Every year as we approach the end of December, major media outlets compile lists of the year's top stories.
Television news stations compile poignant montages of the past 12 months. Inevitably, these images are tragic—images of war, crime and natural disaster set to pensive music, only occasionally interrupted by shots of the team that won the Super Bowl, the World Series, or every four years, pictures from the Olympics.
That's to be expected, of course. No news, as they say, is good news. Good news also tends to happen gradually, which makes it less conspicuous. Bad news happens in clumps. It makes itself known. In just a few hours, a hurricane or an earthquake can wipe out thousands of homes and businesses. The prosperity, wealth and rise in standard of living that created those homes and businesses took place over decades, if not hundreds of years.
No one reports a new subdivision going up. Everyone's on the scene when a tornado takes one down.
At the end of the year, it's easy to get so caught up with what's going on in Fallujah, the calamitous tsunamis that hit South Asia, or the threat of terrorism, that we overlook the overwhelmingly positive but subtler, more gradual trends lurking beneath the headlines.
Here then, is the good news
—America's kids are all right. Juvenile violent crime has fallen every year – and nearly halved – since 1995. The percentage of high school students who carry weapons to school is at a 10-year low. There were 14 homicides on school campuses in 2002-03, down from 34 10 years earlier. Teen birthrates are at a 20-year low, and high school dropout rates are at a 35-year low.
—America is healthier. Life expectancy in the U.S. is at an all-time high among men and women, black and white. People at every age can expect to live longer than anyone at their age in U.S. history. Heart disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke have fallen dramatically in the last 15 years. Incidence of, and deaths from, cancer have dropped every year since 1990.
—America is cleaner. Concentration levels of every major air pollutant have dropped dramatically since 1970, even as we drive more, consume more, and produce more. According to data analyzed by the Pacific Research Institute , U.S. water has been getting steadily cleaner for the last 20 years.
—The world is less violent. In his book, "A History of Force," the historian James L. Payne argues that when you adjust for population increases, over the course of history, the average citizen of the world has grown less likely to die a violent death caused by government, war or his fellow man. War, murder, genocide, sacrificial killing, rioting – all have tapered off over time.
The trend continues even into recent years. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute , there were just 19 major armed conflicts in 2003, down from 44 in 1995. Existing wars seem to be less violent, too. According to the Human Security Report , published by the University of British Columbia, 700,000 people died in battle in 1951. By the 1990s, the number had fallen to 40,000-100,000. In 2002, it was just 15,000. This, as the world's population increased.
—The world is freer. According to the United Nations, as of 2002, 70 percent of the world's nations were holding multi-party elections. Fifty-eight percent of the world's population lived under a fully democratic system of governance. Both of these figures are at their highest points in human history.
The Freedom House think tank gave 89 countries containing 46 percent of the world's population a ranking of "free" in the 2003 edition of its annual Freedom of the World report . Both figures are at their highest in the 30-year history of the survey. Freedom House also reports that countries moving toward more freedom have outpaced countries moving away from freedom by three to one.
—The world is less poor. Yale University's David Dollar has pointed out that since 1980, the total number of people living on less than $1 per day has actually fallen by 200 million, despite the fact that the world's population increased by 1.8 billion. It's the first time in recorded history that that has happened. The UN's 2004 Human Development Report notes that real per capita incomes in the developing world have more than doubled since 1975. In some provinces in China, incomes are doubling every few months.
—The world is healthier. Between 1960 and 2000, life expectancy in developing countries increased from 46 to 63 years. Mortality rates of children under five are half of what they were forty years ago.
—The world is getting cleaner. Most economists now endorse the concept of a "green ceiling," which means that although the transition from a developing economy to a developed one requires some environmental exploitation, there is a point at which a country becomes wealthy enough that its citizens will begin to demand environmental protection.
The key is to get each country to that point as quickly as possible. And as noted earlier, that's exactly what's happening. The good news is, the "green ceiling" is getting lower every day. Right now, it stands at about $5,000 per capita GDP, but the World Bank reported in 1997 that poor countries begin turning the corner on water pollution, for example, at as low as $500 per capita.
So take heart. As we head into a new year, both the U.S. and the world are growing safer, healthier, and less violent. Most of the world is getting freer. It may not seem like it, given the images we're seeing on the news, but man on the whole is making himself better.