When I was younger, I once asked my mother why she didn’t read the newspaper on a regular basis. “It’s all bad news,” she replied. “Why would I want to read that?” It was a fair question, and, reflecting back on 2015, it’s easy to see how many people could have adopted the same attitude.
From the attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices, in Paris, in early January, to the downing of Germanwings Flight 9525, in March, to the bodies of Syrian refugees washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean in the summer to the second terrorist outrage in Paris, in November, many of the headlines from overseas were grim. Here at home, meanwhile, the nightly news served up a steady diet of police shootings and gun massacres, the deadliest of which—a rampage in San Bernardino, California—was carried out by a radicalized American-born Muslim and his Pakistani wife.
But 2015, believe it or not, was also a year of positive developments, many of which were underreported. Generally speaking, good-news stories aren’t as dramatic or as salient as bad news, so journalists and news organizations tend to give them short shrift. I’m as guilty of this as anybody else. So here, as penance for my sins of omission, are some thoughts on six uplifting developments from the past twelve months.
1. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa was largely defeated.
This Tuesday, the World Health Organization declared that the Ebola virus was no longer being transmitted in the Republic of Guinea, where the outbreak originated, in 2013. For forty-two days prior to the announcement, no new cases had been reported. The good news from Guinea followed similar announcements from neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone earlier in the year. “This is the first time that all three countries—Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—have stopped the original chains of transmission that were responsible for starting this devastating outbreak,” Matshidiso Moeti, the W.H.O.’s regional director for Africa, said in a statement. “I commend the governments, communities and partners for their determination in confronting this epidemic to get to this milestone.”
According to the W.H.O.’s tally, eleven thousand three hundred and fifteen people have died from Ebola during this outbreak, almost all of them in West Africa. That’s a high number, but it pales in contrast to some of the dire forecasts issued in 2014, when the epidemic was at its height. The containment of the disease shows how modern medicine and public-health measures, when administered effectively, can counter even the most deadly viruses. As Moeti’s statement indicates, the end of the outbreak is also a tribute to the governments of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, impoverished countries that were dealing with panicked populations and often-nightmarish conditions.
Finally, it is a victory for international coöperation. Without the support of global organizations and other countries, particularly the United States, the worst-affected countries would have been left in a hopeless position. In August, 2014, the W.H.O., which is part of the United Nations, put together a roadmap for dealing with the Ebola outbreak, which guided the international response—an effort that President Obama (who dispatched more than three thousand doctors, soldiers, morticians, administrators, and health workers to West Africa) said, in October of that year, was intended to stop the virus “at its source.” The job still isn’t entirely done—a few cases have been reported in Liberia since the country was declared Ebola-free—but the end appears to be in sight.
2. Global poverty continued to fall.
In September, the World Bank announced that, for the first time, fewer than ten per cent of the world’s people are living in “absolute poverty”—meaning that they barely have adequate resources to subsist. Twenty-five years ago, about a third of humanity was trapped in this abject condition. But two decades of rapid economic growth, particularly in China and India, have lifted the living standards of hundreds of millions of people.
To be sure, some important qualifications need to be stated. The global poverty line—currently a dollar and ninety cents a day—is a somewhat arbitrary one, and some economists argue that it doesn’t adequately capture reality. And even if we accept the number, roughly a billion people, many of them living in sub-Saharan Africa, are still impoverished. Recent economic troubles in many developing economies, such as China and Brazil, could also end up swelling the figure.
But the over-all trend is clear. In the words of Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur of the Washington-based Center for Global Development, “Most of the very poorest worldwide are able to buy more of what they need than they could 10 or 20 years ago.”
3. China is getting serious about tackling carbon pollution—and climate change.
Heavy smog in Beijing has been bad news for residents of the Chinese capital, but growing public concern about air quality there and in other Chinese cities has led the ruling Communist Party to finally get serious about eliminating carbon pollution. And this development has, in turn, helped lead, for the first time in decades, to the possibility of a meaningful international effort to arrest climate change: China’s newfound willingness to commit to cuts in carbon emissions paved the way for the COP 21 agreement reached in Paris earlier this month.
As I pointed out at the time of the deal, there are reasons to be skeptical of the details of this accord, which almost two hundred countries have signed on to. It isn’t legally binding, for one thing, and many of the tough decisions facing individual countries have been put off until 2020, or later. But the fact that China has come on board is genuinely encouraging. As the world’s second-largest source of carbon emissions, its largest user of coal, and its leading developing economy, China can set the path for other emerging countries.
China can also, by engaging in a large-scale effort to research and develop cleaner energy sources, provide healthy competition for the budding green-energy industries in the United States and other Western countries. Probably the best chance the world has of arresting climate change entails combining restrictions on carbon emissions with the development of new technologies, such as better batteries and carbon-capture mechanisms. A bit of East–West rivalry might well hasten this process.
4. Iran signed a nuclear deal, and, so far, it has followed through on it.
On Monday of this week, a Russian ship left an Iranian port carrying about twenty-five thousand pounds of enriched uranium, which represents almost all of Iran’s stock of potential fuel for a nuclear bomb. The shipment represented the latest and most important indication that Iran is fulfilling the terms of the nuclear agreement it reached with the United States and five other Western countries in Vienna, back in July.
In the months and years leading up to the deal, hawks in Washington expressed doubt about whether Iran would ever give up its partially enriched uranium, which could be further enriched to make a bomb. Now Iran has taken this step, accepting in exchange some much less dangerous raw uranium from Kazakhstan.
The transfer of Iran’s uranium opens the way for some of the international sanctions on the Iranian economy to be lifted. More importantly, it sends another signal that relations between Iran, the second-largest country in the Middle East, and the United States are improving. For thirty-six years now, the enmity between Tehran and Washington has presented a major barrier to progress in the region. With the nuclear deal moving forward, and with the two countries engaged in a de-facto military alliance in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, things are finally changing.
5. Technology is promoting transparency.
In observing the proliferation of tragic news stories about police killings of minorities in the United States, two explanations arise. One is that America’s police forces are getting more racist and less disciplined. Another is that these sorts of things have always happened, but, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and dash cameras, more of them are now coming to light.
Take the killing of Walter Scott, a fifty-year-old black man, in North Charleston, South Carolina, this April. It followed a routine traffic stop: Scott’s car had a non-functioning brake light. If a passerby hadn’t used his phone to film the incident, in which a local police officer, Michael Slager, shot the unarmed Scott five times, in the back and the head, as he tried to flee the scene, it seems unlikely that Slager would have been charged with murder.
In the past couple of years, videos taken from phones and police-car dash cameras have captured many other violent incidents involving the police, including the deaths of Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. In response to the public outrage created by these videos, and to judicial orders, police departments in some cities, such as New York and Baltimore, have recently introduced pilot programs in which police officers on the streets are equipped with body cameras. Clearly, using technology to promote transparency and influence police behavior isn’t a cure-all for the problems of police brutality, overaggressive policing, and institutional racism, but it is a step in the right direction.
6. Americans are engaged with Presidential politics.
Say what you like about Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and the rest of the participants in the G.O.P. freak show—I’ve said quite a bit, myself—their antics are drawing people into the 2016 election. According to Nielsen, eighteen million viewers tuned into the most recent Republican debate, on December 15th, making it the third-most-watched primary debate ever. The top two were the first and second G.O.P. debates, which took place in August and September. The drop-off in December was pretty small, indicating that Americans are still interested in seeing what Trump et al have to say. Or, at least, that viewers consider it good entertainment.
The ratings for the Democratic debates have been lower. About fifteen million people watched the first one, in October, while the last two averaged 8.25 million viewers. Doubtless, that was partly because the Democratic National Committee scheduled them for Saturday nights, and partly because the Democratic contest is less competitive. But there’s plenty of enthusiasm on the blue side, too, particularly among supporters of Bernie Sanders. During the summer, the Vermont senator drew tens of thousands to some of his rallies. He is still drawing large crowds. In Las Vegas earlier this week, more than three thousand people turned up at a high school to hear him speak.
It would be great if all of this interest translated into an upsurge in voting next November. In 2012, turnout was about fifty-five per cent. According to figures from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the last time more than sixty per cent of the voting-age population showed up at the polls was in 1968. Climbing back above that figure would be a welcome sign that American democracy retains some of its vigor. This is unlikely to happen, but, if by any chance it does, it will make a fitting entry for 2016’s year-end roundup of good news.