The 20th century ended in 2020

Decades of declining poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and more were all reversed this year.

The natural state of humanity is illiterate poverty and for most of human history, for well over 90% of people, everywhere on the planet, this was the case. Until very, very recently most people around the world went to sleep hungry, most of their children died early, and they had little chance to escape the cycle. That stopped in the 20th century.

During the last century, for the first time in history, most children born, regardless of where they lived, would live to adulthood. Before the twentieth century, the majority of people couldn’t read but that really wouldn’t matter because they also lived in such material poverty that they wouldn’t have had any books to read. Until the twentieth century, moving to another country for better opportunities was functionally impossible for most of humanity as was getting their children an education and access to a better future. Now we consider it the bare minimum.

If we’re not careful, all those gains will be lost; this year we ended an amazing run of progress at every social ill. We should keep perspective of how far we’ve come lest we allow 2020 to ruin what we’ve accomplished.

What we accomplished in the 20th century

Yes, the twentieth century produced more people than any other century in history – the global population didn’t reach one billion until the 19th century while six billion were born and lived just in the 20th century. Because our technology and sense of morality were finally at a level where people like Norman Borlaug could save literally billions of lives with his green revolution. Jonas Salk rescued untold millions more from death and permanent disability with his vaccine. Advances in science, medicine, education, infrastructure, and poverty permitted us to finally deny the Reaper his regular visits. More people were born but more lived full, productive lives than ever before: more people who lived long enough to have dreamed and loved and done something with those dreams and with their love.

“While only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820, today the share has reversed: only 14% of the world population, in 2016, remained illiterate. Over the last 65 years the global literacy rate increased by 4% every 5 years – from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015.”

Our World in Data

And as the first half of the last century delivered us atrocity and industrial violence at a level never seen before or since, the world since the 1950s has been extraordinarily peaceful. Especially over the last thirty years, as demonstrated by a study published this year by mathematicians at the University of York, looking into battle casualties over time. Quartz last year explained how homicide rates all across the planet have been consistently plummeting for thirty to forty years. Compared to our ancestors just two centuries ago, we live in paradise.

Our World in Data shows that the global poverty rate between 1800 and 1900 dropped by around ten percent, from the low 80% to mid 70%. While from 1900 to 2000 it fell an unprecedented fifty percent, to as low as 20%. In the first two decades of this century it’s fallen further still. In China alone, the last forty years have delivered a half-billion people out of poverty. In the twentieth century a trend of long-term improvement began, a historical first.

I was born in 1977 and every new year in my life has been on an Earth with fewer poor people, less crime, less violence, less war, more food, more books, more educated people, and more material prosperity for more people than the year prior. Every year for some fifty years the world has gotten more peaceful, its people safer. Every year.

Until 2020. This is the first year of my life in which the world as a whole has not made forward progress. This year will end with more people dying than it began. More people will have less freedom and more people will enter rather than escape poverty as more schools close than are opening.

This year we ended decades of consecutive gains. In fact, we not only stopped improving the general lot of humanity, we actually reversed some of the positive trends. Some of these backwards movements in freedom, wealth, and security have been building for a while but most of them are features of possibly the most chaotic year in modern history.

Our global decline in 2020

“The lives of 235 million people are at stake — a 40 per cent increase, with poverty rising for the first time in 20 years while life expectancy will fall.”

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations.

More people will have died in starvation in 2020 than did in 2019. Due mostly to the economic impacts of the global response to COVID-19, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death this year that otherwise wouldn’t have said David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN’s World Food Programme at the beginning of December. “Famine is literally on the horizon and we are talking about the next few months.”

“The Human Development Index will go down this year for the first time in 30 years.”

Achim Steiner, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

“Global extreme poverty is expected to rise in 2020 for the first time in over 20 years,” said the World Bank in October. As businesses around the world are shuttering their doors, unemployment is rising around the world as well. The Asia Times wrote about an International Labor Organization report that suggested almost twenty percent of young people worldwide lost work since the pandemic began. Considering over twenty percent of the world’s economy is centered in Southeast Asia this should be a sobering headline: “Mass unemployment the new normal in SE Asia.”

Schools across the planet are in disarray. According to the Center for Universal Education at Brookings, up to one and a half billion students around the globe have missed a significant portion of this year’s schooling. UNICEF says that over a billion children risk falling behind in their education. For the first time in my life, fewer children will be educated this year than were last year.

 “Let’s not finance vaccines at the expense of food security programmes or routine vaccinations.  That would make things worse.”

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

The economic and travel lockdowns used all over to combat the novel coronavirus have fatally curtailed the physical mobility often essential for social mobility. Everything from just interviewing for a job to relocating for college to taking a vacation is now prohibitively expensive for a great many people if not legally impossible. Travel restrictions are ruining vast swathes of the global economy and returning the skies to the wealthy, unless of course you’re American, in which case you have even fewer options.

America’s political class, especially Donald Trump and his hyperbolic enemies in the press, have together so tarnished America’s standing in the world that the American passport now does the exact opposite of what it is supposed to. For almost a century, the US passport has given American citizens unprecedented global access to the world; that document was universally accepted as a form of identification and granted visa-free entry to more countries than any other passport.

Now, the US passport denies you entry to most of the world. America’s response to the Trump presidency at large but the pandemic in particular has revealed a nakedly incompetent federal government, embarrassingly divided public, and arrogantly partisan media: an America incapable of behaving, or being taken, seriously. Best to keep us fools out.

The twentieth century is often referred to as the American century and it seems safe to say that 2020 ended any delusions the world may have about the continuance of that situation. Hopefully this is a hiccup and not the beginning of a trend.

Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance writer. He runs The Swamp and is featured in Grunge, Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, among others. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter. He also has a book you should buy.

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4 replies

  1. Excellent, well-written column. I hope that the pandemic will be a temporary setback and our progress will continue and perhaps even accelerate. Thank you for the article.

    Liked by 2 people

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