Positive News about the State of the World in 2013

Anybody can be forgiven for feeling these are gloomy times. National economies are largely sluggish, abysmal at worst. Political leaders can’t fix a range of problems from the Euro to carbon emissions. From Mali via Syria to the Korean peninsula, peace in the world seems at risk. So it’s important to find the positive news.

Positive news

There is in fact a publication – both online and hard copy (quarterly) – called Positive News. The label says what’s in the can. There are some other sources of good and positive news as well, including a section of The Huffington Post, a US-based Positive News, which I am not sure whether it’s related to the UK organ of the same name, and also some more ephemeral stuff such as The Daily Good.

In some ways these are the inheritors of a tradition that kicked off some 20 years ago with a high profile complaint by BBC newsreader Martyn Lewis that news values were distorted to give disproportionately more time and attention to bad than good news. Hard bitten hacks rained down a hailstorm’s worth of cynicism and scepticism on his head about his motives and professionalism but the BBC’s postbag on the issue was overwhelmingly in his favour. The public view was that, of course we want to know the bad news, but we’d like to know the rest of it too.

A quiet but noteworthy source of support for Lewis came from war reporter Martin Bell – the BBC’s man in the white suit – who commented in private to the under-fire newsreader that he agreed with the argument because he, Bell, had received every resource from the BBC to cover the war in El Salvador for a decade but received a rejection when he proposed returning to El Salvador to cover the outbreak of peace.*

Good news matters

Getting a balance between the good news and the bad news is one of the not-so-hidden themes of my State of the World Atlas. I have drawn on it for an article for the April number of the print edition of Positive News.

It may seem too easy, trite even, to think in terms of this good news / bad news dichotomy. But I do think it’s important. Lashings of bad news are disabling and disempowering. If everything is rubbish, why would anyone think they could help change anything for the better? But if some things are not so bad and even improving, then maybe others things can change too if enough hands grab hold of enough levers and pull.

This is not just a case of whether the glass is half full or empty. It’s about balancing our sense of what is bad and getting worse with knowing why it is nonetheless possible to work for betterment of the human condition.

the bad news

The world is marked by large inequalities of wealth. The per capita national income of the richest country is 200 times that of the poorest. And inequalities within countries are mind-numbing; in England, homelessness reduces average life expectancy by 30 years, to about the same level as in Afghanistan.

We might hope that once current economic problems are somehow put behind us we’ll grow our way to a better deal for those at the bottom of the global pile. The problem with that thought is the deep global, environmental predicament we are in. We neither know nor understand all the details but we can see that the economic and industrial path we have been on for the last two centuries, along which we are not only still moving today but actually accelerating, is unsustainable.

Scientific knowledge may be imprecise on some of the key details but on the big issues there is no doubt. We are more people than ever before, using disproportionately more water and energy than ever before. Basic arithmetic shows that on current trends the majority of the world’s population will face water scarcity before 2030. As our economic output has soared, we have pumped large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the past 200 years and the laws of physics say the effect of that is to increase the global average temperature, which is happening. And at the same time, we have generated waste and thrown it away as garbage with abandon and if we go to the right places we can see the consequences of that with our own eyes.

These issues might make you despair. The indices of inequality keep worsening and while there are many excellent initiatives on curbing waste, meaningful reductions in carbon output still seem out of political reach.

But a look at other major issues shows that it need not be thus.

Not such bad news

This is not a peaceful world and yet it is more peaceful today than at any time since before the First World War and, some argue, ever. Military spending remains high and armed conflict remains a major cause of death, yet by comparison with earlier times, there are markedly fewer wars and they are less lethal. There has been an avalanche of peace agreements in the two decades since the end of the Cold war and a major, sustained effort to lay the foundations for long-term peace.

It’s not a case of job done but these are real achievements. They are not locked in irreversibly but they have improved people’s prospects of living in peace and dignity. There are multiple risks of conflict escalation, and grounds for concern that governments that funded peace efforts may be less willing to do so in future – but if the United Nations and the peace-funding governments can stay focused, there is every reason to expect a reasonably successful record of building peace to continue.

Ours is not yet a democratic world but this is an age of growing democracy. Today, 48 per cent of the world’s populations live in established democracies, up from 43 per cent in 2008. Like peace, this is a trend that needs safeguarding. Similarly, human rights are advancing slowly; it is a measure of how much more they are respected than hitherto that the indignation and anger at continuing abuses are so sharp. And more women than ever participate in politics as leaders in politics; it’s nothing like parity: only 20 per cent of parliamentary deputies are women – but that’s up from 3 per cent in 1945. Gay rights are also respected more widely; there are more countries where same sex relationships are legal than where they are illegal. On all these issues, much, much more remains to be done yet real advances have been registered.

actually, some surprisingly good news

The same is true with health. There is still too much suffering from curable and preventable conditions and the way mental and psychological disorders are handled primarily by silence and taboo in many countries is as big a health scandal as any. But medical science is advancing, the genetics of cancer have been unlocked, the sequencing of the human genome has been worked out, and new treatments are being and will be developed.

Global health statistics reveal two contradictory trends. On the one hand, there’s the impact of today’s grotesque degrees of inequality. The prospects of a child in a high income country surviving a major cancer are about five times as good as for a child in a poor country. A woman with breast cancer in the US is six times more likely to survive than she is in Gambia. Per capita spending on drugs to treat mental and behavioural disorders is over 1,500 times greater in high income compared to low income countries.

The HIV/AIDS statistics tell a different story. Global inequality would lead you to expect that HIV/AIDS deaths would be disproportionately high in poorer countries because, you would think, treatments are less widely available; you’d therefore expect to find that poor countries’ share of the world total of people dying from HIV/AIDS would be much higher than their share of people living with HIV/AIDS, reflecting longer terms of survival in rich countries, reflecting in turn better living conditions and more access to more expensive drugs. But it’s not so. Within a global picture in which the AIDS pandemic is being slowed, the proportions for “living with” and “dying from” are about the same for rich and for poor countries. In this area, that means, inequality has not got in the way so much.

so pay attention to it

The good news is there for anybody to see who is not blinded by the bad. Improvements in health, like advances in democracy and peace are real and, though by no means irreversible, are signs of what can be done. Of five major world issues, the surprise (perhaps) is that three currently look manageable. With them, why not the other two?

* I know of no printed source describing this encounter but both participants in the conversation have confirmed it to me on separate occasions.

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