Opinion: Why 2017 was best year in human history

  • Nicholas Kristof
  • New York Times
12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 Opinion

We all know that the world is going to hell. Given the rising risk of nuclear war with North Korea, the paralysis in Congress, warfare in Yemen and Syria, atrocities in Myanmar and a president who may be going cuckoo, you might think 2017 was the worst year ever.

But you’d be wrong. In fact, 2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.

A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell.

We need some perspective as we watch the circus in Washington, hands over our mouths in horror. We journalists focus on bad news — we cover planes that crash, not those that take off — but the backdrop of global progress may be the most important development in our lifetime.

Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity.

As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone.

Just since 1990, the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations, diarrhea treatment, breast-feeding promotion and other simple steps.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor, explores the gains in a terrific book due out next month, “Enlightenment Now,” in which he recounts the progress across a broad array of metrics, from health to wars, the environment to happiness, equal rights to quality of life. “Intellectuals hate progress,” he writes, referring to the reluctance to acknowledge gains, and I know it feels uncomfortable to highlight progress at a time of global threats. But this pessimism is counterproductive and simply empowers the forces of backwardness.

President Donald Trump rode this gloom to the White House. The idea “Make America Great Again” professes a nostalgia for a lost Eden. But really? If that was, say, the 1950s, the U.S. also had segregation, polio and bans on interracial marriage, gay sex and birth control. Most of the world lived under dictatorships, two-thirds of parents had a child die before age 5, and it was a time of nuclear standoffs, of pea soup smog, of frequent wars, of stifling limits on women and of the worst famine in history.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. I suggest these: The world is registering important progress, but it also faces mortal threats. The first belief should empower us to act on the second.

Sure, the world is a dangerous mess; I worry in particular about the risk of a war with North Korea. But I also believe in stepping back once a year or so to take note of genuine progress — just as, a year ago, I wrote that 2016 had been the best year in the history of the world, and a year from now I hope to offer similar good news about 2018. The most important thing happening right now is not a Trump tweet, but children’s lives saved and major gains in health, education and human welfare.