NEW DELHI – According to popular wisdom, 2016 was a terrible year. Horrific terror attacks struck many countries. The Syrian crisis claimed tens of thousands of lives. Turkey withstood suicide bombings and a failed coup. More than 70 countries experienced a decline in freedom. Political shocks included Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the United States’ presidential election – both unforeseen by the media or political elite. Zika was declared an international public-health emergency. The year is likely to be the warmest ever measured.
Reading the opinion pages, there is a sense that the world is facing a malaise that exceeds any individual events, and that people are becoming increasingly – and dangerously – divided. But if we take a step back, it is clear that there are many reasons to be optimistic. Indeed, in many ways, we are alive at the best time in history. What’s more, some things that we worry about the most, thanks to 24-hour news and social media, are not the issues that should keep us awake at night.
Consider rising inequality, one of the year’s most frequently addressed topics. To be sure, over the last two centuries or so, the gap between the highest and lowest incomes has grown. But that is because pretty much everyone was equally dirt poor in 1820. More than 90% of humanity lived in absolute poverty.
Then the Industrial Revolution arrived, bringing rapid income growth wherever it spread, with China since 1978 and India since 1990 recording particularly high rates. As a result, last year, less than 10% of the world’s population was living in absolute poverty.