The Case for Optimism

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

  • Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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    In nearby Malawi, there's a large commercial farm that leverages economies of scale to secure bulk pricing for things like soy seed and fertilizer. On a previous trip there, I met a female farmer who had joined the program and as a result had increased her yield from five to 20 bags per acre, earning double what she had under the old system. With her extra income, she put a new roof on her home and paid tuition to send her daughters to school. So you can see how this work can change not just an individual life but also the fate of a family or the course of an entire community.

    The private sector can play a big role here. Gap Inc. has a program called Personal Achievement and Career Enhancement (PACE), which is expanding from India to Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka and hopefully beyond. PACE focuses on building the life skills of female garment workers and enhancing their career opportunities by providing technical-skills training. Ultimately this helps the workers and managers of garment factories view the welfare and potential of their female line workers as key to their success.

    Women face similar challenges in emerging and affluent countries too--but we're seeing signs of progress, particularly in the Middle East. Since 2002, Bahrain's national elections have been open to women. Saudi Arabia has serious modernization efforts under way, and in the past several years there have been more women than men enrolled in institutions of higher education globally.



    Many of the world's greatest challenges today are simply modern manifestations of our oldest demons. The truth is, the future has never had a big enough constituency--those fighting for present gain almost always win out. But we are now called upon to try to create a whole different mind-set. We are in a pitched battle between the present array of resources and attitudes and the future struggling to be born.

    It's struggling just as much in every distressed community in America as it was in Tahrir Square in Cairo. We have to define the meaning of our lives as something other than our ability to control someone else's. The persistent inequality among and within societies breeds instability and conflict, but there are success stories all over the world that we can use as models for reform.

    In places once synonymous with conflict, like the Balkans and Rwanda, former antagonists are now working together to solve problems. In 2011 I attended a global-sustainability conference in Manaus, Brazil, at the edge of the rain forest. Remarkably, utility companies and all the oil companies were represented. The native Brazilian tribes that live in the rain forest, which are protected by law and will be hurt if there's further development, were represented. The woman who ran for President on the Green Party ticket and spoke out against all this development was there. Small businesses and environmental groups were represented. The delegates sat around small tables, speaking to one another with great respect, believing that if they worked together, they could find an answer. They all understood that if this were a simple issue, someone would have already solved the problem.

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