The glass is half full

Seven reasons for optimism about the state of the world.
Carolyn Moynihan | Apr 20 2011 | comment  

It is not difficult to find reasons for pessimism and fear in today’s world. Wars, natural disasters, debt, climate change, the price of petrol -- these are just the beginning of a list that fills the daily paper and evening news bulletins. Those of us concerned about the family and human dignity have our own catalogue of woes. No wonder that the world’s optimists are working overtime, appealing to the public and governments alike to take seriously the human desire for happiness, and to give it an equal if not superior place to material security in our hierarchy of social values.

Of course, we have our own ideas about what would make us happier; most of us would want to see some real progress in solving social and global problems before we ticked the happiness boxes on the next government form. We don’t want to be soothed; we want to know that the world is getting better.

So, here are seven reasons why things are getting better, and why we should be happier.

1. Young people around the world are becoming more pro-life. A year ago Gallup reported of the US scene: “All age groups have become more attached to the pro-life label since 2005, with particularly large increases among young adults and those aged 50 to 64 years in the latest period between 2007/2008 and 2009/2010.” A video MercatorNet featured on the front page last week showed leaders of US student pro-life groups at a huge national congress, and their optimism about ending abortion in their country was impressive. Alveda King was present and, quoting Martin Luther King, commented: “When you see the young people on board, then you know that victory is on the way.”

2. Birth rates in the developed world are ticking up after a long decline. Even in Europe fertility has been rising since 2003, climbing from a low of 1.47 children per woman to 1.60 in 2008. In the United States the birth decline resulting from the recession has bottomed out, according to Professor Brad Wilcox of Demographic Intelligence. He predicts that, partly because of an increase in women of childbearing age, births are now beginning to rise -- good news for the baby products industry “which has faced a tough market over the last few years, since many Americans cut back on childbearing in the wake of the Great Recession.”

3. Poverty is declining, particularly in the emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China). Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz of the Brookings Institution in Washington estimate that between 2005 and 2010, nearly half a billion people escaped extreme hardship, as the total number of the world’s poor fell to 878 million people. “Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short period. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals established the target of halving the rate of global poverty between 1990 and 2015; this was probably achieved by 2008, some seven years ahead of schedule. Moreover, using forecasts of per capita consumption growth, we predict that by 2015, fewer than 600 million people will remain poor. At that point, the 1990 poverty rate will have been halved and then halved again.”

4. The poor are taking their own destinies in hand. Professor James Tooley of Newcastle University in the UK has written in his book, The Beautiful Tree, of the grassroots initiatives by the world’s poorest people to educate their own children. Disenchanted with what governments manage to offer (including unmotivated teachers) or not offer, parents in Indian slums and African villages put aside a few coins each week to pay for “private” education for their children. For example: Beginning by going house-to-house on his bike, Sajid-Sir, headmaster of a community school in Hyderabad, taught pupils and in 1982 built a school "with 15 students on the floor of his rented house. From there he progressed over the next 19 years to an enrolment of nearly 1000 students, on three rented sites," in ramshackle buildings and with few trained teachers, driven by a desire to help and a love of teaching. It’s a struggle, but when parents are determined to get the best for their children, things can happen.

5. Philanthropy is growing in poorer countries. The Guardian reports that, according to a recent survey by Barclays bank, India -- which admittedly now has “69 billionaires … and a sleek new crop of millionaires” -- leads the way in charity among high net worth individuals. Indians are even more inclined to give their time -- with top graduates, for example, giving two years to teach in poor city schools. “Last year the Indian Philanthropy Forum was born. Venkat Krishnan, who runs GiveIndia, a reputed fund-raising platform, says that there has been a ‘coming-of-age of philanthropy in India’. Ten years ago, he had to convince the middle classes to give but now, once satisfied with the bona fides of the non-profit, they are happy to write that cheque. Nor is it uncommon to hear of young couples donating their wedding cash to a cause.”

6. Religion continues its resurgence. According to some number crunching done by experts at the Gordon Conwell Seminary, religious adherence had declined to 80.8 per cent of the world’s people in 1980 but that figure has risen to 88.6 per cent, and is likely to keep increasing. Not what the noisier atheists would like you to think, but it makes sense. Mainly it has been driven by the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union -- thus Albania, formerly a bastion of atheism, is today almost entirely Muslim or Christian -- and the Gordon Conwell report predicts a continuing “decline of the non-religious. This is due primarily to the resurgence of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions in China. If this trend continues, agnostics and atheists will be a smaller portion of the world’s population in 2025 than they are today.”

Also: Over the next few days churches will be filled to overflowing for the Holy Week and Easter liturgies, while on May 1 hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will pack St Peter’s Square and surrounding areas for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Whatever else this signifies, it is not the demise of religion.

7. Lastly, the British are throwing their weight behind the happiness movement. Prime Minister David Cameron has made happiness a target of government policy, and last week a group of eminent thinkers from the worlds of education, economics, and politics -- backed by the Dalai Lama -- launched a campaign called Action for Happiness. Although it sounds rather corny and un-British, there are some very good things in this campaign -- starting with the Ten Keys to Happier Living: Giving, Relating Exercising, Appreciating, Trying Out …. The architects correctly discern that decades of grasping and being all out for ourselves have led to a fraying of social bonds (especially in the family) and lack of trust -- things that are taking a heavy toll on the mental health of young people. It’s an international movement, with so far over 114,000 followers from 99 countries. And the great thing about it is this: if the British can cheer up, probably we all can. So why not give it a go?

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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