Pessimism is easy because pain always gets our attention, while comfort goes unnoticed and unremarked. If you do your job well, and nothing goes wrong, no one will say a word. Make one little mistake and you’ll never hear the end of it. If you dribbled a bit of ketchup on your shirt at lunch, that’s all anyone will see despite the fact that most of your clothing is stain free. Animals are the same. Monkeys groom one another, focusing their attention only on the fleas and other parasites.
Despite all the things wrong in the world, the problems are small compared to the successes. Being an optimist is not unrealistic as we look at the United States and the world today.
Despite the current focus on the conflict in Iraq, war is becoming increasingly rare in the world. Consider that the casualty rate in the current war in Iraq is miniscule by historical standards. Our grand children may not even remember it, any more than most of us remember the Philippine-American War of 1899-1913 in which 4324 US soldiers and at least 16,000 Filipino soldiers died, while 1 million Filipino civilians were killed.
The last large war in the world is one that most people probably haven’t even heard of: the Second Congo War which lasted from 1998 until 2003 and resulted in 3.8 million deaths. Despite a formal end to the war in July 2003 and an agreement by the former belligerents to create a government of national unity, the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains weak and much of its eastern region continues to suffer from violent conflict. In 2004, an estimated one thousand people died every day from violence and disruptions to basic social services and food supply. Oddly, we rarely read about any of this in the newspapers nor are we likely to hear that the UN has issued any condemnations or pronouncements.
We have to go back ten years in order to find a comparable big war: the one between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988. 1.5 million people died from that conflict. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and fought there for ten years, from 1979 to 1989, one million people died. 2.4 million died in the Vietnam War between 1957 and 1975—not counting the 1.5 million deaths from genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. Only 50,000 of those deaths were Americans. It took only three years, from 1950 to 1953 for three million people to die in the Korean War. Again, only about 50,000 of those were American.
And yet, as bad as all those deaths were, we have to remember that even in the times of the bloodiest conflicts, the overwhelming majority of people in the world were not at war and were not being killed. According to the CIA World Fact Book, there are 8.67 deaths per 1,000 people world wide annually. That works out to .86 percent. Therefore, less than one percent of the human race dies each year from all causes—and most of those deaths are obviously due to old age.
Meanwhile, human life spans have increased in the last fifty years world wide and the reason for the rising world population is due directly to the good news that ever fewer people are dying. Birth rates have actually radically declined in the last century. The incidence of disease and starvation have dropped precipitously. Many diseases that once killed millions are now easily treatable. Some have even been eradicated.
Air pollution in the United States has declined by 29 per cent over the last thirty years, even while the population grew from 212 million to 300 million and the economy grew by 160 per cent. In southern California, the incidence of first stage smog alerts went from an average of 100 a year in the 1970s to none in the 21st century, despite a booming economy and enormous population growth.
And the economy of the world has continued an upward trend. Global output rose by 4.4% in 2005, led by China (9.3%), India (7.6%), and Russia (5.9%). The United States economy has grown at an average rate of 3.5 per cent per year, while the current unemployment rate is lower than it has been for thirty-five out of the last thirty-eight years.
The UN uses a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living. An index ranking of .800 and above is considered “high.” In 1975 20 nations had a “high” Human Development Index. In 2004, 63 countries were rated as high. What’s interesting to notice is that extreme poverty is a rare occurrence outside of Africa. And even Africa is better off today than it was 30 years ago.
Noticing the bad things in the world is a good idea. We can’t fix the problems if we pretend they’re not there. But we need to be careful not to let our concern with current problems lead us to lose perspective and to forget the remarkable progress made, miss the good things in life, or to forget the problems solved.