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Grace Mattern: Globally, these are good times

  • South Sudanese refugee Betty Sakala, from Central Equatoria state, laughs after being shown a photo of her daughter Mary, 2 months, as she waits to have Mary examined at a mobile health clinic run by the International Rescue Committee in Bidi Bidi, Uganda, on June 5. Globally, last year fewer people died from famine, fewer people were killed in warfare, life expectancy rose, more people had access to fresh water, and child labor was at an all-time low. AP



For the Monitor
Sunday, January 21, 2018

Was 2017 the worst year ever? Based on my news and social media feeds it would be easy to conclude that the world is falling apart, and yes, 2017 was terrible.

In fact, 2017 was the best year yet if you step back and consider what life is like for human beings across the globe.

The past year has been difficult for those in this country who value decency, compassion, honesty and democracy. For people who have been singled out as legitimate targets for hateful speech and actions – people of color, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, immigrants – 2017 was a scary and dangerous year.

But the negativity we’ve experienced from the increasing polarization and tolerance for bigotry in our country isn’t reflected in the advances made in many other parts of the world. Globally, last year fewer people died from famine, fewer people were killed in warfare, life expectancy rose, more people had access to fresh water, and child labor was at an all-time low.

This doesn’t mean the erosion of democratic norms in our country isn’t a problem. It is. We have a president who is a racist, sexist, xenophobe and has purposely made life more difficult and dangerous for black and brown Americans.

Still, life has gotten better for humanity as a whole, and that deserves recognition and celebration.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard research psychologist, illustrated this broader view of the world during his address at the New Hampshire Humanities Annual Dinner. Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, outlines how “health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide.”

Good news is hard to come by. Newspapers don’t report on all the things that don’t go wrong, cities that weren’t subject to a terrorist attack or airplanes that didn’t crash. It’s not surprising that so many posts on social media at the beginning of the year focused on how dismal 2017 was.

So here’s the good news. In his talk in October, Pinker put up slide after slide illustrating the many measures of human well-being that are better than ever. Graphs of health, happiness, quality of life and equal rights all had notable upward trends.

In 1820, only 12 percent of the world population could read and write. Today the global literacy rate is 85 percent. The 10 percent of people in the world who live in extreme poverty is the lowest percentage in human history. Vaccinations, diarrhea treatment and an increase in breast-feeding have saved the lives of more than 100 million children in the last 30 years. Deaths and disfigurement from diseases – polio, measles, leprosy– have all declined. The number of people dying from malaria has been cut in half in the last 15 years.

More people than ever live in democratic countries; one database counts 58 democracies in the world, a record high. Homosexuality has been decriminalized in 124 countries and the number of countries that still consider it a crime is half of what it was in 1960. Same sex marriage is legal in 28 countries.

Then Pinker showed a slide of news coverage in the New York Times. The graph tracked the percentage of positive versus negative news over the last half century, based on a review of digitized text by data scientist Kalev Leetaru. After 20 slides of upward trends, the news graph had a jagged decline.

A review of data tells us the world is getting better for the majority of humans, but the news is getting worse. In Pinker’s piece in a Times Magazine issue on optimism, he writes, “A quantitative mind-set, despite its nerdy aura, is not just a smarter way to understand the world but the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as equal, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic.”

Ideals of expanding peace and justice are bolstered by the bigger picture of what life is like for people other than those in our immediate circles. Since hearing Pinker speak, I’ve become more mindful of the messages I get from the media. It’s not helpful to exist on a diet of only bad news, which is what we’re offered. “If it bleeds it leads” is perhaps truer than ever. Newspapers are businesses that need readers to make money, and they know we’re hard-wired to pay more attention to bad news.

In the face of daily disappointments in how our country is being governed, it’s important to remember that the state of the world is not only about us. Recognizing how much life has improved for humans globally helps keep the current political climate in perspective and makes space for hope amid our despair.

Don’t underestimate the power of hope in order to keep resisting what we think is wrong in the world, and fighting for what is right.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood. She was previously the executive director of the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.)