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Stories from the march of years

Amid 2016's news of conflict and disruption, the steady decrease of such drags on humanity as poverty, hunger, and child mortality continues.

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Some years end with “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven’s anthem lit up late 1989 as Berliners danced atop the wall. Some years end with a requiem. The after-Christmas Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Connecticut’s Sandy Hook school shooting of 2012 darkened the holidays. But all years, taken as a whole, have highs and lows. Months before Eastern Europeans broke free in 1989, the democracy movement in China was crushed. There were days of celebration in 2004 and 2012: The Boston Red Sox finally won another World Series in ’04, and London pulled off a spectacular Olympics in ’12.

What to make of 2016? The Chicago Cubs finally won another World Series. The Rio Olympics were packed with great performances – from that of American gymnast Simone Biles to that of Brazilian soccer star Neymar. The big story, though, was the populist wave that powered the “Brexit” vote, Donald Trump’s presidential win, and anti-establishment movements across Europe. You’ll find an excellent survey of this year of disruption in Peter Grier’s cover story (click here). 

Old assumptions are being challenged. The post-World War II order is being shaken. How all that unfolds – bold new direction or temporary detour? – will be the story of 2017 and beyond. 

But that won’t be the only story. If you’ve been reading the Monitor for a while, you know that while we carefully report the news of the day we also make sure that verifiable evidence of progress gets at least as much attention as politics, conflict, and unrest. The latter constantly take new forms, capturing eyeballs with dramatic words and deeds. Progress, by contrast, looks almost the same every time we check in on it.

The steady decline of such drags on humanity as poverty, child mortality, hunger, and illiteracy are real. You can check the data sets maintained by the United Nations and other organizations. But most people, repeated surveys show, think the world is getting worse, not better. Almost certainly that is because the dogs that don’t bark – the epidemics averted, the productive businesses, the children who bloom under the guidance of parents and teachers – rarely attract attention.

The world has big problems. There are more displaced people today than at any time since the end of World War II. Eighteen civil conflicts of varying levels of violence persist. Most of the displaced are the product of those conflicts. But there are currently no wars between nations, and at some point Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and other war zones will be pacified. War is an unsustainable activity. 

If you believe that the world was better in the past – that people were happier, that your country was greater – you are certainly entitled to that view. But if you examine verifiable evidence of progress you will see that more people now live better, longer lives than at any time in history. No matter what happens in 2017 or whether it ends in an exuberant ode or a sorrowful pavane, we’ll be telling much the same story a year from now.

 
 
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