The world will be better

population: The world is getting better


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"Oh God, you broke me and smashed me to pieces," his father wrote in his diary on a day in March 1842 when his son George died. By then Thomas was already dead, as were Francis and Benjamin. And James, Maria and Anne were to follow. The English politician William Brownlow and his wife had 19 children, only six of them survived.

The pain of grieving parents is always heartbreaking, and the Brownlows have been particularly hard hit. But until not so long ago almost all fathers and mothers knew him, not just in England. In Sweden every mother lost an average of 3.6 children before the age of five in the 18th century, and in the regions that are now part of Germany, the figure was even more than four.

The German economist Max Roser mentions the diary entry and the numbers on his online platform "Our World in Data". However, something else catches the eye on the page: an interactive graphic that shows how child mortality has changed over the past 200 years, broken down - depending on the data - for almost 200 countries. According to this, the probability for a German woman to lose her child is 1 in 170 - and nowhere in the world higher than 1 in 8. "A terrible experience that used to be part of the everyday life of almost everyone is today in large parts of the world World is a big exception, "says Roser in a cafe in Oxford, where he works at the university.

Our World in Data (OWiD) shows thousands of such graphics: on war and violence, disease and poverty, democracy and demography. Max Roser summarizes here how living conditions have changed over the past centuries.



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Not every diagram points in a positive direction. Viewed as a whole and over the long term, however, they give an overwhelmingly positive picture of our world. "At no point in history was the majority of people doing as well as they are today," says Roser. "The fact that many people doubt it is also because they don't know how bad we used to be."

You don't necessarily have to go back very long to realize this. Max Roser pushes the mug aside and puts his laptop on the café table. "Look, this is my favorite graphic," he says and clicks through to the "Life expectancy: globally" dossier. "In 1950, around the time my parents were born, the Norwegians were in the best health, on average they lived to be 72.3 years old. At the end of 2019, global life expectancy was higher for the first time, at 72.6 years now. What a good thing a development in such a short time! "says Roser, beaming over his boyish face as if he had only just found out the number.

His office in Oxford's university district is barely a kilometer from the interview meeting point. Nevertheless, he came to the café on his bike. He still had to update something quickly. Outside, crowds of tourists wander through the Harry Potter world of pointed arches, turrets and devil's grimaces. Inside, students, doctoral students and professors from the surrounding colleges take lunch breaks. If you don't know Roser - woolen hat, outdoor jacket, jeans - you won't immediately guess which group you belong to.

The now 36-year-old has been working in Oxford since 2012. Anthony Atkinson, an expert on global income distribution, had offered the German a job at the elite university after his doctorate. But then Roser was already flirting with another plan that was slightly megalomaniac for a young researcher: instead of adding a few footnotes to the history of research on inequality, he preferred to write a book about the decline in poverty worldwide. The idea had occurred to him during a research stay for his dissertation in Brazil, which was just taking a major leap forward in the early 2010s.

The idea of ​​a book turned into a website, 202 visits in the first year turned into 1.3 million monthly hits, and an unknown postdoc from Germany became a globally recognized reference for anyone who wants to know how things are going around the world: at Population development and plastic consumption, obesity and child labor, loneliness or happiness. The Canadian thinker Steven Pinker has come up with his book of success Enlightenment now rely heavily on Roser's work. Hans Rosling, the author of the world bestseller Factfulness, called him a "Picasso of data" because of his skilful visualization of complex relationships. And when the economist Esther Duflo explained to the world public last October why she had received the Nobel Prize in Economics, you could see the abbreviation OWiD on the edge of her graphics.