As we round out the year, this editorial is a helpful corrective to the doom-and-gloom that pervades many circles. It is, of course, true that there are many things still wrong with the world, and these improvements are woefully inadequate in the face of immense human suffering and inequality. At the same time, it would be untruthful and smack of ingratitude to not acknowledge where progress has been made.
The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.
Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.
Perhaps the greatest calamity for anyone is to lose a child. That used to be common: Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood. As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.
“If you were given the opportunity to choose the time you were born in, it’d be pretty risky to choose a time in any of the thousands of generations in the past,” noted Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs the Our World in Data website. “Almost everyone lived in poverty, hunger was widespread and famines common.”
The strides that humankind has made in the last century are astonishing. Whether we will be able to continue making such strides is open to doubt, and there are real existential risks that lurk in every corner. Things, however, can be done. There may be more failures than successes, but successes there are.
In the new year, may each of us do what is good, seek what is true, and live in beauty, in whatever spheres we have been placed in.
“We are some of the first people in history who have found ways to make progress against these problems,” says Roser, the economist. “We have changed the world. How awesome is it to be alive at a time like this?”
“Three things are true at the same time,” he added. “The world is much better, the world is awful, the world can be much better.”
Or, as I like to say, “Things are often much worse and much better than you imagine.”