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Some good news: Things aren’t so bad

In last week’s column I raised an issue that had hit home a bit personally — the increasing number of mass murders committed in our country’s public places by madmen who, armed with high-powered rifles and abundant ammunition, kill as many as they can.

It had become a bit more personal because our company underwent “active shooter” training, with instructors informing us of our choices to “run, hide or fight” if a killer arrives at our New London offices.

Not a happy thought.

So, this week, I offer something completely different. Things are not that bad. I’m talking big picture; globally. While you may be watching disasters, famines and health crises on your TV screens and smartphones — because such is news — the reality is the world is a much better place than it was not long ago.

I was reminded of this recently when reading an article in the latest edition of Reason by Ronald Bailey, the magazine’s science correspondent. His point was that despite the perceptions of many, these are not the glory days for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Death, Famine, Pestilence and War.

Human nature being what it is, folks tend to think things have never been this bad when, in many ways, they have never been this good.

Take war, the world has not had a big one in 75 years, since the end of World War II. Local wars have killed thousands and displaced millions, each death a tragedy, but global institutions such as the United Nations and NATO have held, preventing war from again spilling across the planet. Europe has been at peace for the longest stretch in its history.

Thanks to science, medicine and improved food production and distribution, people are living much longer. Bailey notes that demographers estimate that in 16th-century England, 60 percent of children died before age 16. By 1820 things had not improved all that much, with average life expectancy hovering around 30.

Today in the United States the infant mortality rate is 5.9 per 1,000 births, while in the United Kingdom it is 3.8 (tell me again why national health care would be so awful?).

Average life expectancy for Americans is 78.7 years, which is impressive by historic numbers but has actually dropped slightly the past couple of years and trails many other developed nations. Analysis continues, but increased substance abuse and resulting premature deaths appear the likely cause.

Worldwide, the average life expectancy is 71.5 years (68 years for males and nearly 73 females), according to the United Nations.

A big factor in people living longer is the eradication of diseases such as smallpox, which decimated populations in the past, and great strides in controlling other sicknesses. Cancer may seem like the modern plague, but one big reason we see more of it is because people live longer to develop it. Medicine is dramatically improving the ability to successfully treat it.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 10 million deaths were prevented worldwide in the first five years of this decade because of the availability of vaccines and another 1.5 million deaths could be avoided if vaccines were more readily available in poorer nations. Remember those numbers the next time some irrational anti-vaccine advocate tries to paint vaccines as bad.

Could things go south in a hurry? You bet. The world is filled with nuclear weapons. A decline in liberal democracies could invite renewed conflict. Climate change, declining natural resources and an exploding global population will present difficult challenges.

Things could be better. But for perspective’s sake, it is sometimes worthwhile to recall that things have been far worse.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.




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