A World to Be Thankful For
Here’s some of the good news of 2016. There’s plenty.
As Americans gather around their Thanksgiving tables this week, some will have trouble finding something to give thanks for. In the U.S., only 38 percent of voters—the very same voters who elected him, asked on the very same day they did it—believed that the next president of the United States is qualified for the job. A poll after the election suggests that 63 percent think the country is on the wrong track compared to 21 percent who think it is going in the right direction. Pessimism isn’t limited to the U.S.: A survey across 24 countries this year found, for example, that 87 percent of respondents thought poverty worldwide had increased over the past two decades. Seventy percent thought it had climbed by 25 percent or more.
The bad news of 2016 is serious: It may well portend a comparatively thankless few years ahead. But it should not drown out the fact that this year still produced considerable national and global progress. More Americans will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with a paycheck in their pockets than have done so for many a year—and many people’s checks will be larger than the ones they got in previous years. Globally, there was progress on some of the planet’s most pressing problems and (yet again), 2016 is shaping up to be the best year ever to be alive for the average human. The ubiquity of this progress matters: It is a reason to demand that world leaders cooperate over opportunities rather than squabble over lean pickings.
In the U.S., Americans saw continued recovery from the great recession: U.S. median household income climbed from $53,718 in 2014 to $56,516 in 2015. If it managed the same increase in 2016, that would push household income more than $1,000 above the record levels of 1999. In November 2009, more than 15 million people were on the unemployment roll. By October 2016, that number had fallen below 8 million. And in October 2016, U.S. manufacturing output reached its highest level ever (even if, thanks to productivity improvements, factory employment remained well below its peak).
Globally, even while the considerable majority of people thought poverty was going up, the proportion of the people worldwide living on less than $1.90 a day has fallen from 37 percent in 1990 to less than one in ten in 2015. That decline was powered by economic growth that has slowed recently in parts of the developing world—but the International Monetary Fund still forecasts a 4.2 percent growth rate for developing economies in 2016.
Continuing progress extends far beyond material wealth. With a fragile peace still holding in Colombia, and a new agreement set to be signed on Thanksgiving Day, the Western Hemisphere now has no war, no military governments, and no major insurgencies. Despite the fact that 85 percent of Americans think crime has gotten worse since 2008, according to Bureau of Justice data published this year, violent crime dropped 26 percent and property crime by 22 percent between 2008 and 2015 (though there is likely to be a small uptick in 2016). While battle-related worldwide deaths sadly remain higher than in the first decade of the 21st century due to the tragedy of Syria, they remain an extremely rare form of death—with terror even rarer still. And a lot of other very bad things didn’t happen as often as they have in the past. Take Bangladesh: The country was battered by a massive cyclone in May. Half a million people were evacuated, but thanks to early warning systems and shelters, only 23 people died. Cyclone deaths in the country have fallen by 98 percent since the systems were developed following a 1991 cyclone in which 140,000 people died. And worldwide, another year has passed without a major famine, that despite a severe drought in the horn of Africa.
Fewer people are dying from infectious diseases as well: In 2016, Africa had only two cases of polio and Europe eliminated malaria.* Morocco eliminated trachoma—the leading infectious cause of blindness. There was hope for progress against other diseases, not least thanks to the development of a dengue fever vaccine that was 100 percent effective in human trials. Life expectancy for the average human has climbed by 20 years since 1960, and there’s no sign of that progress ending. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan suggested we might be able to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases within our children’s lifetime” this year, and the idea wasn’t dismissed as laughable.
Of course, in a year that has seen the nativist old lash out against the cosmopolitan young in both the U.S. and U.K., perhaps there is a silver lining to the fact that humans have a natural term of life. But for all of the racist talk during the U.S. election campaign, the majority of Americans (including many old ones) continued to hold positive attitudes toward people who are different from them. For example, the percentage of Americans who believed that immigrants strengthen the country through their hard work and talents in 2016 was at its highest since polling began on the question in 1994. Fully 59 percent hold that view, up from 31 percent 22 years ago. More inclusive opinions aren’t limited to America or just to the migrant question. World Values Survey evidence suggests a growing acceptance of homosexuality worldwide, for example, and that’s reflected in changing laws. For all of the efforts to take away gay rights in some Southern African countries over the past few years, the overwhelming trend worldwide continued towards greater legal freedom. In 2016, homosexuality became legal in Botswana, Belize, Benin, Nauru, and the Seychelles. That is part of a wave of changes improving rights of LGBT people from changing gender through marriage to adoption.
And with regard to global environmental threats, solar energy continued its march toward affordable ubiquity, and global greenhouse gas emissions were reported flat for the second year running in March. In May, Dubai received bids to build the world’s largest solar plant at the lowest ever cost for solar electricity—3 cents per kilowatt hour for 800 megawatts of power. That price is one half the cost per kilowatt hour of the lowest prices available in 2015—a year when renewable passed coal as the largest source of power generation. There are limits to what solar can achieve in terms of powering the planet—at least absent giant technological strides in power storage—but it is a hopeful sign of what can be achieved. Alongside a strong global binding deal on reducing production of some of the most potent greenhouse gasses, hydrofluorocarbons, signed in Kigali in October, technological progress spurred by growing research and development in renewable energy gives some more hope we can continue progress towards a high energy, but still sustainable, planet regardless of revived climate denialism in Washington, D.C.
Recognizing how much progress has occurred, and how ubiquitous it has been, gives the lie to a version of international thinking that has America—or anywhere else—needing to fight for its share of a shrinking pie. The world has never been richer—nor has America. The world has never seen longer life expectancy—nor has America. The world and America are both more educated and less bigoted than ever before. For most important measures of the quality of life there is simply no tradeoff between their progress and America’s, but instead complementarity—and much benefit in cooperation. Take the economy as just one example: More than half of the $1.45 trillion worth of goods and services the U.S. exports each year goes to developing countries, including $189 billion to Mexico and $1 billion to India. Americans do better when they do better, so Americans should be happy that they are.
It is true that in America and across much of Europe as well as in developing countries, the benefits of progress have been unequally distributed. The number of people estimated to be in poverty in the U.S. in 2014 was still over 48 million—a decline from the year before, but up from 32 million in 2000. Middle-aged white Americans are dying younger than they used to, thanks not least to the opioid epidemic. But national and global progress means that it is possible to fix those problems without making others worse off. The true art of the deal is forging an agreement that makes everyone better off. In a world of expanding opportunities, those deals are easier to make. As we gather with family and friends we should give thanks that we live in such a world—and once we are done with the turkey we should stand up and demand our leaders act accordingly.
* This article originally stated that Africa was declared free of polio in 2016; in fact, two cases were reported in Nigeria after this year's declaration. We regret the error.