Is the world getting better or worse? It’s a ridiculous question really – not just because it depends on who you ask, but because a single answer proves impossible. The conclusion can only be that it is both. Plenty of research has been published legitimizing both arguments.
As a kid growing up in Calgary in the 1950s, both dynamics framed my larger view of the world. It seemed a dangerous planet. The threat of imminent nuclear conflict challenged many of our neighbours to consider constructing bomb shelters. Polio made families insecure. Racism hovered over us as a dark cloud, given what was erupting south of the border. Most nations were anything but democratic and were frequently volatile. The communist threat was everywhere. Sadly, three of the great challenges that were soon to confront us – climate change, our collective injustice to our aboriginal people and the need for true gender equality – had not yet entered our collective consciousness.
Now remnants of that past era seem to have crept back into our global world and everyday vocabulary. Racism has raised its ugly head once more, indigenous people around the planet still struggle for true justice and opportunity, the threat of a limited nuclear confrontation troubles us, Russia is revealing some of its more sinister traits, and the troubles of global democracy make everyday headlines.
But how about this?
Absolute poverty is defined as living on less than $1.25/day. Over the last 30 years, the share of the global population living in absolute poverty has declined from 53% to under 17%. Little of this has been by accident. Initiatives like the Millennial Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals – a large collaborative effort among nations that is quarterbacked by the United Nations – has had significant effect, most of it in just the last 20 years. We’re talking hundreds of millions of people here. Such initiatives will become much harder as they move forward from this point, but, still, the results have been impressive.
Child labour numbers have declined by 50% in the last two decades. This has been a global problem for millennia and has only recently begun to show signs of marked improvement. It’s a complex issue, but heading in the right direction. And in the last 20 years, infant mortality has seen a similar 50% decline – a remarkable advancement.
Violent crime rates in the Western world continue to steeply decline. It’s another complex issue, largely made possible through earlier rehabilitative and education legislation, yet it counters the frequent narrative we hear that violent crime is on the rise. It simply isn’t true yet has become a political tool to instill fear in populations.
The chances of people receiving a good education have increased ten-fold in the last 100 years, and with the availability of online training those numbers are about to skyrocket.
Numbers such as those from the United Nations Development Index reveal a world beginning to overcome some of its deepest challenges. Add to all this the powerful influence of the global women’s movement, the explosive educational and wealth potential of the Internet, and the success of the global city movement. Collectively it’s a remarkable testament to the collective power of humanity and led New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof to wonder if, “2017 was the best year in human history.”
And then, of course, there’s the bad stuff. Various media research groups remind us that we are destined to receive ten times more negative news stories than positive ones – a reality playing out on every screen we watch. It’s not just because fear drives much of what we choose to watch. The truth is that there’s a lot of deeply troubling trends happening. The list seems almost endless: global democratic health in decline, the negative effects of populism in the West, terrorism, economic threats, loss of faith in our politics, the stagnation of the human rights movement, growing wage gaps, cyber terrorism, a growing child soldier problem, the gap between rich and poor – to name but a few.
We have become a global citizenry transfixed by our problems and frequently ignorant of our advances. As Kristof reminded his readers: “F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time.” It appears that we haven’t mastered that skill yet. We’re better at stridently voicing one perspective and dividing ourselves in the process. Our politics continues to excel at this kind of collective division, leaving much work to be done.
As with the successes listed above, the way forward for both politics and civil society is the ability to collaborate to overcome our greatest challenges. Should we remain divided, the combined strength and ingenuity required to mend what is unravelling at present can’t possibly prevail – our problems are just too great for splintered solutions.