Progress in 2023

For this last post of the year, I’ll link several year-end pieces about progress in the world, where most people see only continued doom. (I’ll do a separate post, about progress against my goals in my own life, soon.)

NY Times, Nicholas Kristoff, 30 Dec 2023: This Was a Terrible Year, and Also Maybe the Best One Yet for Humanity


As the year ends, civilians are dying at a staggering pace in Gaza and the genocide in Darfur may be resuming. A man charged with 91 felonies is leading in American presidential polls, and our carbon emissions risk cooking our planet.

But something else is also true: In some ways, 2023 may still have been the best year in the history of humanity.

How can that possibly be?

Because as bad as some things seem today, they were *worse* in previous years. Kristoff goes over statistics about early childhood deaths, and extreme poverty. Getting better every year. Yet he admits:

I write a version of this column each year at around this time, and it upsets many readers. They believe it is offensive to hail progress when so many are dying unnecessarily from wars and disease, when the future seems so bleak to so many. I understand their point; my career has been dedicated to covering genocide, war and poverty. But one thing I learned long ago as a journalist is that when our coverage is unremittingly negative, people tune out and give up. If we want to tackle problems — from the war in Gaza to climate change — then it helps to know that progress is possible.

Progress is possible. It’s been happening steadily for the past hundred, three hundred years.

Kristoff goes on about the eradication of diseases — polio and Guinea worm disease. And new methods for eradicating disease: CRISPR technology; new vaccines.

I highlight this backdrop of progress so that it may fortify us in 2024 to tackle all the other suffering that persists.


Vox, Izzie Ramirez, Oshan Jarow, and Kenny Torrella, 28 Dec 2023: 10 actually good things that happened in 2023, subtitled “This was a hard year. But these 10 news stories remind us a better future is possible.”

I’m not going to lie to you: 2023 was an ugly year. War rages in Gaza, Ukraine, and Sudan, with millions displaced, injured, or dead. On top of global strife, AI-fueled misinformation runs rampant, we’re barreling past climate goals, and abortion access dwindles.

But when the world is mired in horrible things, it’s important to imagine a better future; without hope, new solutions wouldn’t be possible. In 2023, despite everything, there were moments when that hope actualized into meaningful wins.

Vox, being a site dedicated to explaining contemporary situations in detail, is therefore naturally progressive, and so some of these are items conservatives would disagree are progress. But I’ll state again my definition of progress (via Frederik Pohl): the expansion of options. (Conservatives want to restrict options to whatever they think are proper.) I’ll list the pieces 10 points.

  • The economy started undoing 40 years of rising inequality
  • After completing phase 3 trials, psychedelic-assisted therapy seeks FDA approval
  • It’s another year of massive progress in developing and deploying vaccines
  • Mexico decriminalizes abortion
  • Bangladesh gets the lead out of turmeric
  • The Supreme Court upheld America’s strongest animal welfare law
  • You can now buy slaughter-free meat
  • Governments around the world are investing in a meat-free future
  • Europe is quickly phasing out the ugly practice of “male chick culling”
  • The FDA has approved the first-ever gene editing treatment for use in humans, offering a cure for sickle cell disease


Washington Post, Editorial Board, 27 Dec 2023: Opinion | No, 2023 wasn’t all bad, and here are 23 reasons why not

Some of these reasons are trivial, but I’ll list them all.

  • 1. Egg prices are back to $2 a dozen.
  • 2. The gender pay gap hit an all-time low.
  • 3. The Washington Commanders have new owners.
  • 4. The hole in the ozone layer is shrinking.
  • 5. The U.S. government did not shut down.
  • 6. The pandemic officially ended on May 5.
  • 7. CRISPR gene editing treatments are here.
  • 8. The Supreme Court rejected the “independent state legislature” theory.
  • 9. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé were everywhere.
  • 10. Kelvin Kiptum ran a 2-hour marathon.
  • 11. President Biden and Xi Jinping met face to face.
  • 12. Many looted antiquities were returned.
  • 13. Guinea worm disease is almost eradicated.
  • 14. Climate-conscious eating took off.
  • 15. Ukraine is an independent country; Finland joined NATO.
  • 16. Four Colombian kids survived 40 days in the jungle.
  • 17. The United States experienced an economic soft landing.
  • 18. Gymnast Simone Biles is back and better than ever.
  • 19. The California drought is over.
  • 20. “Barbenheimer” brought us back to movie theaters.
  • 21. A banking crisis was avoided.
  • 22. A 104-year-old woman went skydiving.
  • 23. Americans are traveling again.


One more.

The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, 25 Dec 2023: The Nine Breakthroughs of the Year, subtitled: “CRISPR, GLP1s, and other advancements that astonished me”

Here again, I will list his nine items.

  • 1. CRISPR’s Triumph: A Possible Cure for Sickle-Cell Disease
  • 2. GLP-1s: A Diabetes and Weight-Loss Revolution
  • 3. GPT and Protein Transformers: What Can’t Large Language Models Do?
  • 4. Fusion: The Dream Gets a Little Closer
  • 5. Malaria and RSV Vaccines: Great News for Kids
  • 6. Killer AI: Artificial Intelligence at War
  • 7. Fervo and Hydrogen: Making Use of a Hot Planet
  • 8. Engineered Skin Bacteria: What If Face Paint Cured Cancer?
  • 9. Loyal Drugs: Life-Extension Meds for Dogs


Again, I’ll reflect, at the risk of overstating my case. Progress, in the world, ever since the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, has been about acknowledgement and engagement with the real world, setting aside the ancient religious books that so many people still believe contain the entirety of knowledge. What’s holding progress back, as in the current two wars, are forces of religion and nationalism.

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