A cautious optimism is called for

As we begin a new year, and in the case of this one a new decade, we often “take stock” so as to better navigate our way forward.  The last couple of years have been anything but encouraging.  If you’re anything like me thoughtful reader, it seems like time stopped on January 20, 2017, and that the forward motion begun in the last century in everything from civil rights to technology had been stopped in its tracks, and the slow but steady drive to bring about a better world for everyone had been derailed.  All of a sudden, facts had alternatives, people doing harm might be “very good people,” and name-calling was an acceptable form of civic discourse.  It seemed like it was no longer necessary to substantiate a claim provided enough people believed it, and ignorance replaced intellect as a virtue.  Never before, in my short history on the planet, had things seemed so bleak.

But are things really that bad?

That old newsroom quip, that “if it bleeds it leads,” combined with the “Orchestra Pit Theory,” conspire to color our world with dark colors offering an ominous warning about what lies ahead.  And only a foolish pollyanna would fail to heed the caution.  The threat to our climate, the rise of tyranny, the normalization and even exaltation of prejudice, hatred giving way to violence — turn on the news or read the paper any day of the week and you will find a headline that reflects at least one of these.

However, in spite of that, progress is a force that cannot be and has not been stopped.

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Save the Children’s 2019 Global Childhood Report shows that in the last 20 years, children's lives have improved in 173 out of 176 countries; compared to 2000, the turn of the millennium, today there are: 

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  • 4.4 million fewer child deaths per year 
  • 49 million fewer stunted children
  • 130 million more children in school
  • 94 million fewer child laborers
  • 11 million fewer girls forced into marriage or married early
  •  3 million fewer teen births per year
  • 12,000 fewer child homicides per year
10 Commitments

The United Nations reports that global HIV-related deaths have fallen to 770,000, a third lower than in 2010 when 1.2 million deaths were recorded.  The World Health Organization reported that the average decline in the incidence of tuberculosis, the leading infectious cause of death worldwide, has been 1.6% every year between 2000 and 2018, and in August, a new cure for a deadly strain of TB was approved, clearing the path for global distribution.  Poverty in the United States reached its lowest rate since 2007, with 1.4 million people leaving poverty in a single year.  Democracy is proving far more resilient than “headlines” suggest — since 2000, the number of democracies has risen from 90 to 97, including 11 countries that became democratic for the first time ever, and in 2019, 2 billion people in 50 countries voted, the largest number in history.  A new survey across 167 countries said that tolerance toward the LGBTQ community has risen in almost every region of the world in the last decade.  The biggest ever US survey of attitudes towards sexuality, race, skin tone, age, disability, and body weight showed that Americans have become more tolerant since 2007 — decreases in bias ranged from 49% for sexuality, to 17% for race, and 15% for body weight.  Research from UCLA showed that an estimated 10,000 gay and lesbian teens in the US have been protected from conversion therapy in states that have banned the practice since 2012.  Global executions fell by almost a third last year, reaching their lowest figure in at least a decade, while the 2019 Global Terrorism Index revealed that deaths from terrorism decreased by 15.2% last year, the fourth consecutive year of improvement, while the overall number of terror attacks fell by a third and the number of terrorism-related deaths was cut in half.

We can take solace in stories like these, and others, but we should not become complacent.  What we call civilization is the sum total of the individual decisions made by each of us.  We all have a role to play in shaping the future, our future.  We must keep our sense of urgency about it alive and not give in to despair which breeds cynicism, apathy, and irresponsibility.

We do not need a creed, a party, a tradition, or a heritage to work for humanity’s progress.  We need only remember we are human, and so is the “other."

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