from the crowd isn’t easy, and a lot of people would rather just agree with the majority than having to go through the trouble of contradicting them.
- Bad news sells. As noted above, the media tend to magnify bad news over good news. We’re more interested in bad news because of the potential danger they could represent for ourselves and our dear ones. Good news are generally less interesting, unless they touch us personally. Since media live off selling news, they give out more bad news than good news, giving us the impression that everything’s shit and nothing is good.
- We tend to disqualify the positive. How many times have you tried to cheer up a depressed friend for something that they screwed up, and you reminded them of all the other times they’ve done great, and they replied ‘that doesn’t count’? We’ve all seen this and we’ve all done this, and I suspect we don’t do it only when it’s about us. I wonder how many people, while reading this article, have thought something like: ‘Well, sure, poverty has diminished, but so what? It’s still not zero.’ We need to appreciate any improvements we achieve, and we need to accept that improving things can take a long time. More importantly, we should really appreciate the fact that we’re actually improving really fast these days, and stop whining about how the world is not perfect yet. Stopping to perpetuate false myths on the conditions of the world and focusing on the real problems that still need to be addressed—including, but not limited to, ageing—would also be much appreciated. (As a side note, I suspect more than one cognitive distortion plays a role in skewing our perception of the world.)
- Cognitive dissonance. This happens when beliefs you held for a long time are confronted with contradicting evidence. If you’ve been thinking for ages that the world is shit, and then I come along and tell you ‘Look, it ain’t so bad, here’s the facts,’ you’ll be tempted to disregard my evidence because it conflicts with your world view and keep thinking the world sucks. Sometimes, people presented with contrary evidence end up even more entrenched in their pre-existing beliefs. (I’ve discussed this phenomenon in the context of ageing as well.)
A more exhaustive explanation of our social pessimism can be found here.
TL; DR: No, we’re not doing bad. We’re not doing perfectly, either, but we’re doing pretty good. We have been improving for a long time now, and there’s every reason to believe we will continue on this positive trend. If you want certainties, I doubt anyone can give you any; but there’s sure cause for optimism. The best you can do is stick around with the rest of us and do your part, however small, to help make the world a better place. Now the question is, if and when we get there, would you rather be young and healthy, or old and sick (or even dead)? Easy choice for me.
I will never thank enough the people at Our World in Data for their spectacularly good work. We need more people like them.
Objections to rejuvenation
Objections to living ‘forever’
All answers in short