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Why 2016 was not the worst

Alright, so the popular opinion seems to be that 2016 was the worst year in recent memory, if not decades. While there is a lot to deride the past calendar year for, including extremely divisive political discourse, an anger-inducing American election, a seeming epidemic of deaths of beloved celebrities, a continuing refugee crisis, ever more frequent terrorist attacks, and a shaky economy managed by a green government (green in experience, not in party colour).

However, our world is not as bad as it seems, and it can be argued that 2016 was objectively the best year ever in the history of humanity.

I was inspired by a recent video on YouTube from a channel known as The Good Stuff called “2016 Was the Best Year Ever and It's Ok to Feel Bad about It.” The video outlines why exactly this is the case, and why we shouldn’t feel guilty for not celebrating the objectively positive truth.

“Child mortality is down, education is up, global literacy is at its highest level in all of recorded history, and since the 1950s, worldwide poverty has decreased dramatically,” said The Good Stuff producer and presenter Matt Webber, offering numbers that there were 1.8 billion people living in extreme poverty in 1950, whereas today, that number is only 0.7 billion, despite the global population increasing nearly threefold.

While World War Two has proven to be the deadliest war in human history, with some estimates calculating 70 million deaths due to war globally, there has also been a period of ‘Long Peace’ in which the top 45 largest economic nations in the world haven’t been at war with each other since then.

Even when looking at the big picture globally, violent crimes are down.

Webber then continues explaining why it is 2016 felt like such a crappy year. Firstly, when major media reports the news, it seeks drama. Simply reporting that everything is hunky-dory does not sell newspapers or advertising. Human beings are drawn to stories, and conflict makes for a good story. (Thus why even reporters at the Star and Times will chase sirens, even though at times, death and tragedy has awaited at the other end. And, the reason it sells newspapers is because people want to know that information and are drawn to those stories.)

Secondly, a human brain tends to linger on something negative, rather than on something positive. Think of it as a survival strategy, where noticing a negative change can help protect you from danger.

Also, people are notorious for being unable to wrap their minds around statistics and probabilities. Even when someone can logically understand the numbers, the emotional impact of an improbable tragedy or victory has more of an effect on the mind than committing pure numbers to memory.

“We are more likely to be shot by a baby than a terrorist and more likely to drown in a bathtub than die in a plane crash, but babies and bathtubs don’t seem dangerous,” said Webber. “This is called an availability heuristic, which means to estimate how likely an event is to occur by measuring how available an event is in our recollection.”

The problem of 2016 isn’t that the world is worst than it has ever been, but because human beings can communicate with each other easier than ever before. More than 3.5 billion people have access to the internet, which is approximately half of all people in the world. For many of us, we live in a future where we can receive the news of the death of an acclaimed musician straight into a device in our pockets mere hours after it happens.

And, having information empowers the populace. If you think one way about something, chances are, somebody else on the planet shares that opinion. While it is great to have somebody to share community with, it can be dangerous because we are likely to fall victim to confirmation bias, where we remember things that confirm our established beliefs, and ignore or denounce things that we do not agree with. This creates intellectual bubbles, and is part of the reason why political discourse seems to be at such extremes in our country, and in our neighbouring countries both across the 49th parallel and across the eastern ‘pond’.

“2016 wasn’t a bad year, and was in fact, mostly good,” said Webber. “By all measures, 2017 is projected to be even better. But, it’s okay to feel bad about 2016 because it was bad for a lot of people.”

Webber explains that it is good that we recognize the bad that is happening in the world because that helps us make it even better. We are not solely focused on our own situation or on just the good things, and we really are making the world a better place when we try to improve the plights that others are experiencing.

“While it can be overwhelming to be bombarded by negative news stories everyday, we should never ignore them or make the mistake of idealizing the past, and being ignorant of all the suffering that is happening in the world doesn’t make it disappear,” he said. “If we want the positive trends that objectively show the world improving, we can’t let our guard down. We have to keep paying attention.”

A quote from one of the sources that The Good Stuff referenced had a very effective quote that I would like to end with.

“If watching the news doesn’t make us feel hopeful about the future, watching the numbers might,” said video presenter Neil Halloran.

The link to the video can be found here, and the drop-down description contains references for the multiple articles that contributed to the information presented.

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Jeremy Bergen
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