Brendan O’Neill

2016 has been one of the greatest years ever for humanity

2016 has been one of the greatest years ever for humanity
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Nothing better sums up the aloofness of the chattering class, their otherworldliness in fact, than their blathering about 2016 being the worst year ever. It’s the refrain running through every Brexitphobic column, every historically illiterate comparison of Trump to Hitler, every tear-sodden list of the big-name celebs who’ve died this year. 2016 is ‘the f--king worst’, says Brit comic in America John Oliver. These people don’t know what they’re talking about. The worst? 2016 has been one of the best years yet for humankind.

This year it was announced that global life expectancy is increasing at a faster rate than at any time since the 1960s. The World Health Organisation revealed in May that life expectancy — that brilliant, basic measurement of how mankind is doing in terms of food production, medicine and technology — has increased by five years since 2000. The world average is now 73.8 years for women and 69.1 years for men. In 1970 it was less than 60. Even in Africa life expectancy is shooting up. Thanks to ‘better child survival, malaria control and the availability of drugs to keep HIV at bay’, there has been a ‘significant rise’ in life expectancy in Africa, says WHO: it has gone up by 9.4 years since 2000. It’s magnificent, among the greatest news in this great year

It didn’t end there. In October, a global UN summit confirmed that half of humanity now lives in urban areas, and it’s estimated that two billion more people will live in cities by 2035. That great progressive schlep of mankind from the land to the city, from the unforgiving world of subsistence farming to the sprawl of opportunities that is city life, continues unabated. Our forefathers did it 200 years ago, when the Industrial Revolution dragged them from the field into the new Jerusalems of London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester, and now vastly more human beings are making the same chaotic but enlightened hike. Inspiring.

Mankind continued to wage war on disease too, with results that could bring a lump to the throat. In March it was revealed that seven countries — China, Gambia, Ghana, Iran, Morocco, Myanmar and Oman — have eliminated trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eye that causes irreversible blindness. That’s billions of people whose sight has been protected, guaranteed, by humanity’s medical brilliance. WHO is persevering with its goal of global eradication of trachoma. Also this year it was confirmed that we’re on the very cusp of eradicating Guinea Worm Disease, a horrible and debilitating parasitical sickness that comes from drinking infected water. In 1989 there were 892,055 cases of GWD worldwide; in 2015 there were 22; this year it’s said to be on ‘the brink of eradication’. A fine victory for man over nature’s violent whims.

We’re getting the better of AIDS, too. In November, UNAIDS revealed that new HIV infections among children have declined by 50 percent since 2010, and that AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 45 percent since 2005. And something rather magical happened, in October, in this apparently awful year. In a British trial of a new ‘shock and kill’ treatment for HIV, one of the 50 subjects showed ‘no detectable signs of the virus in his blood’ following the treatment. That is, he seemed to have been cured. It’s too early to celebrate, say scientists, but they’re ‘cautiously optimistic’ that a cure for HIV is coming. Thank you, 2016.

And we continued exploring. This is the year mankind went to Jupiter. For the first time ever we got a glimpse of what is beneath Jupiter’s vast clouds. Juno, a 3 metre by 3 metre spacecraft, travelled 445 million miles in five years, arriving at Jupiter in July. It hurtled through space at 165,000mph. That’s 2,750 miles per minute, a breathtaking 45 miles per second — a marvel of ingenuity. ‘We have conquered Jupiter’, NASA declared. And through expanding our knowledge of Jupiter, we’ll better understand the whole solar system. That urge to leap into the unknown, which has propelled humans across vast oceans in search of new worlds and into the bleakness of space in search of understanding, was much in evidence in this great year.

Then there was the greatest discovery of the year, and possibly of any year. Our detection of gravitational waves. In February, two observatories in the US revealed that they had recorded these waves theorised by Albert Einstein. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of this breakthrough. Get this: More than one billion years ago, in a galaxy hundreds of millions of light years from us, two black holes smashed together and sent vast amounts of energy through the universe. These waves were making their way to Earth when the dinosaurs were still around, and when we were mere apes. By the time they finally arrived, at 11am on 14 September 2015, we had evolved enough both to theorise about the existence of such waves and to build machines that might record them. And then we recorded them, and in 2016, brilliant 2016, this momentous recording was made public. In the words of Stephen Hawking, it gives us ‘a completely new way of looking at the universe’. We can now ‘listen’ to the universe, measure billions-old ruptures in space, look back in time. Imagine, just imagine, referring to the year in which gravitational waves were discovered as the worst year ever. How dare they.

And so on to politics. It’s really events in the political realm — especially Brexit and Trump — that have caused the chattering class to go into meltdown and brand this the worst year ever. They’re so vain that they can blot out mankind’s defeat of disease, extension of human life and discovery of new secrets of the universe and say 2016 was awful simply because they didn’t get their way in elections and referendums. Yet even at the political level 2016 has been exciting. Brits rejected the EU, a madly bureaucratic oligarchy that is contemptuous of democracy and has heaped incredible economic pain on the peoples of Greece, Italy and Ireland. And Americans said ‘No’ to staid, lazy, paternalistic establishment figures who took their support for granted. The idea that these votes represent a return of fascism is unhinged, and a vile libel against the good electorates of Britain and America.

Yes, they disrupted politics as normal. Good. That’s been the theme of this brilliant year: disruption. We disrupted nature and squished her sicknesses. We disrupted poverty and helped vast numbers of people to live longer, many of them in cities. We disrupted the universe with Juno, and listened in on the universe’s own disruptions from billions of years ago. We disrupted a politics that simply wasn’t working. We helped the poor to see, saved children from HIV, and expanded our urban footprint and invited more and more humans to join it. If you must weep over 2016, it should be with joy.