If all you do is follow the news, chances are you think our world is slip-sliding away. In fact, according to a 2015 survey cited in the Our World in Data (OWD) site, only 6% of U.S. respondents think the world is getting better.

But is our world really slip-sliding away?

We’ve been around for thousands of years. If we look at just the past 200 years, here’s what we would find, according to OWD:

In 1820, the vast majority of people lived in conditions that we would call extreme poverty today. In 1950, two-thirds of the world was living in extreme poverty. By 2015, the last year for which we currently have data, the share of the world population in extreme poverty has fallen below 10%.

How about literacy, the bedrock of educational and social progress?

In 1820, only 10% of people over 15-years-old were literate. In 1930, it was 33%. Today, we are at 86% globally. In absolute numbers, in 1800 there were fewer than 100 million people who could read and write. Today there are about 4.6 billion people with the same skill.

How about child mortality?

In 1800, the health conditions were such that around 43% of the world’s newborns died before their fifth birthday. By 2017, child mortality was down to less than 4%, a ten-fold improvement.

The key reason we rarely discuss such extraordinary long-term progress is that we’re swimming in 24-hour new cycles that focus mostly on what’s wrong with the world at the moment.

There’s plenty wrong with the world, of course, but if that’s all we see, we lose sight of the most fundamental aspect of the human condition—our ability to make things better.

Take the much-hyped claim that the United States is currently awash in systemic racism, a view that overlooks or downplays how far we’ve come.

As far back as 1998, the Brookings Institute noted, “Progress is the largely suppressed story of race and race relations over the past half-century.” The point was not that racism was eradicated, but that we’ve come a long way since the days of segregation only a few decades earlier.

Racial progress should not be idealized. There’s still much to do. As Jennifer Richeson of The Atlantic wrote in 2020, “It is obviously true that many of the conditions of life for black Americans have gotten better over time. Material standards have in many ways improved. Some essential civil rights have advanced, though unevenly, episodically and usually only following great and contentious effort.”

In other words, progress is neither linear nor inevitable, and it’s not an excuse for complacency. Like most good things in life, it requires effort.

But we’re more likely to make that effort if we have hope. That’s the power of being aware of progress—it gives us hope. It reminds us that we can do it, if only we put in the work.

If all we do is follow the daily news cycle and wallow in how bad things are, we risk nourishing a perception that our flaws are not just systemic but irreparable. That engenders not hope but cynicism and despair, the twin killers of progress.

As we enter this American day of thanks, and as we count our many blessings, let us not forget the blessing of progress, the blessing of being able to make things better, not just in the world but in our own lives.

On this one day at least, let us be grateful that there is good news hidden in the bad, if we know how to look for it.

May this Thanksgiving be even better than last year’s.

David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and the Jewish Journal. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.


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