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Why do we need to know about progress if we are concerned about the large problems that the world faces?

It is crucial to grow the number of people who know that progress is possible because almost all the world’s most pressing problems are collective act

It is crucial to grow the number of people who know that progress is possible because almost all the world’s most pressing problems are collective action problems. These are problems that can’t be solved by anyone individually and instead require that many take them seriously and join forces to work towards a solution. When we fail to find solutions to such problems it is because we don’t get started in the first place and this is the situation we are in with many large problems. Instead of changing the world for the better we get stuck in what the social scientist Alice Evans calls a ‘despondency trap’ – not knowing about positive change we mistakenly think that positive change is not possible.

The fact that many believe that progress is impossible should not be too surprising. The powerful forces in our culture are not offering the perspective that progress is possible or even happening. Instead, they are often suggesting that decline is inevitable.

The news media is neither drawing our attention to the large problems we face, nor to the fact that we are making progress against some of them. The news media focuses on daily events, but neither the big persistent problems (such as those listed above) nor the progress against them find a place in news cycles. 

Our education systems are also not making us wonder how we can make progress, we are hardly even learning about the progress we made. Few leave school knowing about even the most fundamental achievements in how humanity improved their living conditions. The poor knowledge of the basic facts on global development is evidence for it.

Popular culture too is often detrimental. Frequently it is romanticizing a past that wasn’t and when it is speaking about tomorrow it is again and again painting a dystopian vision of the future, rather than daring to imagine the better future that is possible.

Sometimes even researchers or activists reinforce the belief that progress is impossible. In their effort to emphasize the severity of the problems they themselves are concerned with, it can happen that they unwittingly present it as hopeless to change the status quo. In the worst cases this achieves the opposite of what they want, passive fatalism rather than effective engagement.

And lastly some intellectuals perpetuate the idea that to believe that progress is possible is a sign of being poorly informed about the true state of the world. The difficulty of some of the world’s problems does warrant some deep pessimism, but not every problem we face justifies a pessimistic outlook and doom and gloom should never become anyone’s intellectual default position. Sometimes the optimist is the realist, and it is the unjustified pessimism itself that is standing in the way of making progress.

Our goal is to change this. By making the research and data on the world around us accessible and understandable, we want to offer a perspective that allows us to understand the difficulty of the problems ahead and their possible solutions.

We at Our World in Data believe that it is possible to grow a culture of people who are seeking solutions to large problems. Within each of the cultural forces I’ve just listed there are people who are working towards change. There are researchers, activists, intellectuals, journalists and teachers who are as keen on finding and communicating the solutions to move forward as they are on explaining the problems ahead. There is a strong culture of progress already, and we hope to expand it further.

The motivation for this work is what I have summarized at the outset: if it is possible to make progress, then we are obliged to make progress. It is not acceptable that much of the world lives in poverty, that children die, that people are hungry, that we are destroying the environment when it doesn’t have to be that way.

We are not saying that everything is getting better

To avoid any doubt it is worth emphasizing what we are not saying. 

We don’t believe that everything has gotten better. Some things have gotten much worse. Since the 1940s we’ve had nuclear weapons that can destroy our civilization; burning fossil fuels leads to air pollution that kills millions every year; and the land use for agriculture continues to drive species into extinction.

And it is certainly possible that we remain stuck in the status quo or that things get worse; existential risks do not nearly receive the attention they deserve (Toby Ord’s book is an excellent overview of these risks).

Progress is not inevitable and how the future turns out depends on what we do today. We are not saying we will make progress, but that we can make progress. Whether the problems we face are as old as humanity or were created by ourselves within the last decades, what matters for us now is the same. We should study these problems carefully because we have the possibility to reduce our use of fossil fuels, we can give up on nuclear weapons, and we can work to bring down poverty, child mortality, and hunger.

These two goals belong together – we should study the world’s big problems because it is possible to make progress

A common mistake in thinking about problems and progress is to believe that focusing on one of the two would require to not consider the other. That presenting the evidence for progress would mean to gloss over the problems we still have, or vice versa, that presenting the evidence on global problems would make it necessary to avoid mentioning the progress we’ve made.

For example in an article in the New York Times that relies heavily on our work, Nick Kristof writes: “So I promise to tear my hair out every other day, but let’s interrupt our gloom for a nanosecond to note what historians may eventually see as the most important trend in the world in the early 21st century: our progress toward elimination of hideous diseases, illiteracy and the most extreme poverty.”

I think this is not the right way of looking at it. To study progress should not mean to take a break from the awful problems we face. These two sides belong together, it’s because we know that we can make progress that it is so important to study the problems we face.

To see this consider the alternative. If it wasn’t possible to make progress then there would be little reason to study big problems. All we could care about is to make sure that each of us personally, and perhaps the couple of people close to us, are well and safe. It is the unusual time we live in – the situation that we face large problems against which we can make progress – that makes it an imperative to focus on the problems we face.

We are interested in progress because we are not living in the best of all possible worlds.

Explaining progress and explaining problems belong together. We need to learn about the problems because we can make progress, and we need to learn about progress because we face large problems. 

Conclusion

Progress means solving problems. This makes it necessary that anyone who wants to contribute to solutions needs to study both:

If you care about problems you need to study progress. The progress we achieved gives us the opportunity to learn how we solved problems in the past and – most fundamentally – to know that progress is possible.

If you want to make progress you need to study problems. Every problem we identify is an opportunity to make progress. To make the world a better place the first step is to understand the problems we are facing today. 

Our mission follows from this understanding. Our goal with OurWorldInData.org is to give a wide overview of the big problems the world faces, show that it is possible to make progress against even very large problems, and inspire people to work on these big problems to achieve the progress that is possible.

We want to contribute to a culture that seeks progress – a culture of people deciding to study the very large problems we face and taking the initiative to contribute to progress against them. We want to inform thoughtful people about the world’s large problems and the possibility of progress so that they can become the engineers, politicians, voters, donors, activists, founders or researchers that will solve them.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Hannah Ritchie, Ernst van Woerden, Charlie Giattino, Matthieu Bergel, and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina for reading drafts of this text and for their very helpful comments and ideas.


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