2020 and human progress

The bad news of the past year and decade can hide wonderful examples of better lives for people around the world. Rather than debate the pluses and minuses of the past, why not jump in now on the side of hope?

Eloisa Lopez/Reuters
A reveller wears glasses shaped as the year 2020 during the New Year's Eve party in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, Dec. 31, 2019.

This is the time when calendars flip to a new year – and to a new decade (with apologies to those who hold that won’t really happen until 2021). January presents a fresh start. A new beginning. 

Plenty of bad news has been reported in the outgoing year and decade. Many commentators this season seem compelled to offer a counterbalance, gently reminding readers that much progress is underway. 

One could, in fact, make a convincing argument that these are the best times in human history. Worldwide, poverty is receding, and education and literacy are on the rise. Never in history have so many people been so well off materially. One world index shows prosperity increasing in 148 countries and falling in only 19 during the past decade. Over the past three decades, more than a billion people worldwide have moved out of extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. 

While oppressive regimes continue on in many places, in Hong Kong and elsewhere citizens are rising up to demand a voice in their own government through democratic means. 

But what of these numerous wrongs and injustices? Does noting progress mean we need to do nothing and find that wrongs somehow self-correct? 

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t think so. “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable,” he said. “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” He didn’t hold much with complaints of compassion fatigue, either.

Another vital piece of good news is that people around the world are responding to human needs. An estimated 1 billion volunteers do something to help others every day, according to United Nations officials involved in volunteer efforts. In the United States, 63 million people, about 25% of all adult Americans, contribute volunteer work worth an average of more than $25 per hour of service.  

Good actions provide a powerful counterbalance to news that would disturb, discourage, or enervate. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,” wrote young Anne Frank as the Holocaust began to rise around her.

The founder of The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, saw that individual action was essential for progress.

“But what of ourselves, and our times and obligations?” she said in remarks given at a Fourth of July service honoring America’s heroes. “Are we duly aware of our own great opportunities and responsibilities? Are we prepared to meet and improve them, to act up to the acme of divine energy wherewith we are armored?”

Alan Paton, the South African author and anti-apartheid activist, once referred to the Monitor as “a newspaper of sober and responsible hope” because, he said, “it gives no shrift to any belief in the irredeemable wickedness of man, nor in the futility of human endeavor.”

Hope, sometimes referred to as the expectation of good, might be just the approach in which to ground thinking and actions in the year ahead.

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