I work for newspapers. Some of you may have heard of newspapers. In some cities they are still printed everyday and thrown on doorsteps early in the morning.
One thing you probably know about the news business: we are very good at scaring people.
Everyday we bring news of horrific crimes, deadly terrorist acts, toxic chemicals loosed on the environment, new disease threats, and any number of disasters, natural or brought on by human foolishness.
There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this emphasis on calamity. Imagine the alternative headlines:
“All airplanes land safely at airport Friday”
“Anarchist mob got along politely.”
And certainly it is important to stay informed about the world’s problems. They need to be fixed. Ignoring them won’t make them go away.
But there is a downside to the relentless flow of news about threats. Streaming via TV, radio, internet, mobile devices, it works directly on the emotional parts of our brains. It can create a very distorted impression about the real state of the world.
I’m going to ask for a show of hands.
Raise your hand if you think toxic chemicals are causing an overall increase in cancer in the U.S.
How many of you think terrorist attacks are more prevalent now than they were 20 years ago?
Is the teenage pregnancy problem worse than it was 20 years ago?
Is violent crime worse?
The answer to all is: No. Each of these problems has fallen, in some cases very dramatically.
- The rate of violent crime In the U.S. has fallen by nearly 50 percent since 1990.
- Teen pregnancy is down 42 percent since 1990.
- Teen births are one-third the level they reached in the 1960s.
- Terrorist attacks have fallen from more than 5,000 per year in 1990 to less than 3,000 a year more recently.
- The prevalence of cancer has decreased 8 percent since 1990 in the U.S.
- The average number of armed conflicts or wars has dropped to less than one per year since 2000, from five to six per year before 1970.
- In the years since 2000, there have been fewer war deaths than in any decade in the past 100 years, according to researchers at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re still faced with very real threats of terrorism, disease, environmental disasters.
My point is this:
When I was graduating from high school, it was hard to imagine that any of the entrenched problems we’ve been talking about could be reversed so dramatically, that the rate of violent crime could drop by half, that the incidence of cancer could persistently decline rather than increase, that wars could become less common.
My generation has left you with a lot of messes to clean up. But we’ve made progress.
I hope this perspective gives you even more optimism about what is possible now that we’re getting ready to hand you the keys.
[ I was asked to speak at the baccalaureate service for my daughter’s high school graduation in 2012. This is what I came up with. I think it still holds true. ]
Photo via Wikimedia Commons