The 20th century ended in 2020

Decades of declining poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and more were all reversed last year.

Thomas Brown
6 min readJul 28, 2021


The natural state of humanity is illiterate poverty and for most of human history, for well over 90% of people, everywhere on the planet, this was the case. Until very, very recently most people around the world went to sleep hungry, most of their children died early, and they had little chance to escape the cycle. That stopped in the 20th century.

Courtesy of iStock

During the last century, for the first time in history, most children born, regardless of where they lived, would live to adulthood. Before the twentieth century, the majority of people couldn’t read but that really wouldn’t matter because they also lived in such material poverty that they wouldn’t have had any books to read. Until the twentieth century, moving to another country for better opportunities was functionally impossible for most of humanity as was getting their children an education and access to a better future. Now we consider it the bare minimum.

If we’re not careful, all those gains will be lost; this year we ended an amazing run of progress at every social ill. We should keep perspective of how far we’ve come lest we allow 2020 and 2021 to ruin what we’ve accomplished.

What we accomplished in the 20th century

Yes, the twentieth century produced more people than any other century in history — the global population didn’t reach one billion until the 19th century while six billion were born and lived just in the 20th century. Because our technology and sense of morality were finally at a level where people like Norman Borlaug could save literally billions of lives with his green revolution. Jonas Salk rescued untold millions more from death and permanent disability with his vaccine. Advances in science, medicine, education, infrastructure, and poverty permitted us to finally deny the Reaper his regular visits. More people were born but more lived full, productive lives than ever before: more people who lived long enough to have dreamed and loved and done something with those dreams and with their love.

“While only 12% of the people in the world could read and write in 1820, today the