The Good News Is, The News Is Getting Better All The Time

Europe is on the brink of collapse, the Arab Spring has taken an illiberal turn, Chinese growth might be faltering, and North Korea’s future is questionable. But there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about 2012.

Bad geopolitical news and economic indicators cloud good news and omens. Disasters – whether economic, social, environmental – are rarely as bad as predicted. And there is no reason to believe that our long-term trajectory of higher living standards, better wellbeing, and more riches will change.

Better health alone should give us reason to be optimistic. The World Health Organisation says global life expectancy has increased by two years for men and three for women in the past decade. The poorest countries have seen the greatest increase.

Fewer newborns are dying: from 29 per 1000 live births in 2000 to 24 in 2009. Maternal deaths have decreased from 3.4 per 1000 to 2.6 in the same time.

There is less tuberculosis and HIV. Malaria has taken a dive. Recession or not, things will improve – we now have seven billion people to develop cures and prevention.

Wars are getting rarer and less violent. Actually, it’s better than that. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a bolder claim: globally, violence itself is declining. There is less corporal and capital punishment. Less torture. Less crime targeting gender or sexuality.

In 1993, there were 55 countries classed by Freedom House as ”not free”. Today there are 47.

Since 2005, 19 million people have migrated from one country to another. This is great. They’ve found new opportunities and more work.

Half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Urban environments offer stronger job prospects, more accessible services, cheaper transport, and more varied human relationships.

Humans are getting better at coping with natural disasters. Food prices are going down after recent highs. The prices of rare earth metals – used in virtually every electronic device – have fallen too.

And in 2011, people had more of what they want. Ignore the prattling about consumerism. Surely the fulfilment of human desire is a good sign.

Small medical clinics can now buy a hand-held ultrasound machine, connected to a smart phone, for about $7000. A team at Stanford University has learned to ”program” the cells in living organisms to act as computers. Implications range from fighting cancer to managing fertility.

Google is testing a self-driving car. Fifty million people now use Twitter every day, forging bonds across the world. E-books have made reading cheaper and easier.

Even economic crises have their upsides. Productive people kicked out of jobs are forced to be creative. Sure, a cloud with a silver lining is still a cloud. But economic turmoil can spark innovation from those compelled by circumstance to take risks. Less foreign aid has spurred economic reform. Africa is now the world’s fastest growing continent; Ethiopia grew by 7.5 per cent last year. Many analysts claimed the developing world would suffer most from the economic crisis. They were wrong.

Humans tend to equate short-term problems with long-term ones. If there is an economic downturn, we imagine it indicates a deeper, systemic problem with society and capitalism. If food prices go up, we imagine it’s the end of cheap food.

In the early 1990s recession, the United Nations held a conference in Rio de Janeiro where it was claimed that ”humanity stands at a defining moment in history”, and the world is ”confronted with a perpetuation of disparities within and between nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy”.

Yet, as Matt Ridley writes in his recent book The Rational Optimist, the next decade ”saw the sharpest decrease in poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy in human history”.

So, yes, the euro is stuffed and China might sneeze. Both would be bad. But there’s still every reason to be optimistic.