Thursday, 23 December 2010

23 December 2010

If I were Time magazine, I wouldn’t have named Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook as 2010’s Man of the Year. I’d have named Mother Nature.

Well, not Man of the Year, obviously. Maybe Force of the Year. And there are at least five reasons why.

The Haiti earthquake (January). The Icelandic volcano (April). The Pakistan floods (July). The Chile mine disaster (August). The snow in northern Europe (December).

Even as I write these words, there are reports of violent storms lashing California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Los Angeles has received half its annual rainfall in the past six days. So maybe make that six reasons.

Sorry, but if we’re looking for who – or what – has had the biggest impact on our world over the past year, I think Mother Nature beats Facebook by a mile.

And, since this is nearly the end of the year, and traditionally the time when we look back and try to make some sense of the past 12 months, well, my suggestion for Word of the Year is humility.

Humility in the sense that we have been reminded time and again that, much as we might like to think otherwise, we are not Lords of the Universe. We can blog, and tweet, and Facebook to our hearts’ content, but we cannot stop the earth quaking, nor the volcanoes erupting.

I am, by nature, an optimist. I think that, by and large, the world is a better place than it was. Fewer women die in childbirth, fewer children die before the age of five, more people live in relative comfort.

But I also like to think that I’m a realist. I understand that there is still much about this planet we live on that we do not understand. I concede that we have only limited powers to change the course of events. And I acknowledge that every day brings with it the potential to change everything.

I think of the people of Haiti, and of Pakistan, and the miners’ families in Chile. And I marvel at how obsessed we sometimes become by the tittle-tattle of the Westminster village, or the diplo-babble of the latest international summit.

So my cracked and highly unreliable crystal ball stays in the back of the cupboard this year. The predictions I made a year ago were largely rubbish; I was wrong on nearly everything. Humility starts at home.

Instead of predictions, here are some reasons to be hopeful about the future. The American economist Charles Kenny calls the first decade of the 21st century “humanity's finest, a time when more people lived better, longer, more peaceful, and more prosperous lives than ever before. “

Consider these facts, he says: in 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than a dollar a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 percent -- and it will be lower still by the close of 2010.

Some 1.3 billion people now live on more than $10 a day, suggesting the continued expansion of the global middle class. Even better news is that growth has been faster in poor places like sub-Saharan Africa than across the world as a whole.

We're also winning the global battle against infectious diseases. Between 1999 and 2005, thanks to the spread of vaccinations, the number of children who died annually from measles dropped 60 percent. The proportion of the world's infants vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus has climbed from less than half to 82 percent between 1985 and 2008.

I have no doubt that during 2011 we’ll be bringing you plenty more stories of death, mayhem and destruction. But I just wanted to remind you that there’s more to life than headlines. (Incidentally, on New Year’s Eve, we’ll be broadcasting a special programme about the revolution in African farming, and asking whether Africa is now on the brink of not only being able to feed its own people, but maybe the rest of us as well.)

As I say at this time every year: enjoy the company of your family and friends; admire the trees and the flowers in parks and gardens; count your blessings.

I’ll be taking a few days off now, so no blogging until 7 January.

Have a happy and peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and fulfilling New Year.

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