Sydney Morning Herald
By Tom Switzer
Unfashionable though it is to say so, we are living in a golden age. For never has there been less hunger and disease and more security and prosperity around the world. That is why my London Spectator colleagues and I think 2013 has been the greatest year in the history of the world.
The media and intellectual class feed us a constant diet of doom and gloom — predicting anything from global famine to climate catastrophe to energy crisis. Of course, scepticism is useful in times when opinion leaders are under the spell of various fallacies. The Arab world that confronts us today, for instance, is not the one announced in the Pollyannaish program three years ago. Words like ''chaos'' and ''violence'' are freely used to describe it.
All the Cassandras notwithstanding, the sky is not falling. A cold, dispassionate look at the big picture shows that, all things considered, the world has never been better.
Start with poverty: In 2000, the United Nations announced several Millennium Development Goals. One was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. That target was met — to too little media fanfare — in 2008. Another goal was to improve the lives of 100 million slum dwellers — with sanitation, water supply and better housing — by 2020. That target was met 10 years early.
In China, thanks to capitalism, people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. In the early 1980s, there was more than 80 per cent living in extreme poverty. Today, it's 10 per cent. True, China remains far poorer than advanced nations - and it faces demographic challenges - but the economic gap between East and West is closing fast.
Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished Singaporean author-diplomat, revealed this year that in 1990, 1 billion people earned enough income to consider making discretionary purchases beyond mere necessity. By 2010, the figure had more than doubled.
Take health: Advances in medicine, and in the ability to produce affordable drugs for millions of people, mean we are living longer and reaching goals that once seemed outlandish. In the past decade, the average life expectancy in Africa increased from 50 to 55; and the number of people dying from AIDS and malaria has declined dramatically.
Take energy: the explosion of wealth and population, far from inducing an energy crisis and ruining the environment, has coincided with a decline in fossil fuel consumption in the rich world. According to the US Energy Information Administration, US energy-related greenhouse gas emissions declined nearly 4 per cent last year (as the economy grew nearly 3 per cent). And according to The Wall Street Journal, this has brought US emissions to their lowest level in two decades.
This extraordinary (and, again, under reported) achievement has hardly anything to do with carbon taxes or wind farms and almost everything to do with consumer demand for more efficient cars and factories as well as the innovation of the private industry in extracting natural gas from oil shale.
We live in an age of energy abundance. Since the oil embargo in 1973, the Americans have been huge net importers, and presidents and lawmakers have proposed solutions to their energy problem. Today the US, thanks to impressive breakthroughs in ''fracking'' technology, is on the cusp of being energy independent. And, it was revealed this year, Britain has enough shale gas to power itself for the next half century.
Take the environment: advanced nations have set higher standards, which in turn have contributed to cleaner air, land and water. Although natural disasters, such as the recent NSW bushfires, still wreak havoc, the speed of the recovery efforts showed remarkable resilience. Humans cannot control the weather. But as nations grow richer, we will better handle damage wrought by nature.
Then there is security. Visions have changed in two decades: The Global Convergence, the title of Mahbubani's widely acclaimed book, has replaced The Clash of Civilisations as the fashionable concept for international relations. And for good reason: fewer people are dying in wars than ever before. According to Mahbubani, in the last quarter century the number of wars that kill at least 1000 people a year has declined by 78 per cent.
Still not convinced these are the best of times for the West and the rest? Mahbubani reminds us that 30 years ago, the world's fastest computer, the Cray-2, the size of a washing machine, was exorbitantly priced and needed coolants to avoid overheating. Today, its match is the iPad 2, a tiny device by comparison that runs on 10 watts of power.
This golden age has happened, because the world is embracing capitalism, and its people are more interdependent through trade as never before. No doubt there will be plenty of bumps along the way. But as 2013 comes to an end, one cannot help but think Harold Macmillan was ultimately right when he declared: ''We've never had it so good.'' Happy new year.
This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald