Sunday, April 16, 2017

More and more of the world is protected

I looked at the stats of how much of the world was protected in my 2010 book, The Secret Peace, and that trend has continued. Today, almost 13% of all the world's land is officially protected, according to the World Bank.

That may not sound like a lot, but it's 25 million square miles, and more importantly, it's up from only 6% in 1990.

What's interesting too is to see the breakdown by country. Some have made incredible strides, and nearly EVERY ONE has made gains since 1990. Below is a sample of several countries I found exceptional, with some of the most impressive gains.

These trends are likely to continue, slow but steady. However, I think we're on the cusp of several technological breakthroughs that could accelerate them even more. Consider the following clues:

  1. Online shopping is replacing a lot of retail stores, especially big malls. This requires warehouses, but those take up less room than retail.
  2. 3D printing may lead to more goods being produced on demand as they're ordered, eliminating the need for storing excess goods. This is already true of print-on-demand books.
  3. When self-driving cars take off, they will eventually start replacing car ownership. People will be able to call a car, just like Lyft or Uber, at a lower cost since there are no drivers. These cars will not need to rest and can function 24 hours a day (perhaps shipping goods when passenger demand is low). We start to need fewer and fewer parking spaces. New shopping centers and offices will be built with numbered drop-off points, rather than huge parking lots.
  4. In addition, if Amazon succeeds at using delivery drones at scale, that's even fewer trucks on the road.
  5. Thanks to Tesla, energy-efficient electric cars will soon expand to a massive scale. Since these cars will also have the ability to be self-driving, even if that's not "turned on" yet, it will accelerate the switch to self-driving cars.
  6. As they have for 200 years, crops will continue to get more efficient and produce higher yields, accelerated by more acceptance of GMOs, finally.
  7. Vegetarianism has been another slow-burning trend in the developed world, and as the world eats less meat, less land is needed for livestock, which is much less efficient than crops.
  8. And even though the developing world is eating more meat, lab-grown meat is on the cusp of being released commercially. If it takes a while to catch on with consumers used to "real" meat, that might not be the case with other, newly meat-eating consumers. Lab-grown meat is real meat, indistinguishable from other meat, but using a lot fewer resources to produce and not harming any animals, to boot.

Those are all trends leading to less and less land needed by humans and their voracious needs. This frees up more land that, even if not officially preserved yet, may start to revert to a natural state. It'll be interesting to continue to track these trends in the years to come.

Friday, March 31, 2017

A controversial suggestion: Let's stop hitting children

Good-bye, spanking. Like all types of violence throughout the world, the physical discipline of children is declining.

In the United States, for example, 94 percent of parents endorsed hitting kids in 1968, but only one-half approved by 1999. Similar decreases occurred in countries as diverse as Austria, Sweden, Kuwait, Germany, and New Zealand. (In Sweden, the drop preceded the law against hitting kids.)

Why is this? The author of this Slate article posits that it's due to increased education, specifically education and tactics now more widely disseminated on the most effective ways to parent. This is good, because, lest anyone still think otherwise, we now have reams of evidence that spanking and physical punishment backfires spectacularly.

For example, in The Week from May 13, 2016, it mentions that a new metastudy "has found physical discipline actually makes children more defiant and more likely to have later alcohol, drug, and mental health problems. After examining the findings of 75 studies involving more than 160,000 children, a team of researchers found that children who are routinely disciplined with an open-handed smack on the bottom - a spanking - have behavior problems similar to those of children who are physically abused. In fact, the more kids are spanked, the more likely they are to develop low self-esteem and become aggressive, antisocial, and rebellious, the meta-analysis reveals. "Spanking does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do," the study's co-author says."

The article went on to conclude, "The researchers suggest that parents use non-physical forms of discipline, and rely on positive reinforcement of desirable behavior, which research shows is far more effective than punishment."

Here is a picture of my child, who has never been spanked:

Other sources:

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/the-connections-between-spanking-and-aggression

http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/spanking.aspx

https://www.quora.com/Why-is-hitting-a-child-as-a-form-of-discipline-considered-a-thing-to-despise-in-the-West/answer/Andrew-Weill

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Kids these days ... have better hearing?

Do you wear headphones or earbuds? Are you concerned at all about their effect on your hearing? Maybe somewhere in the back of your mind you remember that they're bad?

Well, despite recent fears over increased headphone use, not to mention loud concerts and movies, not to mention urban life and honking and who knows what else, hearing loss is actually declining in the U.S.

As the New York Times, reports, "The paper, published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery, used data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey, which periodically administers health tests to a representative sample of the population. The investigators ... compared data collected between 1999 and 2004 with data from 2011 and 2012, the most recent available."

What's impressive is not only did hearing loss decrease from 15.9% of the population to 14.1% in less than a decade - that's 5 million people fewer - but that this is part of a continuing trend since the 1950s.

Read more here.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Hey, remember that whole Ebola thing?

Remember when Ebola was going to kill us all? Well, besides the fact that that didn't happen and the virus stayed largely contained within a few West African nations, a new vaccine promises to even more easily defeat the disease whenever a new outbreak arises. Do you remember headlines like these?

That last one warns about a possible death toll of 1.4 million. Care to guess how many lives the outbreak actually claimed? 11,000. To put that in perspective, here's a pie chart showing 11,000 out of 1.4 million.

None of this means that it wasn't terrible that 11,000 people died. Nor was it bad to treat the outbreak seriously and marshal all forces against it - indeed, that was what was successful. But keep this in mind the next time headlines look scary - whether about Ebola, Anthrax, Killer clowns, or even terrorism.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Believe it or not, 2016 was one of the best years ever

This year, it seems like all the end-of-year roundup stories are particularly negative. It turns out that rock stars are not immortal, and most of the people in my internet circles were not thrilled with the outcome of the presidential election. But at the end of each year there's always a small fringe counter-movement of articles explaining that the world is actually getting better, and 2016 is no exception. If you're among those who think 2016 in America was bleak (and I certainly am disappointed by a lot of events as well), remember that the rest of the world still marches forward. Here are some of these positive summaries from this year.

This article from Our World in Data has been making the rounds quite a bit. It uses several charts that are near-identical to the ones from my book. Updated to 2015, it's nice to see that these trends from my book are all continuing as predicted. The article provides a convenient infographic that's easy to share. It's clever to cage it in a frame of "if the world was 100 people", which makes it easier to understand the scope of the progress.

The article also focuses on why we don't know this. Why isn't there a front-page headline today that reads "The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday"? It's because the media is obsessed with single dramatic events and with negative news. (That headline could have been repeated every single day since 1990!)

Here's also an interview with Steven Pinker, who can always be counted on to spread the optimist message. Although he clarifies, as I do in my book as well, that it's not really "optimist" as much as "realist", big-picture instead of in-the-moment, statistical instead of anecdotal.

I also stumbled upon this great answer by Jeremy Fridy on Quora to the snarky question, "Liberals, why don't you want America to be great again?" He points out several facts about the state of the US today: that violent crime is at a 50-year low, abortion is at a 40-year low, the economy has grown and budget deficit shrunk in the past 7 years, and that Obama is leaving office with a higher approval rating than even Reagan.

Finally, here's a monster of a rebuttal to 2016-pessimism, 99 Reasons 2016 was a Good Year, on Medium. There are endless (well, 100) successes in conservation, global health, economics, fighting climate change, decreasing violence, generosity, and more. Did you hear that global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels did not grow at all in 2016? It’s the third year in a row emissions have flatlined. Probably not.

Fingers crossed for a 2017 that reports more diligently on the trends that matter most.

Monday, December 12, 2016

More surprising health inventions

A few months ago I reported on new glasses that let color-blind folks see in full color. Now, there are two more inventions just this month that have the potential to help many people.

The first is a "stem-cell gun" (I didn't make that up) that uses your own cells to create new skin on your body. This could drastically change the way we treat the victims of serious burns. Because brand new skin is growing, there aren't even any scars. You can learn more here.

The other invention is a pen that counterbalances the shaking effects of Parkinson's disease, allowing patients to write again. You can watch the example of a graphic designer who had lost the ability to draw or even write her own name. Learn more here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Online dating brings Americans together

From The Week: "Decades of research have shown that people tend to pair off with partners who are similar to them in terms of race, education, or religion, which often reinforces divisions between social groups. But a recent study suggests that the rise of online dating is breaking down some of those barriers.

"Americans in the survey who met through friends or school were the most likely to date someone similar to them. Meeting online, however, was 'associated with more racial and ethnic mixing than any other venue.'"

Thank you, online dating! In this time when the media relentlessly focuses on the divisions between Americans - whether racial, economic, or political - it's good to see that under the surface some forces are secretly pushing back. And the result should be significant - it's estimated that up to one-third of all marriages today are of people who met online. And, to top it off, these people tend to be slightly happier in their marriages.

Here's an example (it's me and my wife):