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A few of the things that are actually going right with the world

It’s easy amid the madness du jour to lose sight of incremental change for the better.

Seventy percent of the world’s children were in school in 2016. That’s up seven percentage points from just six years earlier.
Seventy percent of the world’s children were in school in 2016. That’s up seven percentage points from just six years earlier.
REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

The enduring chaos of the Trump presidency. Brexit, yellow vests protests, the rise of populist, authoritarian government. Trade wars, civil war in Yemen, reeducation camps for Muslims in China, charges of genocide in Myanmar. Mohammed bin Salman. Migrant caravans. Venezuela. Ukraine. Syria. The pernicious influence of social media.

Don’t forget climate change.

You could compose a dystopian “Twelve Days of Christmas” – and then some — from the world’s woes at the end of 2018. The problems are serious, often interconnected, and unlikely to be resolved in the new year.  

Did anything good happen? Well, yes. But…

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It’s easy amid the madness du jour to lose sight of incremental change for the better. So in the interest of balance, here are a few things have been going right. Unfortunately, progress also can be undone, particularly by the effects of climate change.

The U.N. is a good place to look for an overview of what’s going on with all 7.5 billion of us, not just those in the richest countries, biggest countries or lands with the most strategic influence or resources. From this year’s “Sustainable Development Goals” report:

Poverty has fallen sharply. The proportion of us living in extreme poverty by the middle of this decade was a third of what it was in 1990. That’s still well over 700 million people, more than one in every 10, so no one is declaring success and moving on. Another way to look at it is by counting the workers trying to provide for a family on less than $1.90 a day. That figure has fallen from almost 27 percent in 2000 to only 9.2 percent last year.

Fewer mothers and small children are dying. Maternal mortality has decreased by 37 percent since 2000. The number of births taking place with skilled help has increased to 80 percent. Fewer adolescents are becoming mothers. Even so, more than 300,000 women died of complications from pregnancy or childbirth in 2015, the last year for which statistics are available. Neonatal deaths decreased by 39 percent and deaths among children under 5 by 47 percent between 2000 and 2016. That’s even true of sub-Saharan Africa, where under-5 deaths were cut in half.

More children are in school, 70 percent of the world’s children in 2016. That’s up seven percentage points from just six years earlier. Teachers are better-trained – overall, 85 percent of primary school teachers now have some training. But more than half of the children in primary and lower middle school are not achieving minimal standards in reading and math.

More people have access to electricity, currently about 87 percent, and in the world’s poorest countries, the proportion with access to it has doubled since 2000. Nearly as many people, 84 percent, have access to at least 3G mobile broadband – including 61 percent in the poorest countries. In two-thirds of the countries for which data is available, the income of the poorest 40 percent grew faster than that of the overall population.

It’s not all positive news, of course, even when that’s what you’re seeking out. The number of malaria cases has increased slightly. So has the number of people who are undernourished. The economic losses from disasters are high, primarily because of major storms.

Hunger and storm damage, in particular, probably are related to climate change, and they are an indication of how precarious the human condition is. Much more is coming.

The United States will be spending a lot of money in the future on adapting to climate change. Among the interesting effects is that will mean less money for foreign adventures. In the words of Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt: “Maintaining a defense budget and a national security establishment that dwarf those of all other states is going to be increasingly difficult if not politically impossible. Persuading the American people to fund wars of choice to protect distant allies of questionable strategic value, or even to wage far-flung counterterrorism operations is going to be a hard sell.”

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Joshua Busby of the University of Texas predicts that both China and the United States “will find themselves diverting military resources to carry out rescue operations and rebuild devastated towns and cities. That will take large numbers of soldiers and military hardware away from preparing for conflicts with foreign adversaries.”

So maybe that constitutes the thinnest of silver linings in this mess we’ve created?

Perhaps. But most countries don’t have the resources of China or the United States. A study by Busby and Nina von Uexkull singles out three factors likely to determine whether a country suffers major instability because of climate change: dependence on agriculture, a recent history of conflict and discriminatory political institutions. Countries most at risk are in the same areas that have been making the most progress in recent years: large swatches of Africa and South Asia.

Yes, many of them have made gains. That’s great. But if they slide backward, there are going to be fewer resources available to help them. To poach and repurpose President Obama’s assertion that the arc of history bends toward justice, humanity also can regress – or just take a long, long time to get where it’s going.