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A visual representation of human progress over the last two hundred years

by Pete Geddes

Check this out, from the always helpful Hans Rosling.

By most measures, this appears to be a very good time to be alive. What about trends in the U.S.? Is our modern, industrialized lifestyle killing both us and the environment? Here’s some data.

For all races and both sexes combined, long-term trends in cancer deaths have been declining since the early 1990s. In 2007, U.S. life expectancy was 78 years. (In 1990, life expectancy was 75.4 years.) The global life expectancy for males is 61 years. For females it’s 65. The reasons for this discrepancy are not fully understood. Some attribute the difference to biology; others point out that men are employed in more hazardous occupations. Behavior certainly plays a role, as men generally drive, smoke, and drink more than women.

For women and children the news is also good. In 2007, American infant mortality dropped to 6.4 deaths per 1,000 live births and has been on a general decline since 1958. The steady decrease is due to improvements in public health, nutrition, and medicine; and a decline in unhealthy behavior, such as smoking.

It looks like life in a modern, industrial society extends your life. But doesn’t our material comfort here depend on exploiting our environment and the environment in the developing world? Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who surely deserve (but will never receive) an award for the most predictions gone bust, confidently and sanctimoniously assert, “Sadly, our nation is also at present the biggest engine of ecological destruction on Earth.”

This is naive, willfully ignorant nonsense. Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute explains why in his annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators. He writes:

…the United States remains the world’s environmental leader and is likely to continue as such. Environmental improvement in the United States has been substantial and dramatic almost across the board…The chief drivers of this improvement are economic growth, constantly increasing resource efficiency, innovation in pollution control technology, and the deepening of environmental values among the American public that have…changed behavior and consumer preferences. Government regulation has played a vital role to be sure, but…[w]ere it not for rising affluence and technological innovation, regulation would have much the same effect as King Canute commanding the tides.

Richer societies are healthier, cleaner, and more resilient than poor ones. Without exception, the worst cases of environmental pollution occur in poor countries, especially those lacking democratic institutions.

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