It seemed awful. But overall, it was a great year for humanity.
There has been a lot of bad news in America this year, and people are noticing: In December, 60 percent of US respondents felt the country was on the wrong track.
The angst isn’t unique to the US. Across 26 countries that are home to the considerable majority of the world’s population, an average of six out of 10 people thought their country was on the wrong track (as of the middle of 2017). That’s more surprising than the US result because, despite the threats posed by the world’s sole superpower going rogue — admittedly no small problem — the planet as a whole had a pretty good year.
Before 2017 recedes entirely into the rearview mirror, let’s take note of some of the good news. Last year saw:
1) Less famine
For a while, things looked terrible on this front. In June, a Vox headline warned of “20 million starving to death,” referring to what might become “the worst famine since World War II.” The famine was centered on South Sudan and affected other countries in the region. But the good news was that while deaths from malnutrition spiked during that crisis, relief efforts managed to avert mass starvation. True, millions remain food-insecure in the region, food shortages will continue into 2018, and the situation will not improve in a sustainable way without an end to the South Sudan’s civil war. (However, a cease-fire agreement was signed in late December.)
Taking a broader perspective, global famine deaths in the past seven years remain a fraction of levels of previous decades. Between 2010 and 2016, the average human’s risk of dying in a famine was .006 of the risk in the 1960s (yes, six one–thousandths), according to statistics from Our World in Data. Thanks in part to innovations including the Famine Early Warning System, which predicts food shortages and price spikes based on crop, weather, and market reports, the global humanitarian system has become much better at preventing and responding to famines.
2) Fewer war deaths
While the full numbers are yet to be compiled, war deaths worldwide in 2017 should be lower than they were in 2016. Deadly crisis zones have rightly been in the news: The crisis in Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia used equipment provided by the US and UK to bomb noncombatants and blockade supplies, has seen the civilian death toll climb above 5,000; civil conflict still rages in Afghanistan and Nigeria; Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has created a massive new refugee crisis.
But on the positive side of the ledger, ISIS has been militarily defeated in Syria and Iraq. The Syrian war, by far the most deadly conflict of this decade, has seen a lower death rate than previous years — estimated at 33,000 last year, compared with 50,000 in 2016. That suggests a continuation of the post-Cold War trend toward dramatically lower war deaths globally. Average battle deaths per 100,000 people worldwide were 5.7 a year between 1946 and 1989, compared with one per 100,000 each year between 1990 and 2010. We’re also continuing to see the almost-complete extinction of inter-state war.
3) Fewer deaths from natural disasters
2017 was also a good year in terms of mortality from acts of God. The first half of the year saw 3,162 deaths from natural disasters, according to the International Disaster Database. That compared to a half-year average of 61,367 from 2007 to 2016 according to the same source. And, globally, the second half of the year was similarly (comparatively) uneventful, BuzzFeed’s Peter Aldhous reports, using preliminary results from the disaster database.
(Note that the official count in the database from Hurricane Maria striking Puerto Rico was 64 deaths, while the true total may surpass 1,000 or more. But even if we include the highest totals postulated for that disaster, globally the year would still rate as one of the most benign in recent history).
4) Progress against pestilence
2017 also saw health officials continue to beat back life-threatening disease. The latest World Health Organization numbers suggests that vaccination rates against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus have reached 86 percent, their highest level ever. And records were reached for vaccination coverage for a range of other diseases including measles, rotavirus, and Hepatitis B.
The spread of vaccination is the major cause of a dramatic decline in global infectious disease deaths: Estimated measles deaths fell from 550,000 in 2000 to 90,000 in 2016. New Zealand completely eliminated measles this year, following elimination in other countries including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Americas.
Polio paralyzed 350,000 children a year in the 1980s; 2017 saw only 19 cases of wild poliovirus worldwide. (There were a few more cases related to the very low risk of developing polio from one version of the vaccine.) There is real hope for global eradication in the coming years — as there is for eradicating the debilitating Guinea worm disease.
5) Greater life expectancy
Declining infectious disease is a major factor behind progress against premature death. The latest global data suggests life expectancy at birth has climbed by 10 years over the past four decades; it now stands at 72 years. The proportion of children who die before the age of five has halved since 1998.
Consider the issue from a slightly different perspective: In 1950, about one in five childrendied before the age of five. Since the average woman worldwide in 1950 had five children, the typical woman had about a two-thirds chance of losing at least one child. Today, the average woman has 2.5 children and the mortality risk is one in 25, meaning that the average woman now has only a 10 percent chance of experiencing the pain of losing a child.
The past year also gave plenty of reason to think global health will continue to improve. A new antibody was developed that attacked 99 percent of HIV strains and that has been shown to prevent infection in primates; it will be investigated in clinical trials in humans in 2018. A malaria vaccine will also be provided to children in three endemic countries for the first time. It’s only about 30 to 40 percent effective, but suggests the growing potential for this class of drugs.
6) More democracy
Turkey, Poland and Hungary — and, strikingly, the United States — saw worrying attacks on democratic norms, but according to the Polity database, a touchstone for political scientists, the proportion of countries worldwide that are democracies is a record: 58 percent.
Freedom House is slightly less sanguine: Using a broader conception of liberal democracy that includes elements such as the right to organize and the level of corruption, the organization suggests the proportion of countries that are free fell from 47 percent in 2006 to 45 percent in 2016. But even on this measure, the proportion of the world’s population living in a democracy has (just barely) continued to climb, because countries with larger or growing populations got more democratic.