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The World Is Better Off Than You Think

By Nicholas Kristof - Columnist, New York Times

Enough with the doom and gloom. Our planet may be in better shape than you think.

Human beings have a cognitive bias toward bad news (keeping us alert and alive), and we reflect that: We report on planes that crash, not planes that land. We highlight disasters, setbacks, threats and deaths, so 2022 has kept us busy.

But a constant gush of despairing news can be paralyzing. So here’s my effort to remedy our cognitive biases. Until the pandemic, I wrote an annual column arguing that the previous year was the best in human history. I can’t do that this year. But I can suggest that broadly speaking, much is going right and this may still be the best time ever to be alive.

Where 2022 excelled particularly was in technological strides.

Solar power capacity around the world is on track to roughly triple over the next five years and overtake coal as the leading source of power globally. Technical improvements are constant — such as M.I.T. researchers’ developing a way to produce thin and flexible solar panels that can turn almost any outdoor surface into a power source.

There are parallel breakthroughs in batteries. Batteries, boring? No! They’re one of the most exciting frontiers of technology, making remarkable advances crucial to storing green power. Likewise, nuclear fusion as an energy source marked a milestone in 2022. Green hydrogen is also gaining ground and could be useful for shipping and energy storage.

The upshot is that we are in the midst of a revolution of renewables that may soon leave us far better off. If things go right, we’ll be able to enjoy cheaper, more reliable and more portable power than ever before. Truly cheap energy, whether from solar or fusion, could be transformational: For example, it could run desalination plants to provide the fresh water that we’re running out of.

Health tech has likewise made immense gains. Scientists are making significant progress on vaccines for malaria, reflecting what may be a new golden age for vaccine development. Immunotherapy is making progress against cancer (among other feats, it is keeping one of my friends alive). A new gene editing technique may be able to cure sickle cell anemia; Bill Gates argues in his annual letter that the same approach may eventually offer a cure for H.I.V./AIDS as well.

And of course, technology is not taking leaps just in research labs but is filtering down to improve individual lives. I’m writing this on the family farm in Oregon with the help of our new Starlink internet service that is beginning to empower rural America and across the world. 

You may have winced when I wrote above that “this may still be the best time ever to be alive.” That’s deeply contrary to the public gloom.

Max Roser of the indispensable website Our World in Data puts the situation exactly right: “The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better. All three statements are true at the same time.”

It’s important to acknowledge the gains that our brains are often oblivious to — if only to remind ourselves that progress is possible when we put our shoulder to it. Onward!