The year 2018 would seem to be ringing itself out in a Dickens of a mess, a prime candidate for “the worst of times.”
Paying attention to what troubles humanity is understandable: The out-of-whack needs fixing. But some observers are looking deeper and seeing a different picture.
Harvard University’s Steven Pinker makes the case that humankind’s current great leap forward is being overlooked. The reason seems to lie with human nature: Tragedies land outsize emotional wallops. And people tend to think about potential dangers more than enjoy what’s good. (His book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” made the Monitor’s list of the best books of 2018.)
The better news of 2018 is there for the finding, almost across the board. While the world needs to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible, renewable energy supplies are coming on strong: They make up almost 25 percent of the world’s electrical output, and the figure is growing. At the same time electrical service, with its many benefits, now reaches 87 percent of humanity.
The number of girls in school worldwide now almost equals the number of boys. In 1986 it was about 85 girls in school to every 100 boys.
Women’s role in politics has seen huge gains in many countries. In Spain women hold 11 of the 17 cabinet posts. In the United States, nearly 23 percent of the members of the new Congress will be women, bringing their share of seats close to the international average of 24 percent.
Worldwide rates of ills such as poverty, infant and maternal mortality, and teen pregnancy continue to trend down, down, down.
And so on.
This progress doesn’t come without effort. It’s being stirred by individuals’ love for humanity and maximized by intelligent thinking. “As ingenuity and sympathy have been applied to the human condition,” Dr. Pinker notes, “life has gotten longer, healthier, richer, safer, happier, freer, smarter, deeper, and more interesting.”
“More interesting” might include the fact that earthly troubles haven’t dampened human curiosity about the cosmos: Private aerospace companies have joined governments to launch payload after payload into earth orbit, and even to lay plans for trips to Mars. For its part, in 2018 NASA placed the unmanned lander InSight on the Mars surface, the first landing on that planet’s red dirt since 2012.
Innumerable individual acts of courage and kindness were represented by a few that gained international attention, including the brave Thai Navy SEALs who rescued a dozen of schoolboys from a flooded cave in July.
During the Christmas holidays, church members and other volunteers along the US-Mexico border are stepping up to give food, shelter, and other aid to asylum-seeking migrants. They’re being dropped off, sometimes by the hundreds, by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel at bus stations or in front of homeless shelters and churches to fend for themselves.
Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, a shelter in El Paso, Texas, is one volunteer now scurrying to meet a surge of need. He’s been at it a long time and says he’s just where he wants to be.
“I’m really, really glad” to be doing this work, he told the Monitor in 2012. “I get to do something with depth and purpose and meaning. I get to live my life in a way that is fundamentally about the rights and dignity of the human being.”
More stories of inspiration and progress like these lie ahead in 2019.