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Pause to Recognize Global Progress

This weekend I had a brief conversation with a high school friend that went something like this:

Friend: Sure, it was okay for us to walk to school when we were kids but these days it's much too dangerous.

Me: Actually, America, and the world more generally, is much safer now.

Friend: Well, the media has been working overtime to make me paranoid.

Now, I'm not going to accuse the entire media of fomenting fear, just for profit. Maybe it is human nature to constantly focus attention toward ongoing problems and to forget to celebrate success. This behavior is probably critical for survival, both of individuals and of the species. Of course, obsessively focusing on problems and scanning the environment for dangers will distort one's viewpoint, pushing us to become cynical, pessimistic and, as my friend put it, paranoid.

It is certainly true that much of the media coverage is focused on problems, risks and failures. Regardless of how you receive your news, the headlines are invariably dominated by doom and gloom, clinging tightly to the motto of "if it bleeds it leads." Stories abound about violence (especially gun violence these past few weeks), wars, security threats, terrorism, diseases, starvation, environmental disasters, current financial problems, future financial problems, climate change and other global and national problems.

There are most certainly major issues in the world and we need to remain constantly vigilant. At the same time, there is a lack of recognition that humanity has made great strides forward in the past few decades. I've listed a few major accomplishments of humanity below as examples:

Health: In the last 40 years, the global life expectancy has increased by 10 years. Associated with this increase, the global infant mortality rate and the global maternal mortality ratio have roughly halved

Wealth: The global poverty rate has roughly halved in the last 20 years.

Education: Primary school enrollment in developing countries increased from 83 percent to 89 percent from 2000 to 2008. At the same time the average number of years of education has increased and there is greater equality in the educational opportunities of girls and boys.

Safety: As discussed in Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, humanity has seen a steady decline in all types of violence. For example, while this isn't readily apparent from the news, the homicide rates in the U.S. have plummeted in the last 20 years.

Democracy: Democracy has flourished over the last few decades with various measures from sources like Freedom House and Polity IV in strong agreement.

Today, in 2013, there are major pockets in the world that struggle with extreme violence, poverty, terrible health conditions, insufficient educational opportunities and lack of freedom. At the same time, the world has made great strides in my lifetime.

It is easy to be cynical.

It is easy to be pessimistic.

It is easy to act paranoid.

It is easy to feign agreement when you hear someone complain that "the world has become much more dangerous" or that "humanity is destroying itself." Rather than take the easy road, I suggest you point out that the data shows very clearly that the world is, on average, safer, freer, healthier and better educated than before. Yes, humanity has a long way to go to ensure peace, health, safety, and opportunities for everyone but as a population of slightly more than 7 billion people, we are doing much better than a few decades ago. Let's take a pause to celebrate those accomplishments before we go back to today's headlines of impending self-destruction.

Note: The data cited in this article is drawn from the World Bank Database unless otherwise specified. More information about global progress may be found at the Millennium Development Goals website

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