Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change suffers from a parochialism of the present. I mean two things by that. First, it is lacking in historical perspective. Second, it takes present circumstances, values, rates of consumption, and technologies, and projects them unaltered into the future. It is like take taking a frame from a video clip, ignoring everything that has come before that frame, and then predicting the future course of events by projecting that moment-in-time frame forward into the future. We need to widen out our perspective to see our present snipet of time in the dynamic historical sequence of events.
McLaren describes the prosperity system this way:
The prosperity system seeks to fulfill our desire for happiness – our desire not just to survive, but to thrive. We associate happiness with enjoyable sensations, so through the prosperity system we create ways to fulfill that desire – for good tastes, for pleasant and interesting sights and sounds, for enjoyable tactile, intellectual, and emotional experiences – and for relief from the opposites (such as disease, injury, or boredom). (55)
Frankly, I think this is a fairly sound characterization of prosperity. Too often, prosperity is looked at exclusively as an issue of income or wealth. Wealth and income are merely means (but important ones) to achieving these higher values. So if we wanted to measure prosperity, as opposed to purely income/wealth differentials, how would we do it?
Demographers have a ready answer for that. They frequently use life expectancy and infant mortality rates as measures of prosperity. The life expectancy rate is the number of years you would expect someone to live at the time they are born based on actuarial science. The infant mortality rate is the number of children that die between birth and their first birthday, per 1,000 live births. Long life is a near universal indicator of prosperity across cultures and time. It is an important measure to demographers because achieving it requires a complex mix of variables, like a sustained nutritious food supply, a sanitary and safe environment, relatively little disease, absence of war, and a stable social life. Because the first year of life is when human beings are most vulnerable, their ability to survive the first year of life says a lot about the state of their society; thus the significance of the infant mortality rate.
So what can we say about this measure of prosperity throughout human history? Here are estimates that are typical of social scientists and economists who study these issues:
For most of its existence, Homo sapiens lived in far-flung hunter-and-gathering communities, each of which was quite small and barely able to reproduce itself. Life expectancy at birth was hardly twenty-five years on average, and those persons who survived childhood often died violently, in combat with other hunters, at relatively young ages. (Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, 48)
In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third died in the first year of life. Hunger and epidemic disease ravaged the survivors. By 1820, life expectation had risen to 36 years in the west, with only marginal improvement elsewhere. (Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, 69)
Before industrialization, at least one out of every five children died before reaching his or her first birth day; that is infant mortality measured as the number of children dying before the age of one, typically exceeded 200 per 1,000 live births. … In the United States, as late as 1900, infant mortality was 160; …” (Indur Goklany, The Improving State of the World, 27)
For much of human history, average life expectancy used to be 20-30 years. By 1900, it had climbed to about 31 years … By 2003 it was 66.8 years. (Indur Goklany, The Improving State of the World, 31)
To put the last statement by Goklany in perspective lets graph the estimated life expectancy on a chart:
If we show only the last two centuries we get a clearer picture of what has happened:
Turning to infant mortality rates, look at what has happened over the last fifty years:
Note that the average infant mortality rate for developing nations in 2003 is at the same level the rate was for the developed world fifty years ago. The trend continues downward. This is not to say that every nation, or every region within a nation, or every subgroup within in a nation, have prospered equally well. Note the tragic impact of the AIDS epidemic on sub-Saharan Africa by looking at these maps of life expectancy and infant mortality from wikipedia:
During the 1990s there was a small decrease in both measures for the former Soviet nations but that trend has turned positive again. There are disparities between Anglos and non-Anglos in the United States. Disparities exist, but only about a dozen (mostly small) African nations have infant mortality rates above 100. The great majority of the total world population lives in nations with far lower rates including India (34.6) and China (22.1).
Using life expectancy and infant mortality as measures of prosperity, the world is far more prosperous than it has ever been in absolute terms and the gap is narrowing between the top and bottom. More amazing, most of this change occurred over a time when the total world population grew sixfold, from less than 1 billion in 1800 to about 6.6 billion today!
So as we look at the trajectory of change in the world we find unprecedented rises in prosperity. It is uneven growth but the every corner of the planet has improved and the gap between top and bottom nations is closing. This is the first consequence we need to be aware of as we look at the historical performance of McLaren’s “suicide machine.”
But there are other measures we need to visit as well.