The Christmas season reminds Christians and non-Christians alike to give thanks for the year at its close. And despite what is frequently claimed, the global population lives in what looks like the best of times.

So after almost a year of writing about the economy and business for this site, here’s a brief stocktake of things we have to be grateful for on a global scale.

Rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts by type of conflict, 1946-201310

  • War is going out of fashion. The best estimates are that the years since 2000 have had the lowest war deaths per person since at least the year 1400. Conflict death rates have plummeted since the Second World War ended almost two-thirds of a century ago. Even ISIS, a totalitarian religious Middle East war machine, has had its power dramatically cut this year. The world is now quite possibly more peaceful than at any time in human history. Those people who say: “All I want for Christmas is world peace”? Don’t laugh; they seem to be getting their wish.
  • As I’ve explored before here, global poverty is falling. In less than a quarter of a century between 1990 and 2013, 1.1 billion people rose out of extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as income of less than US$1.90 a day. Most of these people were in China and India, the world’s two most populous nations. The rich are certainly getting richer in today’s world, but many of the world’s poorest are getting richer as well.
  • Global literacy rates continue to rise. As of 2014, more than 85% of people in the world could read and write, up from 68% in 1990. Education levels are way up: the proportion of people around the world with at least upper secondary education was 18% of the global total in 1990, now tops 30% and is still rising. The global supply of educated people is soaring, and that is changing the world perhaps more than anything else.
  • Infant mortality is dropping too. In 1990, nine per cent of children died in their first five years. Now that figure is down to just over four per cent. A century ago, the global infant mortality rate was a devastating 32% – that is, dead children were a global commonplace.
  • We are not locked in a Malthusian nightmare of ever-rising population: global population growth is well past its peak. The global population, now 7.25 billion, is expected to peak sometime later this century at somewhere between 9 and 10 billion, and then slowly fall. Here’s an explanation from renowned Danish global health statistician Hans Rosling, who worked to spread this good news until his death this year:

  • Higher living standards no longer require ever more resources: the OECD estimates that the quantity of material resources used and consumed to produce each dollar of global output dropped by 30 per cent between 1980 and 2007. Consumption of materials in the world’s largest developed economies seems to actually be falling.
  • Climate change remains an important threat to the natural world, but better and lower-cost ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are appearing all the time. Solar power prices in particular continue to fall, stimulating production of solar photovoltaic panels, which further cuts the price in a virtuous circle.
  • Locally, Australia still looks in good shape economically. We haven’t had a recession in more than a quarter-century, and our partly as a consequence, our unemployment rate recently hit a four-year low of 5.5 per cent.
  • Finally, people systematically underestimate how happy and healthy everyone else feels, according to an October 2017 Ipsos MORI poll of 29,133 adults around the world. Some 82 per cent of Australians report being “very happy” or “rather happy”, but Australians’ average guess was that only 53 per cent of their fellow citizens feel this way. People in most other countries similarly mis-estimate the happiness of those around them.

This last point should probably not come as a surprise. The media belts us from day to day with the newest bad news. From newspaper opinion sections to television current affairs shows to Twitter, we face a stream of messages about the world’s endless problems, injustices and shortcomings. Much of social theory erodes any attempt to resist this negativity, arguing that there is no such thing as progress. We may be happy, but many of us still tend to think the place is full of unsolvable problems.

The reality is that a great many of the planet’s people are doing better and better. The world is wildly imperfect, but we are making progress. Merry Christmas.