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The world is much better than it seems

Who wouldn't be depressed about the world today? Donald Trump! Islamic State! Oil slump! Mass shootings! Global warming! Everywhere you look, it's doom and gloom.

So, turn off the news and consider this. For most of humanity, life is improving at an accelerated rate. Most people find this hard to believe – after all, we're programmed to look for trouble. Here are some reasons to start the new year on an optimistic note:

Global poverty has plunged. This year, for the first time on record, the percentage of the world's population living in extreme poverty has sunk below 10 per cent, the World Bank says. This is a stunning achievement. As recently as 1990, 37 per cent of the world's population was desperately poor. Since then, around 1.3 billion people have been lifted above the poverty line, which is now set at $1.90 (U.S.) a day. That's a low bar. But it means that more people than ever before have a tolerable life.

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Other cheery news: Malnutrition has all but disappeared, except in countries with terrible governments. Eighty per cent of the world's population use contraceptives and have two-child families. Eighty per cent vaccinate their children (alternative Toronto parents, please take note). Eighty per cent have electricity in their homes. Ninety per cent of the world's girls go to school.

As for inequality, surely the growing wealth gap should concern us. Well, perhaps. But there's an upside. "The rich got richer, true," Deirdre McCloskey, an economist who specializes in the history of bourgeois prosperity, has noted. "But millions more have gas heating, cars, smallpox vaccinations, indoor plumbing, cheap travel, rights for women, lower child mortality, adequate nutrition, taller bodies, doubled life expectancy, schooling for their kids, newspapers, a vote, a shot at university, and respect."

We've never lived in such peaceful times. Wars and conflict fill the news, but they are at historic lows. Worldwide, people are about five times more likely to die by homicide as they are to be killed in a war. As for terrorist attacks, you're far more likely to be killed by a collision with a deer.

Your kids are probably better behaved than you are. Today's teenagers may well be the nicest, most responsible kids in history. Drug use among high-school students has plummeted, according to the latest Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. Alcohol use has declined to 45 per cent in 2015, from 66 per cent in 1999. Marijuana use is down to 21 per cent, from 28 per cent; tobacco cigarette use has plunged to less than 9 per cent, from 28 per cent. And more kids than ever before say they abstain from drugs and alcohol: 42 per cent today, versus 27 per cent in 1999.

Gun violence is actually going down. Mass shootings in the United States have become so routine that they all seem to run together. Yet, gun violence has fallen dramatically over the past two decades. Between 1993 and 2013, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, the rate of U.S. gun homicides fell by half, from seven homicides for every 100,000 people to 3.8 homicides in 2013 (the Canadian rate is about one-10th that figure).

The drop in U.S. gun violence is part of an overall decline in violent crime, which has plunged by nearly half since 1991. What happened? The Washington Post's Max Ehrenfreund cites several possible factors: More police officers on the beat, the use of computers in police work, a broad decline in alcohol use, less lead in the environment (which causes brain damage and induces criminal behaviour) and more prosperity. (Also, the population is getting older.) In Canada, violent crime is also down: Homicide rates are at their lowest level since 1966.

Africa went a year without any polio. We are gradually wiping out the worst of the world's diseases. In 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries. Now, there are just two: Afghanistan and Pakistan. The last country in Africa to eradicate polio was Nigeria. "It required mapping every settlement in the north of the country, counting all the children in every house, delivering oral polio vaccine several times a year, working with hundreds of thousands of traditional leaders and community mobilizers, and operating in areas dominated by extremist groups," writes Bill Gates, who has been instrumental in the fight. "Nigeria's efforts show that smart strategies can work even under the most difficult conditions."

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The bees are back. This year Canada had a record honey harvest – up more than 11 per cent from last year. The number of bee colonies is up, too. Not good news for purveyors of bee-scare stories, but great for folks who like homegrown honey on their toast.

Coffee and wine are good for you. You knew it, didn't you? New studies confirm that coffee (even decaf) and wine (in moderation) are associated with living longer. Make mine a macchiato, with a glass of merlot on the side. And make a New Year's resolution to count your many blessings – including flush toilets, electric lights, polio vaccines and peace.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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