When people chalk up 2016 as a bad year, they are lacking a fundamental sense of perspective.
2016 has been a fantastic year! This is not a sentiment you will hear expressed very widely; unless you’re orange with silly hair, you probably think that 2016 has been at least a little bit depressing. For progressive liberals in particular, it feels like the world is coming to an end. “It all began when we lost Bowie,” they will say, as they recount how 2016 promptly unleashed the Zika virus, a string of terror attacks, Brexit, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and a president elect of the US who thinks climate change is a Chinese conspiracy. But the general consensus that 2016 will go down as an annus horribilis lacks a fundamental sense of perspective. If we only take a few steps back, we can see that 2016 hasn’t been quite so bad after all.
When David Bowie passed away on 10 January 2016, no-one could have anticipated how bad 2016 would be for celebrity deaths: Leonard Cohen, Victoria Wood, Terry Wogan, Alan Rickman, Paul Daniels, AA Gill, Prince, Gene Wilder, Ronnie Corbett, Muhammad Ali, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rick Parfit and George Michael have all passed away since then. 2016 has been the worst year for migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, and has seen a large spike in deaths from terrorism. Combined with the current devastation in Aleppo, 2016 is starting to look very bad with respect to loss of irreplaceable human lives.
In historical terms however, this year’s death toll is rather slim. If, as per the wishes of neoconservatives, we think of the West’s fight against radical Islamic terrorism as a war, we have to admit that it’s not an especially devastating one. 143 civilians were killed by terrorist attacks in Western Europe in the first half of 2016; compare this to the nearly 2000 people who were killed in the first night of the Blitz in 1940. Or if 1940 is too ancient for you, just compare it to last year: 2015 saw a higher Western European death toll from terrorism than 2016, as did 2004 and virtually every year in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Perhaps it’s not terrorism’s death toll, but its political consequences that make 2016 such a bad year. Many believe that terrorism has kindled an explosion of popular xenophobia, latched onto by far-right forces in order to deliver Brexit and President Trump, and pivot Europe away from liberal democracy. This is an extremely oversimplified and quite frankly rather paranoid narrative. Terrorism has certainly helped fuel the rise of the populist right—a phenomenon which will have a mixture of good and bad consequences—but it won’t even come close to bringing about the end of modern liberal democracy. The West is still sitting very firmly in the cosy, liberal, democratic niche it hollowed out for itself after 1945; it’s going to take more than a loudmouthed property developer to change that.
More importantly, 2016 has been a year of peaceful popular revolution, and should be seen by all sides as an opportunity for growth. In Britain, the electorate said “no” to technocrats, cronyism and the erosion of democracy. In the United States, the electorate said “no” to the boring, plastic, DC establishment. They also said “yes” to protectionism, which is a cause for much concern. Nonetheless, 2016 saw a decisive shift towards greater democracy and decentralisation, and brought many long apathetic voters back into the political process. Now both the right and the left have an opportunity to reconnect with the electorate, and to steer politics in new and interesting directions. 2016 has provided the jolt that our stagnant politics sorely needed.
Most crucial of all: we must never lose sight of all the positive, life-changing trends that have defined the past two centuries, and will continue to define the next. Fewer people are living in extreme poverty than ever before, infant mortality around the world continues to fall while life expectancy continues to rise, and GDP per person is nearly 10 times higher today than it was in 1900. Contrary to the hysteria of many environmentalists, economic growth and technological innovation have drastically improved our environment, and will continue to do so. We are becoming more connected, energy is easier to obtain, and culture is evolving and flourishing faster than ever before. If we measure “greatness” as conduciveness to human health and wealth, then 2016 is one of the greatest years in human history.
If you think 2016 has been a bad year, then ask yourself this question: which year would you rather live in? Almost no-one who disparages the current era would actually be willing to give it up. We tend to notice negative things, like the most recent terrorist attack, earthquake or train derailment. Positive things—like central heating, abundant food, electricity and Wi-Fi—tend to slip into the background. We focus on the negativity that stands out, and ignore the positivity that surrounds us. Progress is the air we breathe; modernity is so wonderful that we don’t even notice it. The world will continue to get better, and human beings will continue to complain about it; such is life, and life in 2016 is pretty damn fantastic.