First, the good news: Bad news does not define the human race.
Yes, awful things happen in the world. Somewhere militias are settling political scores with AK-47s. Somewhere a tyrant is compiling a list of dissidents to arrest. Somewhere – too many somewheres – children don't get the food and health care they need, and their mothers remain oppressed as the property of men.
But here's something you'd never guess from watching cable news: There is progress in mankind's affairs as well. Consider these indications:
War may be on the decline. Scholars who study the subject say that, today, fewer wars are starting, more are ending, and those that remain are contained within smaller areas. Since the late 1940s annual world battle deaths have fallen by more than 90 percent.
It's not just classical big army clashes that appear to be passé, either. Everything from low-intensity militia conflicts to civil wars and, yes, terrorism is becoming less frequent and less deadly.
"If war is really obsolete, it would be one of the most important developments in the history of the human race," says John Mueller, chair of national security studies at Ohio State University in Columbus and an expert in conflict trends.
Poverty could be shrinking. Eleven years ago the United Nations challenged the world to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Right now it looks as if developing nations will reach that goal. The World Bank says they're already 80 percent of the way there.
The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day is projected to be 883 million in 2015, compared with 1.4 billion in 2005 and 1.8 billion in 1990, according World Bank statistics.
The outlook for developing countries to reduce hunger, enroll children in primary school, and reach a number of related UN-set benchmarks is similarly good.
"Their progress is much better than I expected," says Delfin Go, lead economist at the World Bank's Development Prospects Group.
Globally, women's lot is rising, both in absolute terms and relative to men. In developed countries there's an increased consensus supporting formal legal rights and guarantees of equality for women, says a World Bank report on the subject. In many – but not all – developing countries, more women are literate and their overall education level is catching up to men's levels.
Women now represent 40 percent of the world labor force, 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force, and more than half the world's university students. That's good both for the women themselves and their nations, according to Ana Revenga, codirector of the World Bank's World Development Report 2012, which focused on gender equality.
"In today's globalized world, countries that use the skills and talents of their women will have an advantage over those that don't," said Ms. Revenga when the report was released this fall.
It's far from sure that Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya will adapt full-fledged democracy now that they've deposed autocratic leaders in the Arab awakening It's unclear where continuing turmoil in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain will lead. But it's clear that the old order in the region is passing into history. The era of autocrats, many of whom ruled with tacit US support, may be ending.
"Societies are changing. They want basic freedoms," says Daniel Calingaert, Freedom House vice president for policy and external relations.
To be sure, there are other ways of looking at the world that produce a darker picture. War may not be declining so much as on holiday. Economic inequality is increasing worldwide, and the current economic crisis has thrown millions into the misery of unemployment. Patriarchy is alive and well in many nations. The number of the globe's free nations has stagnated in recent years.
Still, the positive trends outlined above are real. Wrapped together, what do they all mean?
At the least, perhaps they indicate the world is not an irredeemable mudhole. Some might argue that the glass half-full, not half-empty, perspective stretches credibility: "[O]nly pessimists are regarded as intellectually serious," lamented New York Times columnist David Brooks a few years ago. But in this cover story, the Monitor simply follows the indicators of human activity where they lead.
To paraphrase somebody else – Martin Luther King Jr. – the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward ... something. If not toward justice, as Dr. King held, maybe toward improvement, or a brighter tomorrow. Somewhere better than today.