Was 2016 the worst year ever? You could be excused for feeling that way. Too bad years don't have delete buttons.
In fact, despite Donald Trump and other unforeseen catastrophes, there's plenty to be thankful for. We are riding a giant wave of human progress. We just don't see it amid the daily disasters. As British economist Max Roser points out, there could be a headline every day that says, "The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday." Mr. Roser's online publication, Our World in Data, is indispensable reading for anyone who is sunk in excess gloom. It is a source for the first three items on this year's oh-cheer-up-already list.
World poverty is in steep decline. Before the Industrial Revolution, nearly everyone on Earth was poor. As recently as 1981, 44 per cent of the world still lived in absolute poverty. Since then, the population has soared but the share of poor people has plummeted. By 2013, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty had dropped to 11 per cent. According to World Bank forecasts, it's still heading down.
Education is advancing around the world. In 1800, nine in every 10 people around the world couldn't read or write. Today, the world literacy rate is 85 per cent and education rates among the young are soaring. An educated society doesn't guarantee good government, prosperity and equal rights for women – but it definitely helps.
We're all living longer than ever. In the past 100 years, life expectancy for the average human has doubled globally. Since 1960, it has increased by 20 years. Some of the poorest countries have seen the biggest gains. In Bangladesh, for example, average life expectancy increased from 46 in 1960 to 72 in 2014. Global economic inequality is still a stubborn problem, but the lifespan gap is shrinking fast.
Our kids are tops. Canada's PISA scores are among the world's highest. The latest survey of student achievement in 72 countries ranks Canada near the top – well above the OECD average and just behind the Asian leaders. Here's the best news of all: While children of foreign-born parents struggle in most countries, in Canada, they do better than kids with native-born parents. Both our immigration and our school systems must be doing something right.
The best green news of the year. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and a bunch more of the world's richest entrepreneurs have formed a consortium to fight climate change. The goal of the Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, says Mr. Gates, is to "build companies that will help deliver the next generation of reliable, affordable, and emissions-free energy to the world." Mr. Gates says their initial investment of $1-billion is just the start.
The polar bears are all right. Contrary to the usual overhyped scare stories, polar bear populations are not in decline. A team of scientists reached this conclusion after conducting a detailed study of polar bear demographics and traditional ecological knowledge. "Our message is not simple or conventional or consistent with the dire warnings present in much of the polar bear literature since 2006," they wrote in the scholarly journal Ecology and Evolution. Bad news for David Suzuki's fundraising – but good news for the bears.
The pandas are all right, too. Giant pandas are no longer endangered, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The WWF has worked with China to save panda habitats and minimize the impact of local communities on forests. In the decade up to 2014, the giant panda population increased by 17 per cent.
The veggie burger that (almost) tastes like meat. A company called Beyond Meat has developed a vegan, plant-based hamburger that it claims tastes like the real thing. It looks like meat. It even bleeds like meat. (The main ingredient is pea protein.) It's been a hit at Whole Foods, which sells it at selected U.S. stores. But does it really taste like meat? The reviews are mixed. But there's no doubt that meatless meat is getting better and better. This is great, because livestock are a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The cows will probably be grateful too.
Gay rights are expanding.
Homosexual activity has been decriminalized in most of the world. In the past two years, it has been declared legal in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tunisia, Benin, the Seychelles and Belize. Anti-discrimination laws, as well as same-sex marriage and adoption, are also spreading.
Aging may be reversible. Scientists have found a way to reverse aging in middle-aged mice by undoing changes in gene activity. Will it work in people? We'll see. What we do know is that our new ability to manipulate the genome will yield a dazzling array of benefits. (Meanwhile, don't throw away your wrinkle cream just yet.)