Buck up, you pansies: 2016 was the best year in human history, and 2017 almost certainly will be better.
Oh, I know, the presidential election was a fiasco, but the republic will endure. And it was a tough year for beloved celebrities: David Bowie became a very handsome corpse at the age of 69 (liver cancer), Prince became a very small one at the age of 57 (fentanyl overdose), and Carrie Fisher checked out at the age of 60 (killed by complications resulting from a terminal case of being Carrie Fisher). And, 2016 being 2016, Americans took to social media to document the flimsiest of connections to these famous figures, raptly engaged in the characteristic pursuit of our time: making everything about us.
But it ain’t about you, Sunshine.
Let’s take a ride in the Wayback Machine to the ancient, practically antediluvian days of 1984. Remember 1984? The big news that year was a drought in Ethiopia, an ordinary natural occurrence turned into a humanitarian disaster by the fact that the country was one of the worst-governed places in the world. Of the major famines of the 20th century (four of which were in Ethiopia), almost all were caused not by natural forces but by political forces. During the 1984 drought, Ethiopia’s economy shrank by 15 percent and more than 600,000 people died. Americans engaged in the characteristic pursuit of their time: making it about us, in this case convening a celebrity super-group to record “We Are the World.”
Stardom in action, as Pete Townshend would say. But there was a lot more than stardom in action, as it turns out.
In 2016, Ethiopia had another drought. It is still one of the worst-governed countries in the world, one in which the government fixes agricultural prices and interferes with the normal operation of food markets. (That is how Venezuela went from being a rich country to one that literally cannot produce what it needs to wipe its own ass.) But you know how many people died from the famine resulting from the 2016 drought?
In spite of the drought, Ethiopia’s mortality rate remains unchanged.
Alex de Waal reported what he saw there in the New York Times in May:
I’ve studied famine and humanitarian relief for more than 30 years, and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw during a visit to Ethiopia last month. As I traveled through northern and central provinces, I saw imported wheat being brought to the smallest and most remote villages, thanks to a new Chinese-built railroad and a fleet of newly imported trucks. Water was delivered to places where wells had run dry. Malnourished children were being treated in properly staffed clinics.
The situation in Ethiopia in 2016 was, as one government official put it, the worst food crisis the country has seen in 50 years. But here’s the weird thing: Despite all of the promises from the Malthusians and environmentalists, there is enough food in the world. There’s more than enough, in fact. Here in the United States, the government is dumping cheese into landfills because there’s so much of the stuff that the bureaucrats believe they have to save consumers from the threat of low dairy prices. (No, it doesn’t make much sense.) The problem isn’t — and for a long time hasn’t been — having enough food. It’s getting politicians out of the way to get it to the people who need it. Ethiopia, in spite of its corrupt and stupid government, has figured out that much, and it had $800 million of its own on hand to invest in staving off crisis this time around. Which is to say, Ethiopia took a lead role in saving Ethiopia, albeit with a good deal of help from abroad.
In the past 30 years, the worldwide rate of extreme poverty has been halved.
In the past 30 years, the worldwide rate of extreme poverty has been halved. In the past ten years, new diagnoses of HIV in the United States were reduced by 20 percent, and the number of Americans who die from AIDS is today about 14 percent of what it was at its high point in the 1990s. The U.S. Army and the Canadian public-health agency, working with Merck, have finished trials on a new Ebola vaccine; it is 100 percent effective.
We human beings still are not very good with moral problems, as any casual reading of the headlines will show. We are getting better about some of them: In the 1960s, the United States was convulsed with racial confrontations as we pushed to put the worst of the Jim Crow era behind us. In 2016, we’re saying goodbye to our first black president, whose unique alloy of incompetence and arrogance has led to a truly post-racial national moment: There are so many things to dislike about the guy that even some of the unreconstructed racists have to remind themselves he’s black.
Okay, so, limited progress on the moral front.
But we are really good at engineering problems, broadly defined. We can build railways and food-distribution networks in Ethiopia and reverse-engineer viruses and figure out clever ways to squeeze a little more productivity out of an acre of agricultural land or a lithium battery. Howard Hughes was one of the richest men in the world, but he never drove a car as good as yours. Most of your grandparents never set foot in a house as nice as an ordinary new house in 2016. And the children who are born in 2017 will one day look back on us as poor.
What does the new year hold for the United States? Bad things will happen, of course, as they always do. But I like our record: While we make up only about 5 percent of the world’s population, we Americans have a hand in practically every other cool, interesting, inventive, creative, and life-improving innovation you see. Everybody knows. They know it in India and in China and in Switzerland and in South Africa, in no small part because their best and brightest work and study here.
So, bitch and moan all you like. You’re walking around with more computing power in your pocket than they used to land men on the Moon, and more personal, creative, and economic opportunities than 99.03 percent of the people who have ever lived could even dream of. Your 2017 is going to be what you make of it.