The Case for Optimism

From technology to equality, five ways the world is getting better all the time

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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But it's hard to top the economic success stories concerning clean energy, and it's tragic that these achievements aren't more widely known. Germany, where the sun shines on average as much as it does in London, reportedly set the world record for electricity generated from the sun in a single day: 22 gigawatts, or roughly the output of 20 nuclear power plants.

Long mislabeled as expensive and unwieldy, the clean-energy sector in the U.S. was actually growing by 8.3% before the economic slowdown, more than twice the rate of the overall economy. In fact, those European countries meeting their Kyoto Protocol commitments have been among the least hard hit by the economic crisis, including Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

If sustainable energy were bad economics, Costa Rica wouldn't be one of the richest countries in the region, with what is arguably the greenest economy in the world. Costa Rica certainly has one of the world's highest percentages of electricity generated from renewable resources as well as an enormous conservation ethic: 26% of its landmass is in national parks, 51% in forest cover.

At the moment, I am most optimistic about Brazil, not only because of its significant growth in the past decade but also because of something that simultaneously declined: its level of economic inequality.

Brazilians did it by creating a pile of new jobs and paying poor families to send their children to school and get annual checkups. They did it by controlling their energy destiny, not simply developing their oil resources but also maximizing their hydropower. And they did it while planning to cut by 75% the annual rate of rain-forest destruction. Brazil certainly still has its share of challenges, but its successes have been truly astonishing.

4 EQUALITY

WOMEN RULE

Simply put, no society can truly flourish if it stifles the dreams and productivity of half its population. Happily, I see evidence all over the world that women are gaining social and economic power that they never had before. This is good news not only for the individuals themselves but also for entire societies, for it's been proved that women tend to reinvest economic gains back into their families and communities more than men do.

Rwanda provides some great examples. It's changed dramatically since my first visit 14 years ago. Today, Rwanda's per capita income is five times as high as it was in 1998, roads and infrastructure have improved immensely, and--in one of the greatest signs of progress--more than half the members of Parliament are women, making Rwanda the first country to achieve that distinction. Rwandan women are gaining economically too. During a visit to the country this summer, I toured the construction site of what will eventually be a large soy-processing factory. My foundation helped get the project off the ground, but eventually it will be owned and maintained by local farmers and the government. It will create domestic demand for soy, and once completed, it is expected to provide 30,000 farmers in eastern Rwanda--55% of whom are women--with jobs by contracting with them to grow soybeans.

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