I’m probably one of the most optimistic people you will ever meet. I’m confident in the future of humanity. But I also recognize that we must overcome many challenges to get to the future we ultimately want.
In other words, I try to stay balanced.
For whatever reason, we tend to tune into bad news more eagerly than we do good news. The media is partly to blame, because murders, fires, and nasty weather sell advertising. But something deeper is at work.
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It’s an instinctive bias toward watchfulness for danger. This behavior makes perfect sense as the consequences of ignoring bad news are higher. On the other hand, it distorts our collective perception of reality, which creates all sorts of consequences.
Overcoming this bias takes an intentional effort, and to mark the holidays, I’m going to help you do it.
I ran across a great list from the Future Crunch website recently: “99 Reasons 2017 Was a Great Year.” Here, I’ll list some of the best things that happened this year and add my own comments.
Breakthroughs in Medicine
1. This year, the World Health Organization unveiled a new vaccine that’s cheap and effective enough to end cholera, one of humanity’s greatest-ever killers. New York Times
2. Cancer deaths have dropped by 25% in the United States since 1991, saving more than two million lives. Breast cancer deaths have fallen by 39%, saving the lives of 322,600 women. Time
3. In July, UNAIDS revealed that for the first time in history, half of all people on the planet with HIV are now getting treatment, and AIDS deaths have dropped by half since 2005. Science
4. Leprosy is now easily treatable. The number of worldwide cases has dropped by 97% since 1985, and a new plan has set 2020 as the target for eradicating the disease. New York Times (Seriously, did you read that? That’s awesome!)
5. And on November 17, WHO announced that global deaths from tuberculosis have fallen by 37% since 2000, saving an estimated 53 million lives.
I'm bullish on all kinds of life-extension technologies. I really expect to live well beyond age 100 with all my faculties intact.
One by one, killer diseases like cholera are giving way to humanity’s fast-growing medical knowledge. Some of the greatest threats to human beings will be essentially under control within 10 years: Heart disease, arteriosclerosis, cirrhosis, you name it, will have mainstream cures.
And don’t even get me started on induced tissue regeneration, which has the potential to reverse your body's aging to the point where you will be—oh, pick an age—let’s say, 25 again, but with all of the experience you have today.
All these developments are wonderful news from a human standpoint, but also economically. Think of all the potential genius and innovation the world never sees because disease robs it from us. By preserving these lives, we enhance everyone’s life.
A Beautiful World
6. Chile set aside 11 million acres of land for national parks in Patagonia, following the largest-ever private land donation from a private entity to a country. Smithsonian
7. A province in Pakistan announced it has planted one billion trees in two years, in response to the terrible floods of 2015. Independent
8. Cameroon committed to restoring over 12 million hectares of forest in the Congo Basin, and Brazil started a project to plan 73 million trees, the largest tropical reforestation project in history. Fast Co.
9. In 2017, the ozone hole over Antarctica shrank to its smallest size since 1988, the year Bobby McFerrin topped the charts with “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” CNET
Nations and individuals increasingly set aside land for preservation and replant trees by the millions.
The United States is now the major supplier of wood for the United States, and all from renewable areas. We now have more 9 billion more cubic feet of trees in the US than we did in 1953!
That’s 50% more than we had 60 years ago (US Agricultural Service). And the trend is not happening just in the US; Europe and other areas of the world are seeing a real upturn in the growth of forests.
In 1630, roughly half of this country was forest. Today the figure is about 35%, but the bulk of that loss came during the 1800s. Since 1900, we’ve seen overall growth in forests to the point that today we have 820 million acres covered in trees.
Up from Poverty
10. The International Energy Agency announced that nearly 1.2 billion people around the world have gained access to electricity in the last 16 years.
11. In the last three years, the number of people in China living below the poverty line decreased from 99 million to 43.4 million. And since 2010, Chinese income inequality has been falling steadily. Quartz
12. The United States’ official poverty rate is now 12.7%, the lowest level since the end of the global financial crisis. And the child-poverty rate has reached an all-time low, dropping to 15.6%. The Atlantic
Since the turn of the century some 1.2 billion people have gained access to electricity. That’s one of the first steps out of poverty. All the modern technologies that enrich our lives and wallets need electricity to work.
It may be surprising that 12.7% of Americans live below the poverty line. Of course, we define poverty differently than much of the rest of the world does, but we still leave too many people behind through no fault of their own.
Much remains to be done, but I think we've at least noticed the problem now. That’s the first step to fixing it.
The rich are also getting richer. The number of households with a net worth of $1 million (measured in 1995 dollars) grew from 2.4 million in 1983 to 10.8 million in the latest survey in 2017, far outpacing average household income growth.
As a nation, I know we worry a great deal about wealth and income inequality, but in general, we are all getting better.
13. In the United Kingdom, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, carbon emissions fell to the lowest levels since 1894, and on April 21 the country did not burn any coal, for the first time in 140 years. UK Independent
14. The cost of solar and wind power plummeted by more than 25% in 2017, shifting the global clean energy industry on its axis. Think Progress
The cost of solar has been plummeting 20–25% a year for years now. By 2030, at the latest, we will not be building any natural gas power plants, other than in areas that receive very little solar energy. There are many places in the world where this is possible now with our current technology. But with the improvements that are coming down the pike? Oh my.
15. A new report from the European Union said that between 1990 and 2016 the continent cut its carbon emissions by 23% while the economy grew by 53%. So much for the propaganda of fossil fuel lobbyists.
Something marvelous happened in the UK this year, when that country burned no coal at all on April 21st —the first such day since 1877. How is that even possible? Renewable energy sources are finally stating to show the capacity to displace fossil fuels. That doesn’t mean coal, oil, and gas will disappear in the near future. They’ll still have a place, but as parts of a bigger and cleaner energy menu.
Further, the world’s biggest polluter, China, is beginning to acknowledge the danger and discomfort of living in polluted cities. They are planning to spend $367 billion on renewable energy by 2020 and to make renewable energy 20% of China’s total energy supply by 2030.
I like this new Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Not saying it’s all rainbows and ponies, but he is doing his best to pull Saudi Arabia into the 21st century.
17. New figures showed that the gender pay gap in the United States has narrowed from 36% in 1980 to 17% today. For young women the gap has narrowed even further, and now stands at 10%. Pew Research
18. Global deaths from terrorism dropped by 22% from their peak in 2014, thanks to significant declines in four of the five countries most impacted: Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. ReliefWeb
19. Rates of violent crime and property crime have dropped by around 50% in the United States since 1990, yet a majority of people still believe they have gotten worse. Pew Research
20. Snow leopards have been on the endangered list since 1972. In 2017, they were taken off, as the wild population has now increased to more than 10,000 animals. BBC
Sometimes humanity is its own worst enemy.
The things people do to each other through war, crime, or simple disrespect hold back progress for everyone. But 2017 brought some improvements.
We see women and minority groups gaining new recognition and equality. Terrorism deaths and crime rates have fallen. Some endangered species have recovered.
Cleaner Water and Air
There is good news on this front, too. As you can see in the chart below, we are using roughly the same amount of water in the US as we did back in 1970, but the population has grown by almost 50%.
We are producing vastly more food, generating more hydroelectric energy, and doing more of all the other things that can only be done with water.
Source: USGS Water Science School
And if you go to the EPA website, you find that carbon monoxide emissions are down 77% since 1990; lead in the air is down 99%; total nitrogen dioxide is down over 50%; particulate matter emissions are down on average about 44%; and sulfur dioxide is down 85%. And that’s just in the last 25 years.
Some of us with a few gray hairs on our heads remember flying into this Los Angeles and not being able to see the city or the Valley for the smog.
Again, you can read the full list for more good news. I might quibble with the authors on some items, as they represent government interventions that may have negative side effects, but most of the 99 items represent welcome progress.
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