OKAY, WE UNDERSTAND WHY SO MANY AMERICANS feel as if the world is getting worse, especially following Donald Trump’s significant triumph in this week’s Indiana primary. Millions are now really worried that the ascendancy of “The Donald” is a sure sign that everything is in decline. But hold on. America’s difficulties right now aren’t necessarily a harbinger for the rest of the world, or even for itself. Consider some other signs.
These past few decades have seen a war on death itself. Since 1990, those dying from AIDS have declined by 25%, by tuberculosis, child and maternal death by 50%, and by measles 71%. As a result, global life expectancy since 1950 has increased from 47 to 70 years. Furthermore, despite the occasional terrorist event, the cities of the developed, and increasingly developing, world have shown a clear decrease in their crime rates – all this despite that fact that over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities.
And then there is global poverty. Since 1981, the proportion of people living under the global poverty line ($1.25 per day) has decreased by 65%. That means that 721 million fewer people were living in poverty in 2010 than in 1981 – a truly remarkable figure. But we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of optimism. The majority of the 721 million are now living on about $2.50 per day). It’s an important increase, to be sure, but there is still much further to go in the fight against global poverty
Due to terrorism and more published stories of criminality, people can forgiven for thinking that the world has become a more violent place. But the statistics don’t bear that out. The number of those killed by war has become almost non-existent compared to previous decades. In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor, claims that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history.
Since the mid-19th century, global adult literacy rates have greatly improved, from an estimated 10% in 1850 to 84% in 2013. Here’s how the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) put it:
“In the mid-nineteenth century, only 10% of the world’s adult population could read or write. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, UNESCO estimates that over 80% of adults worldwide can read and write at some minimum level. This unprecedented social transformation occurred despite the world’s population quintupling from about 1.2 billion in 1850 to over 6.4 billion [by 2006]… Literacy today, in its many manifestations, has become a vital set of competencies and practices, interwoven in the fabric of contemporary societies.”
And now let’s look at America – increasingly the Land of Trump. Yes, it might be in something of a political mess at present, but there are signs of hope.
Between 1973 and 2009, the number of violent crimes in the U.S. has dropped from 48 to 16 per 1,000 people. Twenty million more Americans have health insurance than in 1990. Numerous American cities are winning the war against homelessness. More Americans are getting engaged in the political process at all levels than at any time in recent memory. Women are making significant strides in business, politics, non-profits, and even the sciences and economics. Increasingly, American cities are becoming more progressive and with that has come to a generation of problem-solvers eager to make a contribution.
It’s true that many things have gotten worse in the United States in recent decades, and the rise of Bernie Sanders particularly highlights the tensions that have resulted from this neglect. Yet despite all this, we have to acknowledge where advances have been made, where social justice has balanced the scales, and where progressivism has begun to have serious effect.
My favourite TED talk presenter is Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and world-renowned statistician. He uses data in an energizing and enlightened fashion to reveal advances in the world that few might notice. But he is aware more than most that remarkable challenges remain that could halt everything – climate change especially. Yet he doesn’t match the good news with the bad, but instead with a challenge: “You have to be able to hold two ideas in your head at once; the world is getting better and it’s not good enough.”
Should Donald Trump rise to the presidency, the future will become the great unknown. Yet it’s important to recall that most of the positive changes noted above came regardless of good or bad politicians. In the house of the citizenry is where the real dynamic for good or ill lies, and as long as engaged citizens play their respective roles, solitary political figures face tremendous hurdles in achieving their grand designs.