By: Juan Ruiz
In an age in which information can circle the globe in an instant, it can be difficult to experience, or even observe, the positive aspects of life. As we go about our day, whether we mean to or not, the concentration of a world of negativity is often transmitted to us by the social media and news outlets that we use – often to the point of it being overwhelming.
Even setting aside our shared experience as students, and the various worries and responsibilities related to it, every individual has to deal with the various (difficult) facets of their particular life. Caring for your family, minding the present economic situation, keeping up with friends and a job, all while trying to keep a smile on your face for your loved ones and avoiding dwelling on the past. The subconscious idea that, in any way you like, your world might be coming to an end, and the knowledge of having to prepare for such a scenario running wild in your mind, being a constant threat. With all of that in mind, how are you supposed to keep pace with the worrying things happening in your neighborhood, city, state, or about the constant squabbling in Washington D.C., let alone be able to maintain anything beyond tokenistic levels of caring about what happens outside of U.S. borders? From this perspective, it is not too hard to see someone, somewhat simplistically, asking “is the world really like this?” And, well, often times it is. But, arguably, that is the wrong mindset to have. Being able to appreciate what the positive aspects that the planet has to offer and focusing on what can be done to improve it can do you a world of good.
A lot has been made of humanity’s ability to shape the world in recent decades – often in a negative sense, in regard to the climate and environments that we inhabit. On the flipside, we are some of the few beings that can, truly, make a difference. An example that encompasses this idea is that of China and India. Sitting snugly around the United States in terms of Carbon emissions, being first and third respectively1, these countries have taken some measures to balance out their negative effects on the planet. For example, the Earth has experienced a significant increase in foliage over the past two decades. India and China are responsible for a notable amount of this change, with extensive tree-planting programs from Beijing and continuous improvements to agriculture in both countries being the leading factors2. On the part of China, programs to expand and conserve forests have been created to combat the significant effects of air pollution and climate change in the country. While also relevant in China, India has taken considerable steps to improve the cultivation of crops. This has allowed for increased yielding of crops and greening without increasing the use of land for agriculture. Along with other policies, the increased food has allowed the sub-continent to develop rapidly in recent years.
Unlike proposals to address issues such as climate change and poverty on a global scale, which often face criticism for their tendency to be vague, specialized approaches, such as the aforementioned programs by China and India, have been particularly successful so far. These efforts at the nation-state level benefit from a level of clarity and are less likely to be muddled like programs thought up by the global bureaucracy tend to be. However, the progress collectively made on a global scale should not be underestimated. For example, every so often, the United Nations releases a list of developmental goals, in this case the Millennium Development Goals, for the world to strive-for during a 10 to 15 year period, and the results have been rather remarkable in the last decade.
For starters, there have been a number of significant improvements in social and living conditions throughout the world. An example of the former would be the increase of participation of girls in primary education, particularly in South Asia – with cases of parity between the sexes in many countries. In fact, a number of countries are experiencing similar situations to those of Western nations in the last couple of decades, in which women make up larger percentages of the school populations, particularly in higher education. More generally, while universality is yet to be reached, the number of children with a primary education has reached around 90 percent in developing countries – up from 83 percent at the dawn of the millennium3. Regarding living conditions, it is estimated that child mortality has declined more than 50 percent, when compared to the rates in 1990, and maternal mortality rates have declined by more than 40 percent3. This is in addition to some strides being made in the prevention of diseases, particularly Malaria in Africa, the lowering of HIV transmission globally.
However, while extremely important and beneficial, these accomplishments, arguably, are overshadowed by the noteworthy economic achievements of the last decade. The goal to reduce extreme poverty – defined by the United Nations as individuals subsisting on $1.25 a day or less– by half was met 5 years before the deadline. With the total number of people suffering from poverty being cut by more than a billion.2 A figure that, personally, is mind-blowing. Rates of people suffering from starvation have also been slashed, and undernourishment in developing countries reaching historic lows– slightly above 10 percent.2 These accomplishments are equally significant and should not be taken lightly.
Granted, a lot of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals, such as reducing child mortality and maternal mortality by two thirds, were not met outright before the 2015 deadline. Yet, as previously mentioned, the rates of the conditions to be improved were halved (or doubled, depending on how you look at them) – which, while not achieving the targeted two-thirds reductions, are still very significant, and highlight positive development trends.
But what if you, like many of us, are part of the U.S. ecosystem and you are left wondering “that’s all well and good, but what about us?” The truth is, the answer is not that simple. As one of the most developed and powerful nations this planet has seen, the United States does not see such massive numbers of “good” and improvement occurring when compared to other nation-states. This is something that we should appreciate, implicitly denotes the adequate standard of living for most of the people in the country.
The development in the U.S. might not be as grand as some of the aforementioned accomplishments– which, in fairness, are often noted on a global scale. The economy is currently in a booming state; unemployment is nearing record-lows;4 and carbon emissions, albeit slightly, have decreased from previous years– all great conditions in their own right.
While it might be difficult to assess the current state of the country in such an abstract way for some, creating a consciousness for the positive developments can only be beneficial. The overarching point of this piece is not to convince people that they don’t have problems, far from it. In fact, as alluded to at the beginning, the point is that everyone has problems. Humans have a universal tendency to be particularly affected by negative experiences, our negativity bias, and it is particularly difficult for the problems we all face to be put into perspective if we allow ourselves to look at them through that overly punishing point of view.
At a time in which there seems to be little being done, as well as persuasive voices telling you that they are the only ones doing something about whatever issue you care about, it is crucial to understand exactly what is happening around you. Now it is not the time to take impulsive decisions while having a limited grasp of the effects and consequences, but, rather, a time to appreciate what is being done, understand why it is happening, and keep moving forward. It is not a time to let-up, but rather consolidate and build-up towards the tomorrow we hope to see.
1. European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)/PBL Netherlands
Environmental Assessment Agency. Emission Database for Global Atmospheric
Research (EDGAR), release version 4.3.2. http://edgar.jrc.ec.europe.eu, 2016
2. Tabor, Abigail. “Human Activity in China and India Dominates the Greening of
Earth.” NASA, NASA, 8 Feb. 2019, www.nasa.gov/feature/ames/human-activity-
3. Ki-Moon, Ban. “The Millennium Development Goals Report.” United Nations, United
Nations, June 2015, www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2015_MDG_Report/pdf/