DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now if you're a consumer of the news, you hear a lot of conversations like the one we just had about a place confronting violence. And there are also all the stories about unemployment, crime and political dysfunction. It can be enough to make you think that we humans aren't doing anything right. But it turns out we are.
As the year draws to an end, NPR's Uri Berliner looks at a few areas of real progress here in the United States and around the world.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Let's start with flying. It's not a lot of fun: Baggage fees, pat downs, cramped seating, disappointing snacks. It's not pleasant. But the odds are remarkably good you will land safely. Here's Arnie Barnett, an MIT statistics professor who studies aviation safety.
ARNIE BARNETT: If we look at 2013, up to this point, the chance of being killed in an accident is about one in 15 million.
BERLINER: So what does that mean when we're up in the air?
BARNETT: At that rate - one 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.
BERLINER: Barnett says big safety improvements, like collision avoidance systems, were introduced more than a generation ago.
BARNETT: 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.
BERLINER: Airline safety has kept improving, steadily. There have been only 256 fatalities worldwide so far in 2013, according to the Aviation Safety Network. That compares to an average of 720 deaths each year over the past 10 years. Barnett says when crashes do occur, they're more survivable, thanks in large part to fire retardant materials. A case in point, was the worst accident in the U.S. this year, an Asiana Airlines crash that resulted in three deaths.
BARNETT: You know, even in the tragedy in San Francisco, the Asiana plane, the survival rate was 99 percent, even though the plane was utterly engulfed in a conflagration. But the extra time it took for the conflagration to take hold allowed hundreds of people to get off the plane and to survive.
BERLINER: The next area of progress - the threat of cancer. Dr. Otis Brawley is the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.
DR. OTIS BRAWLEY: The death rate has declined by 20 percent. That is to say that 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.
BERLINER: Dr. Brawley ticks off the major reasons that's happened.
BRAWLEY: The progress was overwhelmingly made in smoking cessation, in people not smoking, especially among males, there was about a 35 percent decline in breast cancer rates and that's through a combination of screening as well as improvements treatment, we have about a 35 percent decline in colorectal cancer deaths.
BERLINER: Encouraging, but we shouldn't get carried away. Dr. Brawley says there's a development that could stop much of the progress.
BRAWLEY: Increasingly, we're figuring out that a high caloric diet, lack of physical activity and obesity is a huge cause of cancer and actually might surpass tobacco as the leading cause of cancer over the next decade.
BERLINER: OK. Optimism about cancer and big advances in flight safety. But everyone knows the global economy is still a mess, right? In much of the world that's true. But not in Sub Saharan Africa, one of the world's poorest regions.
IAN BREMMER: Africa is no longer a place that is purely in the future.
BERLINER: That's Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group. Growth in sub Saharan Africa has been running at nearly five percent over the past several years, well above the global average. Bremmer says Africans are moving out of extreme rural poverty and into cities, where many start businesses or work for better wages.
BREMMER: Africa is now more urbanized as a whole continent than India is as a country. Women are getting much better education, health care is improving.
BERLINER: And mobile commerce is making a big difference.
BREMMER: You've got 800 million Africans with cell phones, with mobile phones and they now can act as consumers because they can have bank accounts.
BERLINER: Bremmer says inequality is growing as more wealth is amassed, and that's something to watch out for. But overall the economic momentum is going in the right direction. So, if you have friends and relatives who get gloomy this time of the year and start talking about how the world is falling apart, tell them to take a deep breath for a minute. A lot of important things are actually getting better. Uri Berliner, NPR News.
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