Eiffel Tower fireworks.
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T’is the season to be gloomy, when the world’s prognosticators provide their competing lists of the coming year’s top risks. And there are plenty of candidates, from Iran to North Korea, and from American elections to global warming.
Acting on the advice of Winston Churchill, I’ll instead close my year on a more hopeful note. “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,” Churchill famously said. He declared himself an optimist as “it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”
With that in mind, here are six sources of optimism for 2020:
1. Global prosperity is rising
We’ve never had it so good.
Global well-being has hit its highest level ever, or so says the recently released Legatum Prosperity Index. In the past decade, prosperity has improved in 148 countries and declined in only 19 of the 167 countries Legatum surveys, making up more than 99% of the world’s population.
This improvement reaches from health-care systems and adult education, and from the delivery of basic services to more widespread financial security.
According to World Bank figures, more than a billion people have moved out of extreme poverty since 1990, leaving the share of population at that level at 10 % which, though still troubling, is the lowest since such figures have been recorded
2. Some of the world’s worst places are getting better
The Economist picks a “country of the year” each December, and it is telling that this year Uzbekistan was its most-improved land. What one is seeing are fruits of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s leadership after the Uzbek despot Islam Karimov died in 2016.
Until his death, the regime was “a closed society run with exceptional brutality and incompetence,” writes the Economist. “It’s regime allegedly boiled dissidents alive, and certainly forced legions of men, women and children to toil in the cotton fields.”
After firing the head of his security services in 2018, Mirziyoyev’s reforms accelerated this year. They largely ended forced labor, shut down Uzbekistan’s most notorious prison, opened the country to foreign journalists and stopped bureaucrats from bullying small businesses for bribes.
The Economist’s runner up was Sudan, another country that in 2019 took a giant step from despotism when mass protests led to the removal of “one of the worlds vilest tyrants,” Omar al-Bashir. The Atlantic Council this month hosted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who represented a power-sharing government that has promised elections in three years.
3. The global middle class has never been larger and half of humanity lives in democracies
Although there is justifiable concern about growing inequalities within countries – both in the developing and less developed world – less attention has been paid to the more positive trend that global inequality among countries has been declining for several decades. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, about half of the global population can be considered middle class.
Beyond that, about half of the world’s population now lives in democracies, a far cry from most of human history during which the vast majority lived under non-democratic regimes. Of those still living in autocracies, some 90 % are in China. The conventional wisdom is that China is growing even more authoritarian, and hence it is inspiring others.
That said, protests in Hong Kong and upcoming elections in Taiwan suggest otherwise. Protests in the Middle East – in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon – also are aimed at corrupt and sectarian governments and could be a force for democratic change.
Watch this space in 2020.
4. Violent conflicts have declined
With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union next year, the continent’s doomsayers are at it again (sometimes including me). What they forget is that there has been no war or conflict in Western Europe in some three generations, in no small part due to the European Union’s creation and the peace between France and Germany that accompanied it.
Long may that last.
And for all the concern about growing tensions between China and the United States, neither country wants a war. Global history since 1500 shows that the world’s two leading powers have been at war more than half the time, but the period since World War II has been historically peaceful. It will take increased attention to keep it that way.
5. We’re getting smarter and more tolerant
Quoting Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, Bill Gates writes that the global average IQ score is rising by about 3IQ points every decade. “Kids’ brains are developing more fully thanks to improved nutrition and a cleaner environment,” he writes, crediting Pinker.
“Think about how many symbols you interpret every time you check your phone’s home screen or look at a subway map,” writes Gates. “Our world today encourages abstract thought from a young age, and it’s making us smarter.”
Elsewhere, Gates notes that while a century ago it was legal to be gay in only 20 countries, today that’s true in more than 100. Legatum’s survey showed that residents of 11 countries expressed more tolerance than they did a decade previously, particularly regarding the LGBT community (but that at the same time restrictions on freedoms to speak, assemble and associate have deteriorated in 122 countries.)
In parallel, women are gaining political power in leaps and bounds, now making up more than a fifth of members of national parliaments. The world listens in unprecedented manner when women raise complaints about discrimination and sexual assault.
6. Technology could save the planet
Okay, there’s a lot about Artificial Intelligence that is scary. It could empower tyrants, threaten jobs and entrench bias. At the same time, history is awash with examples that technological change has brought more progress than perils. Advanced technologies could improve health care and even address climate change.
Writing for the World Economic Forum, Jeremy O’Brien says quantum computing could help beat climate change through simulations that could uncover new catalysts for carbon capture that are cheaper and more efficient than current models. “A catalyst for ‘scrubbing’ carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere could be a powerful tool in tackling climate change,” he writes.
It’s tempting to write some balancing lines here about why 2020 will be a particularly shock-prone year. Let’s save that for the New Year. After all, it is the optimists who are best equipped to find solutions to global problems – because they believe they can.
“Choose to be optimistic, it feels better,” said the Dalai Lama.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.
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