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How to Understand Our World in 10 Charts
We live in extraordinary times, but rarely zoom out to think about the major shifts that define our world. Here are ten charts that help us make better sense of the big picture.
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Good Trends, Bad Events: The Perils of “Event Bias”
My day job, it may shock you to find out, is not writing The Garden of Forking Paths. I’m an academic — an Associate Professor of Global Politics at University College London. With that title, it follows that I would teach a course called “Global Politics,” and indeed I do.
On the first day of class, I highlight a striking dynamic that we rarely think about: many of us consume news voraciously, but remain stunningly ignorant about major shifts in world affairs. It’s not really our fault. We live in a world dominated by breathless 24 hour news cycles, in which many of us update our news apps whenever we have an idle moment, to see what’s changed in the world since our last click.
As I explained in an earlier edition, titled “Why the World Isn’t As Bad As You Think”:
How does the news work? To put it bluntly, it works like this:
The news is mostly an aggregation of every bad event that happened in the last twenty four hours, anywhere on Earth.
That last clause—anywhere on Earth—is particularly important. In the past, citizens in the US, UK, or Australia simply wouldn’t know about a huge number of tragedies unfolding in countless distant parts of the world. Now, we do—almost instantly.
In a globalized 24-hour news cycle, which we check and refresh incessantly, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is uniformly a disaster-zone, run by malicious idiots.
The key phrase is “every bad event.” The news has a serious event bias, in which it captures sudden developments but mostly turns a blind eye to long-term trends. The problem is that a lot of good news is long-term, the slow drips of progress, whereas most bad developments are sudden, jarring, worthy of an ALL CAPS headline.
As a result, we’ve lost sight of some excellent news — but we’ve also lost sight of the big picture.
Consider this question, for example:
Which country has a larger economy: Italy or Russia?
The answer seems obvious: Italy is a second-rate power, the days of Rome being the center of the political universe ended thousands of years ago, whereas Russia is a sprawling, powerful global player.
But here’s the truth: Russia’s economy isn’t even in the top ten largest economies in the world (that was also true before the sanctions imposed due to the war in Ukraine). Italy is ranked 8th. Why is that a surprise to most of us? Because event bias skews what we learn about our world. We hear news about Russia constantly; Italy, not so much.
Well, here’s a quick corrective for you, zooming out to help us understand the zoomed out world in 10 charts. (Unless otherwise noted, these charts all come from the brilliant folks at Our World in Data).
1. The global population has a hockey stick shape
If you go back 12,000 years, there were only 4 million people on the planet. Homo sapiens have been around for about 300,000 years, give or take. Most of the time, there were small numbers of us. But the really big change has happened in the last 300 years, as we’ve gone from 600 million to 8 billion humans in a comparative blink. The population explosion is the background for so many other trends in global politics, as it relates to scarcity, conflict, poverty, climate change, you name it.
2. We live much longer
This is an extraordinary triumph of human ingenuity—and it has mostly happened due to the development of modern states within the Liberal International Order, the global structure of institutions that aim to promote the common good through cooperation. Look at the slope of those lines after World War II to now. It’s amazing, one of the best things that has ever happened to our species. We take it for granted.
There has been a dip due to Covid in recent years and sub-Saharan Africa still lags the rest of the world in tragic, horrifying ways. But the overall trend is worth celebrating.
3. There’s been a drastic fall in extreme poverty
In my class, I ask students to guess: what percentage of the global population lives on less than $1.90 per day (one standard definition of extreme poverty). The guesses vary widely, but all of them are typically within a depressingly pessimistic band: between 30 percent and 80 percent.
The correct answer is 8 percent.
And look at how much it has declined in such a short period of time! As recently as 1975, half of the planet lived in extreme poverty, constantly on the brink of starvation. In less than 50 years, that figure has been slashed, from 50 percent to 8 percent. An utterly extraordinary achievement that almost nobody knows about.
4. Extreme poverty remains the norm in much of Africa
This chart shows the proportion of the population in each country that lives in extreme poverty. This is the bad news side of the good news above: while extreme poverty has been radically reduced, it remains a persistent stain on our world because large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa are extremely poor. I’ve spent a lot time in countries with widespread extreme poverty, such as Madagascar (greyed out here because data are missing), but it should be in dark red (about 90 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty and just 40 percent have electricity).
We need to do better.
Before you scroll to the next graphic, consider this: if you had to rank the top 10 largest economies in the world, what would your list be, based on your intuition?
5. The World’s Biggest Economies May Surprise You
Now, how well does it match? Here are the Top 10 largest economies, by nominal GDP, according to the IMF’s 2023 forecast:
Russia is in 11th place, followed by Mexico, South Korea, Australia, and Spain.
But take a look at the numbers: they tell an important story. The US has a nominal GDP that’s still $9 trillion larger than China’s, a gap that’s more than the size of the world’s third and fourth largest economies combined.
And, consider this: after China, the drop from 2nd to 3rd place goes from $17.7 trillion to $4.4 trillion. These are huge gulfs. The world’s economic power is dominated to an extreme degree by just two countries.
6. China’s Rising GDP Per Capita is Astounding
This chart is from The World Bank. But just look at that slope! Per capita GDP is an imperfect, rough proxy for how much money the average person earns in a given year. In 1973, 50 years ago, that figure was $157. In 1993, 30 years ago, it remained just $377.
Today, it’s $12,556 — eighty times more than just fifty years ago. Utterly mind boggling.
7. The world has become literate
Again, this trend took some time, but the acceleration happened after World War II. After the war ended, only about a third of the global population could read. Today, that figure is 86.8 percent. Not good enough, but what a change in so short a time.
8. The World Remains Too Authoritarian
This map comes from Freedom House. Notice what I call the “authoritarian crescent,” which, in its dictatorial purple, stretches unbroken from southwest Africa through to northeast Asia. (Yes, it looks like a despotic croissant). But beyond the striking regional distributions of democracy and autocracy, it’s worth remembering that global democracy is pretty recent: there was a big wave of democratization in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s and another flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa and Post-Soviet Europe in the 1990s. Alas, much of the world has always been under authoritarian rule.
This distribution of regime types will be a major focal point of the global political showdowns of the 21st century, as powerful democracies (the US, UK, EU, Japan, Canada, Australia, South Korea, etc.) square off against China, Russia, and their authoritarian allies.
9. The US Dominates Global Military Spending
This graphic shows that roughly $2.1 trillion is spent on military budgets annually. The United States, with over $800 billion spent annually, accounts for about 38 percent of that total amount. In fact, the US spends much more than 183 out of the world’s 193 other countries combined. Note: Saudi Arabia is far higher here than on the nominal GDP list above (where the Saudis rank 19th).
10. Far fewer people die in state-based wars
I know it doesn’t feel like this, particularly with horrific events in Ukraine, Israel, and the Gaza Strip, but war used to kill a lot more people than it does today, even if you focus exclusively on the period after World War II (if the two world wars were charted on this scale, they’d be hugely off the chart above…they were unimaginably awful).
Another striking trend is that most people who die in wars these days are being killed in civil conflicts that involve foreign states acting as proxies. (These data don’t include Ukraine, as the chart ends in 2020, so that would be a “conflict between states,” but the overall trend line is clear).
Despite the horrific death and destruction that dominates the news—and with good reason, as our governments can and must do something about it—it’s worth remembering that far fewer people are dying in war than in the pretty recent past.
Go Explore the Trends You’re Missing
These are, of course, just a narrow, arbitrary selection of charts to help us understand our world. But I would encourage you to take a look for yourself. Our World in Data is a good place to start. And next time you’re spending hours of despair watching the news, try to spend some time looking at—and understanding—broader social change that reshapes our world. Events are important. But long-term change almost always affects the lives of far more people in far more profound ways than any single event.
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