The 1980s saw the most total suffering worldwide — and the 90s weren’t much better
During the great human population boom over the last 200 years, the population rose from 1.1 billion in 1820 to nearly 8 billion today. At the same time, the proportion of people experiencing suffering plummeted. These opposing trends create a fraught dynamic: is the absolute number of people experiencing suffering at any given time increasing or decreasing? Are current trends leading towards less total suffering in the future or is population growth outpacing our quality of life improvements?
The absolute number of people experiencing suffering at any given time in human history is a combination of two factors:
- The total number of humans alive
- The percent of humans experiencing suffering
Data available from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs allows us to look at human populations estimates back to 1M BCE and data from Our World in Data from Roser and Ortiz-Ospina gives estimates of extreme poverty all the way back to 1820. I’ll use extreme poverty as a proxy for suffering here; it is by no means a complete measure but among the data points most easily comparable across time. I feel comfortable estimating that 100% of humans in 1M BCE were in poverty, but not comfortable estimating any other forms of suffering like social or psychological.
- Absolute suffering peaked in the 1980’s and maintained through the 1990's
- Absolute suffering today is about the same as it was in the 1750's
The trends here show suffering increasing in fits and spurts as the population grew throughout history. Small peaks and dips in population during the first millenium CE bounce the total number of experiencing suffering up and down as well. As we reach the 19th century, the proportion of people experiencing suffering precipitously declines — suffering is no longer 100% correlated with population. Even while the proportion of people experiencing suffering declined from 100% in 1750 (my estimate) to 10% in 2015 (from Roser and Ortiz-Ospina), the population booms, and the total number of people experiencing suffering peaks in the 1980’s and 1990’s. After the 90’s the massive improvements in extreme poverty finally overtake the population growth trends and suffering decreases.
As we zoom in on just the last 3 centuries, we see that since 1999 global suffering has been on a steady decline. The rate at which humanity is alleviating suffering globally eclipsed the opposing trend of increases in world population. Current absolute suffering levels are about the same as they were in 1750 — when I estimated everyone was suffering.
It was incredibly surprising to find that the number of people experiencing suffering peaked around the time of my birth. My awareness was mainly of the trend that the proportion of people suffering is steadily decreasing. The fact that suffering is decreasing worldwide is not set in stone, a population boom or a bend in the trendlines could lead absolute suffering to increase again.
Finally — this analysis excludes the suffering of animals. With billions of animals alive experiencing extreme suffering that they were not experiencing before the advent of factory farms its safe to assume that the total suffering on the planet has massively increased and will steadily increase until we end exploitative food production practices.
Sources:United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019, Online Edition. Rev. 1.Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2020) - "Global Extreme Poverty". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty' [Online Resource]