2014 was a tumultuous year filled with tragedy, disaster and violence. Each new crisis dominated the headlines only to be quickly elbowed aside by the next: ISIS, Gaza, Ukraine, Ferguson, Malaysia 370, AirAsia 8501, Boko Haram school kidnapping, Peshawar school massacre, polar vortex, Oso mudslide, ebola. By comparison, Congressional gridlock in the US was a minor inconvenience.
You could be forgiven for thinking the world is coming apart at the seams.
Yet buried in the torrent of bad news, this year I’ve come across several articles that give me some hope for the future, and some basis for cautious optimism as we begin 2015.
First off, social scientists Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack say it right out loud: The World is Not Falling Apart in an article reporting on the declining trend in violent deaths around the world. It’s hard to believe the world is actually becoming more peaceful, but the decline in violence has been going on, pretty much unnoticed, for a couple of decades.
Next, Bill Gates points out 5 good news stories you might have missed in 2014, mostly about improving health conditions around the world. Most impressive is the fact that child mortality rates have been falling steadily … 42 years in a row.
Finally, here’s a lengthy New York Times article about the positive environmental impacts of reforestation. The gains are fragile but it turns out if humans would just get out of the way, nature would do most of the work by itself. And in case you missed it, here’s a compelling video about how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has dramatically transformed its ecosystem and its very geography.
Why are good news stories like these so under-reported?
To start with, I think the media is highly tuned (“instrumented,” to use a software term) for violence and calamity. Here’s a story you never see on the news: Not a single life was lost in the course of air travel today as every airplane flight in the world landed safely. Actually, that wouldn’t be “news” at all since it happens almost every day. What makes the news are the exceptions, the out-of-the-ordinary, the unexpected.
Another problem is that good news often happens slowly, incrementally, while bad news is sudden and instantaneous. You hear about a factory closing down and laying off hundreds of employees. You don’t hear about hundreds of small businesses each creating one or two new jobs. Declining trends in violence and child mortality are gradual. An earthquake that wipes out entire villages happens in seconds.
Worse, the data needed to report on positive trends has high latency, that is, it takes a long time for the data to be collected and analyzed, sometimes a year or more for worldwide figures. By the time the news is reported, it’s long out of date.
The bad news stories, the murders, crashes, and explosions, strike a deeper chord within us. They resonate with our most basic fears of death, injury and loss. We can easily imagine them happening to ourselves or to the people we know and love. Like car accidents on the highway, we find these stories almost impossible to look away from.
By contrast, positive developments frequently have a minimal or indirect impact on our daily lives. Lower oil prices put a few more dollars in our pockets, but for most of us the savings isn’t going to make or break our monthly budget. Falling unemployment is great for the economy, but if you already have a job it doesn’t really matter, and if you don’t your prospects might be brighter but the statistics won’t help in your job hunt.
The world faces incredibly difficult, complex problems. Nevertheless, there are positive developments going on all around us. I can’t tell whether, on balance, we’re moving forwards or backwards, but I’m taking the optimistic view.
I like Bill Clinton’s advice, “Follow the trend lines not the headlines.”
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