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It Gets Better

There are days when humanity looks very much like a species that refuses to learn. April 15, 2013, was such a day. What act could be more primitive than harming innocents to make a political point, as the Tsarnaev brothers are accused of doing in Boston? But such behavior cannot obscure the ways we´ve actually made the world better. Signs of progress are everywhere.

Air quality. In L.A., where I grew up, the smog was so bad in the 1960s and &rsquo70s that Mount Wilson, three miles from the family bungalow, often was barely visible. Thanks to cleaner fuels and cleaner vehicles, stage-one smog alerts (the lowest of three levels) have dropped from one hundred or more each year to a handful, sometimes zero. Over the last thirty years, clean-air legislation has made itself felt nationwide. EPA figures show that many of the worst emissions have ebbed: carbon monoxide down eighty-two percent, ozone down twenty-eight, lead ninety, sulfur dioxide seventy-six.

Population. We used to have this thing called the Population Explosion, a looming catastrophe that would bring mass starvation. Cassandras like Paul and Anne Ehrlich proposed adding “temporary sterilants” to the water supply. But development worldwide has lowered fertility rates, and population growth has slowed to a little more than one percent and falling. The world´s population, now seven billion, should max out at ten billion by 2100, then decline, according to UN projections.

Hunger. Even with more mouths to feed, there are 132 million fewer hungry people on earth today than there were two decades ago, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Proportionally, hunger has declined by a full third, from 18.6 percent of the global population to 12.5 percent.

Life expectancy. In 1900, life expectancy at birth was about thirty years. Today, people live an average of 68.9 years, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. That´s due partly to improvements in infant mortality, which have been dramatic even over the past twenty years. The World Health Organization puts infant mortality at thirty-seven deaths per thousand live births in 2011, down from sixty-one per thousand in 1990.

Literacy. In 1950, a UN study found that sixty-six percent of the world’s adults could read and write. Today, literacy has left its civilizing mark on some eighty-four percent of the population. Put another way, the scourge of illiteracy has diminished by more than half.

These are but a few barometers, chosen almost at random. When I look at the strides we´ve made in averting Armageddon (I haven´t dreamed of mushroom clouds since about 1989, have you?), or in civil rights, medicine, public health, technology, and women´s status, I do not doubt our ability to solve the problems that remain. We humans may be slow on the uptake, but we come through in the end.

What improvements, big or small, have you observed in your lifetime? Write to tuftsmagazine@tufts.edu.


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