Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
A Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner concludes its first flight in September. Overall, plane-related fatalities have decreased dramatically this year.
A Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner concludes its first flight in September. Overall, plane-related fatalities have decreased dramatically this year. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
Being a news consumer means you're constantly on the receiving end of bad news. War, unemployment, crime, political dysfunction — it can be enough to make you think we humans aren't doing anything right. But good news: We are. As the year draws to an end, here's a look at a few areas of real progress in the U.S. and around the world.
Let's start with flying. It's not a lot of fun: baggage fees, pat-downs, cramped seating, disappointing snacks.
But the odds are remarkably good you will land safely. "For a person who boarded a flight anywhere in the world earlier this year, the chance of being killed in an accident is about 1 in 15 million," says Arnie Barnett, an MIT statistics professor who studies aviation safety.
So what does that mean when we're up in the air?
"At that rate, 1 in 15 million, you could go approximately 40,000 years, taking a flight every single day, before you would, on average, succumb to a fatal crash," Barnett says.
Big onboard safety improvements like collision avoidance systems were introduced more than a generation ago. "We haven't had a midair collision in the United States involving a commercial plane in more than a quarter century, when we used to have them every two years," he says. Airline safety has been improving steadily.
There have been 256 fatalities worldwide to date this year, according to the Aviation Safety Network, compared with an average of more than 700 deaths each year over the past 10 years.
Barnett says that when crashes do occur, they're more survivable, thanks in large part to fire retardant materials. A case in point is the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco in July; there were more than 300 people onboard, and three deaths.
"The survival rate was 99 percent, even though the plane was utterly engulfed in a conflagration," Barnett says. "But the extra time it took for the conflagration to take hold allowed hundreds of people to get off the plane and to survive."
Fewer Cancer Deaths
The next area of progress is the diminishing threat from cancer. Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, says the death rate from cancer in the U.S. has declined by 20 percent.
"A person in their mid-50s ... has a chance of dying from cancer that's 20 percent lower than a person of that same age in 1990, 1991," he says.
Part of the reason for that decline is that more people — especially men — have stopped smoking, he says. A combination of screening and improvements in treatment has contributed to about a 35 percent decline in breast cancer death rates, he adds, and colorectal cancer deaths have also fallen by about 35 percent.
That's encouraging, but we shouldn't get carried away. Brawley says there's a development that could stop much of the progress.
"Increasingly, we're figuring out that a high caloric diet, lack of exercise and obesity is a huge cause of cancer and might surpass tobacco as the leading cause of cancer over the next decade," he says.
Stronger Economies In Sub-Saharan Africa
OK, we can be optimistic about cancer and big advances in flight safety. But the global economy is still a mess, right? In much of the world that's true, but not necessarily in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world's poorest regions.
"Africa is no longer a place that is purely in the future," says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group.
Growth in sub-Saharan Africa has been running at nearly 5 percent over the past several years, well above the global average, he says. Africans are moving out of extreme rural poverty and into cities, where many start businesses or find work for better wages.
"Africa is now more urbanized as a whole continent than India is as a country," he says. "Women are getting much better education; health care is improving."
And mobile commerce is making a big difference. "You've got 800 million Africans with cellphones," says Bremmer, "and they now can act as consumers because they can have bank accounts."
Inequality is growing as more wealth is amassed, he says, but overall, the economic momentum is going in the right direction.
Need some more good news? HumanProgress.org collects indicators that show that humanity is improving.