Why is there so much gloom when the world has made so much progress?
What should we expect from this new year? Not much, according to an Ipsos poll that shows global optimism averaging at 65 percent – a 12-point drop on the previous year. On the face of it, this is not surprising considering an unremitting diet of stories about coronavirus, conflict, climate, catastrophe, and cruelty.
But why are national sentiments so divergent? Brazilians are most positive at 85 percent and Japanese least at 36 percent. Asians and Middle-Eastern people are most optimistic, Americans and South Africans tend towards cheerfulness, while Europeans verge on the gloomy. Comparisons suggest that a nation’s own cultural makeup has the most influence on its mood, whatever else happens.
So, if positivity is a matter of mindset, can we boost it by a diet of different stories about collective humanity’s remarkable progress? To start, we just welcomed our 8th billion member. 130 million more births are expected this year and among them could be geniuses like Einstein and Beethoven. Or a Mandela, Musk, Messi, to inspire, provoke, delight us.
If anxious about population pressure, fear not. Growth rates are declining even as we live longer; the global average is 73 years. That is cause for celebration as medical research and behavioural changes are adding life to years. As we age more healthily in body and mind, our greater experience enriches society.
Human development has progressed in leaps and bounds. Since the Millennium, infant mortality has halved to 27 deaths per thousand live births, and maternal mortality declined by 40 percent to 154 deaths per 100,000 live births. Basic childhood vaccination coverage exceeds 80 percent and some 25 new vaccines for preventable conditions have been introduced. Nearly every child is now in primary school and global literacy approaches 90 percent. For the first time in history, every human can start life with the potential to achieve their best in their own circumstances.
The world continues to produce enough food. That is because enterprising farmers are adapting to changing circumstances with new types of seeds, more efficient agricultural inputs, better soil and water management, and societal changes to diversify our diets, distribute smartly, and waste less.
We are busy confronting the climate crisis by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy production is turbo-charged with global capacity doubling over the next five years. Countless energy efficiency endeavours are underway and while we are unlikely to keep global warming below 1.5 Celsius, predictions of catastrophe are overdone. That is because the world is adapting to extreme weather events with resources pouring into better infrastructure, improved early warning, more efficient disaster response, and speedier recovery. Over the past century, millions lost their lives in disasters but despite their increasing frequency and ferocity, mortality is down to about 45,000 annually. We may not stop disasters, but we are more capable of protecting peoples’ lives and livelihoods.
Our dwelling arrangements are getting compact. 56 percent of us live in urban areas, increasing to 68 percent by 2050. Benefits include reduced per capita carbon footprint and easier service provision. Innovation in our dynamic cities generates most of our GDP. Improving urban life quality is stimulating new industries. Urbanisation means greener rural areas for leisure, biodiversity and climate mitigation.
Humans are migratory creatures. That is our saving grace because we have the sense to flee shocks, crises, or poverty, to prosper elsewhere. 280 million migrants worldwide – one in 30 of us - remit home more than US$700 billion annually to help loved ones or invest in business.
Communications are revolutionising all sectors. Two-thirds of the world can access the internet at a rapidly-increasing average speed of 67 Mbps. A staggering 83 percent own a smartphone enjoying a median global price of US $3.24 per gigabyte that is tumbling fast, cheapest being India at US$0.09.
Spectacular advances in science and technology touch all lives. The most significant – artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and genomics – predict environmental and personal risks more easily, target the vulnerable more accurately, and engineer vaccines, medicines, and personalised therapies for previously lethal conditions. We see that with Covid-19 and breast cancer, for example.
We can do all this because the world has got richer. Despite many crises, global aggregate GDP in purchasing power parity terms is touching US$150 trillion. That is 50 percent higher than a decade ago. Although inequalities have grown, the absolute numbers below the poverty line of $2.15/day has been declining by 130,000 people each day. More than a billion fewer people have been lifted out of poverty since 1990, despite population doubling.
The better angels of our nature are in flight. The world has never been so forthcoming as in 2022 when United Nations humanitarian appeals received US$24.1 billion, five times more than a decade ago. Private philanthropy, personal giving, and national social safety nets have also expanded. Of course, part of that is because needs have grown enormously as catastrophes around the world have multiplied. But we have also got better at counting-in people who were previously excluded or forgotten in traditional crisis response efforts.
Challenges are opportunities
However, we cannot be complacent. We are too slow at realising that wealth will not solve all problems if inequalities continue to worsen. Neither is charity a substitute for human dignity and fulfilment.
Our arrogance is our undoing. Covid-19 has returned with a vengeance to its birthplace in China. Other disease outbreaks are probable alongside the flipside consequences of too-good living such as dementia, antimicrobial resistance, and non-communicable diseases. The worsening impacts of climate change are en route and progress on poverty, food security, and development stutters.
Nevertheless, such problems already have proven solutions, and we must be resolute in applying them more widely. We are blessed with a cornucopia of riches and capabilities to the point that we can even afford the scientific effort to forestall the extremely distant chance of earthly extinction by an asteroid impact.
Most worrisome is that we live in the bloodiest period since the Second World War. Many of today’s 130 armed conflicts appear endless and are accompanied by egregious human rights abuses. Technological advances have made fighting more precise and safer for soldiers but worsened the plight of civilians.
Hope for change
However, people are saying that ‘enough is enough’ and their ferment generates hope for reform and renewal. Such as Afghan women struggling for their education rights. Or Americans agitating against racism and Ukrainians countering Russian aggression.
The return of geopolitics means that previous rules guiding inter-state relations and multilateral co-operation are heavily challenged. Africans are questioning the legitimacy of an archaic United Nations Security Council to push for more representative global governance.
Multi-hued activists are pushing for accountability of self-serving oligarchs. They breathe fresh life into paralysed institutions, courts and commissions charged with upholding universal norms and rights. Creative critics are reshaping globalisation because the current version has repeatedly failed us.
These are the turbulent birth pangs of a better world order. The Ipsos poll reveals that despite myriad problems dampening the global mood, people everywhere are 15-20 points more optimistic about their personal prospects than for their countries. Perhaps because they are proactively regaining agency. It is as if they recognise the necessity to change the world – to one that is more fair and just.
Therein lies our greatest hope as we enter 2023.
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