ABOUT this time of year, I usually devote a column to some of the positive stories that have been missed or under-reported in the course of the last twelve months. This year it might seem a futile endeavour given Donald Trump, Brexit, Aleppo, Ukraine and so on. But. as always, there’s another side to 2016.
As the BBC’s veteran foreign correspondent, John Simpson, pointed out in his Panorama programme reviewing his 50 years on the frontline, the world is actually becoming more peaceful, despite evidence to the contrary.
The number of deaths from war is down three quarters on the mid 1970s. Terrorist deaths have fallen by a similar amount. The number of dictatorships has reduced from 90 to 20 in the last 30 years and democracies are up from 40 to 100.
Poverty breeds conflict, so it is reassuring that global poverty continued its rapid decline in 2016. According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen over the past 30 years from 52 per cent to 21 per cent; that’s 1.5 billion fewer people living below the threshold of survival of one dollar a day at 1990 prices.
Of course, people living on two dollars are hardly doing comfortably. But at least the headline figures are going in the right direction.
This is down to education, better childhood nutrition and, above all, the spread of economic growth.
Since much of this growth is happening in countries such as China, the environment is perhaps paying the penalty of cutting poverty. However, the news here isn’t entirely bleak either. Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels stopped rising in 2016, according to the climate change scientists at University of East Anglia.
In key countries like the United States, such emissions are actually falling. Across the world, renewables are becoming economically viable.
This is a revolution even Mr Trump can’t halt. The cost of solar power has halved in the past decade and is on a par with wind energy. China is undergoing a renewables revolution and is now the largest generator of solar power in the world. Countries like Morocco are building vast solar farms.
The poisoned area around the dead Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine is to be turned into a massive solar energy project. In Scotland, the wind is blowing in the right direction. In August this year, for the first time ever, wind turbines generated more electricity than is used in Scotland in a single day and the country is on course to meet its renewables targets ahead of schedule.
Scotland is a small corner of the developed world, where we live under the mistaken belief that things only go from bad to worse. We do have problems with alcohol and obesity.
But on many measures of wellbeing, including the EU Social Regional Progress index, Scotland does rather well and is ahead of even the south of England in terms of quality of life. According to the YouGov/Bank of Scotland happiness index, Scots are getting happier year on year, believe it or not.
Average wages finally started to rise again in 2016 after a long period of stagnation and most people are in work. Young people are turning away from drugs and alcohol at an astonishing rate.
Crime in Scotland has fallen by 41 per cent in the last decade. The number of homicides – one measure of the state of a society – fell again last year by eight per cent to just 57. That’s the lowest figure since records began and half the number of murders committed only a decade ago.
Domestic violence and sexual crime rose last year, leading to headlines about an “epidemic” of rape and sexual abuse. But the increase is largely down to these crimes being reported and recorded in a way they never were before.
We saw this most clearly with the dramatic exposure of sexual abuse in Scottish football, something never talked about. It is a good thing that it is out in the open.
In almost every respect, society is becoming calmer, happier and safer, even as there is moral panic about abuse, crime and terror. Longevity has been increasing by a year every five years.
Deaths from heart disease and strokes – Scotland’s notorious killer – are down by one-third since 2007.
Medical advances tumble out of the laboratories. T-cell immunotherapy has achieved “remarkable” results with leukaemia patients; deep sea microbes are proving “miraculous” in reducing prostate cancer; and 2016 even saw the first successful penis transplant.
Good reasons, so to speak, to keep your pecker up in 2017. Happy New Year.