Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
If, like this site’s Executive Editor, you make your once-yearly visit to church at this time, the chances are you’ll hear more than carols. Almost as traditional as the solo that opens “Once in Royal David’s City” is the pulpit homily to the effect that, “especially at this season,” we should “remember the poor, the hungry and the refugees”.
Quite right, too. All the Abrahamic faiths enjoin their followers to care for those in need of food or shelter. The patriarch himself spent time as a homeless immigrant: “And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spake unto the sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight’.”
Christian clergy like to remind their congregations that Jesus’s family were refugees in Egypt (often failing to add that they returned home as soon as it was safe). Again, the ministers are right: whatever the failings of our current immigration rules, we should remember that every human being seeking to cross the Mediterranean, or encamped outside Calais, is as much the centre of his universe as we are.
Still, it would be nice if, amid all the reminders of war and persecution and terrorism, the clergy acknowledged something else. There are fewer hungry people in the world than ever. There are fewer victims of violence, at least in proportionate terms. Churchmen are supposed to broadcast the Good News at this season; but they sometimes appear reluctant to admit that it can have an earthly as well as a celestial manifestation.
Whether we measure literacy or longevity, infant mortality or sexual equality, the world in 2015 was a better place than in 2014; and the world in 2016 will be better still. How much better? Let me count the ways.
The world is more peaceful
What? What? How can I possibly say this when Assad and ISIS have turned Syria into a living hell? And what about Afghanistan and Yemen and Libya? What about Paris and Tunis? What about Charleston? Well, it’s human nature to pay more attention to recent than to old news. The abominations in the Levant fill our TV screens; but no newsreader ever says “There is no war in Uganda at the moment, nor in Bosnia, nor in Vietnam”.
True, the Syrian conflict has prompted a slight uptick in the otherwise declining graph of terrorist deaths. But, even with Syria and Iraq, there were fewer terrorist deaths in 2015 than in 2010, before Arab unrest began. If we count violent deaths overall, rather than just those caused by terrorism, the fall is even more marked. One of the reasons that shootings in the U.S. are so newsworthy is that, paradoxically, they are becoming rarer. The number of homicides in that country is down by 600,000 since 1995, and is falling at 3,000 a year. Globally, according to the U.N, the number of people dying violently has fallen by six per cent since the beginning of the century. If you don’t believe me, read the mass of data in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Never in human history have we been less likely to meet a sticky end.
The world is better fed
This time last year, we were reading about the possibility of famine. As usual, such fears were not realised. The number of human beings suffering from malnutrition has fallen from 19 per cent to 11 per cent since 1990. It’s true that there was a slight rise in food prices; but this was the market’s way of telling us that too much land had been artificially set aside for biofuels, and has now been reversed. Overall, more food is produced from a smaller acreage than ever before. Which is good news because…
The world is greener
Prosperity turns out to be good for the environment. You breathe cleaner air and drink cleaner water in London than in Lusaka. As I type these words, I can see two red kites circling through the window. I had never seen one in the wild until my thirties; now, they are almost as common in these parts as pigeons. Salmon have returned to the Thames, and otters have followed the salmon. According to satellite images, the green spaces on the world’s surface have grown by 14 per cent over the past 30 years.
The world is healthier
Last Christmas, the papers were full of articles worrying about the spread of Ebola. Last month, only four new cases were diagnosed. Meanwhile – almost wholly unnoticed – polio has been eradicated from Africa, and will soon be wiped out in its last hideout, the wild spaces of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Measles may not be far behind. Yet, rather than reporting these concrete developments, journalists fret about a wholly putative threat from drugs-resistant superbugs.
The world is richer
In 1990, 43 per cent of people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty, defined as an income of $1 a day or less at 1990 prices. Today, that proportion has fallen to 21 per cent. Globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty – now $1.90 a day – will have fallen, this year, to less than 10 per cent. What has brought about this miracle? Not state aid or U.N. programmes, but free trade and specialisation. Decades of government-to-government grants barely dented poverty in Africa. But the spread of mobile telephones – whose companies are motivated unashamedly by profit – has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of squalor.
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I could go on and on. Ninety per cent of girls of primary school age are now in education. As those girls grow up, the birthrate drops. Democracy is spreading. Property rights are becoming more secure. If you want the good news in full, read Matt Ridley’s magnificent treatise The Rational Optimist. Or have a look at the #CheerUpFacts that Douglas Carswell Tweets every week: “A car moving at full speed today emits less pollution than a stationary car in 1970”; “In 1969, a TV set cost the equivalent of a month’s wages, today it is less than two days’,” etc.
“Fear not,” said the angel at Christmas, “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Indeed. There has never been a better time to be a human being. Happy Christmas.