The World Is Becoming Safer, Wealthier and Healthier

There are plenty of reasons to despair about the state of the world: ISIL's depredations in the Middle East, Boko Haram's atrocities in Nigeria, and Russia's slow-drip incursion into Ukraine are just a few. These phenomena are more distressing when one considers that they're occurring against the backdrop of an eroding postwar order. Contrary to the oft-heard refrain, though, that the world is becoming more dangerous -- or, according to some observers, has never been more dangerous -- it has actually never been safer. Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack recently documented the declines in global rates of homicide, violence against women, genocide, and war, among other categories.

We're also becoming more prosperous. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, real global GDP more than tripled between 1970 and 2010, and real global GDP per capita nearly doubled. Last month the Economist reported that the percent of the world's population living in "abject poverty" fell from 36 in 1990 to 18 in 2010 (translating to about 900 million people who escaped that condition).

Finally, we're living longer, better lives. The University of Washington's Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation found that "global life expectancy increased by 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women" between 1990 and 2013. According to the United Nations, moreover, the mortality rate for children under five fell from 90 per thousand births to 46 during that same period, while the percent of the world's population that is "clinically malnourished" fell more than seven points.

It's no accident the world is becoming safer, wealthier and healthier: there are extraordinary people around the world who're trying to make it better. Too often, though, their names remain unknown; their contributions, unacknowledged. "What's Working" is a crucial platform for spotlighting them.

When the news of the day feels overwhelming, I take comfort in three facts.

First, the ingenuity of our minds has always scaled with the magnitude of our calling. There's no reason to believe it won't continue doing so.

Second, we're pushing forward the frontiers of possibility every second, far more rapidly than we can comprehend. Before coming to MIT, I believed certain problems were simply too hard for human beings to address. In retrospect, though, my skepticism simply reflected my failure of imagination. I now assume that once a problem has been identified, folks will eventually solve it or find a way to manage it. The tipping point for me came six years ago, when MIT News ran an article discussing a new project Professor Angela Belcher and a few of her colleagues had undertaken. "For the first time," it explained, "MIT researchers have shown they can genetically engineer viruses to build both the positively and negatively charged ends of a lithium-ion battery." If we can figure out how to make batteries from viruses -- I never imagined I'd see those two words in the same sentence, and I still can't get my head around the idea -- what can't we do?

Third, no matter what problem keeps you up at night, there are brilliant, passionate people around the world who're working on it. You may not hear about them amid the daily barrage of depressing headlines, but they're easy to find if you want to find them. Among the extraordinary individuals I've met, spoken to over e-mail, or reconnected with in recent months: Ruzwana Bashir, the cofounder and CEO of Peek, who's using her own experience of sexual abuse to help other victims find their voices; Pardis Sabeti, a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard, who's developing treatments to fight Ebola; Donald Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at MIT, whose work on liquid-metal batteries could revolutionize electricity storage; Shiza Shahid, the cofounder of the Malala Fund, who's working to give young women around the world a chance at an education; and Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore and The Work, who cofounded BridgeEdU to help at-risk youth in Baltimore graduate from college.

There's an enormous amount of work to be done -- slowing the course of climate change, feeding a growing population and resettling tens of millions of refugees, to name but a few challenges -- but dwelling on everything that's wrong and fretting about everything that could go wrong won't help. Let's spend less time lamenting the state of the world and more time supporting those who're making it better.