Reasons for optimism in today's world
Because of the coordinated actions of world governments, we avoided another Great Depression, Fareed Zakaria said.
May 25th, 2012
10:53 AM ET

Reasons for optimism in today's world

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria recently delivered the commencement address at Harvard. While the audience was graduates, the message could apply to a great many of us, so we've reprinted a modified version below.

By Fareed Zakaria

The best commencement speech I ever read was by the humorist Art Buchwald. He was brief, saying simply, “Remember, we are leaving you a perfect world. Don’t screw it up.”

You are not going to hear that message much these days. Instead, you’re likely to hear that we are living through grim economic times, that the graduates are entering the slowest recovery since the Great Depression. The worries are not just economic. Ever since 9/11, we have lived in an age of terror, and our lives remain altered by the fears of future attacks and a future of new threats and dangers. Then there are larger concerns that you hear about: The Earth is warming; we’re running out of water and other vital resources; we have a billion people on the globe trapped in terrible poverty.

So, I want to sketch out for you, perhaps with a little bit of historical context, the world as I see it.

The world we live in is, first of all, at peace — profoundly at peace. The richest countries of the world are not in geopolitical competition with one another, fighting wars, proxy wars, or even engaging in arms races or “cold wars.”

This is a historical rarity. You would have to go back hundreds of years to find a similar period of great power peace. I know that you watch a bomb going off in Afghanistan or hear of a terror plot in this country and think we live in dangerous times. But here is the data. The number of people who have died as a result of war, civil war, and, yes, terrorism, is down 50 percent this decade from the 1990s. It is down 75 percent from the preceding five decades, the decades of the Cold War, and it is, of course, down 99 percent from the decade before that, which is World War II. Harvard professor Steven Pinker says that we are living in the most peaceful times in human history.

The political stability we have experienced has allowed the creation of a single global economic system, in which countries around the world are participating and flourishing. In 1980, the number of countries that were growing at 4 percent a year — robust growth — was around 60. By 2007, it had doubled. Even now, after the financial crisis, that number is more than 80. Even in the current period of slow growth, keep in mind that the global economy as a whole will grow 10 to 20 percent faster this decade than it did a decade ago, 60 percent faster than it did two decades ago, and five times as fast as it did three decades ago.

The result: The United Nations estimates that poverty has been reduced more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500 years. And much of that reduction has taken place in the last 20 years. The average Chinese person is 10 times richer than he or she was 50 years ago — and lives for 25 years longer. Life expectancy across the world has risen dramatically. We gain five hours of life expectancy every day — without even exercising! A third of all the babies born in the developed world this year will live to be 100.

All this is because of rising standards of living, hygiene, and, of course, medicine. Atul Gawande, a Harvard professor who is also a practicing surgeon, and who also writes about medicine for The New Yorker, writes about a 19th century operation in which the surgeon was trying to amputate his patient’s leg. He succeeded — at that — but accidentally amputated his assistant’s finger as well. Both died of sepsis, and an onlooker died of shock. It is the only known medical procedure to have a 300 percent fatality rate. We’ve come a long way.

To understand the astonishing age of progress we are living in, just look at the cellphones in your pockets. Your cellphones have more computing power than the Apollo space capsule. That capsule couldn’t even Tweet! So just imagine the opportunities that lie ahead. Moore’s Law — that computing power doubles every 18 months while costs halve — may be slowing down in the world of computers, but it is accelerating in other fields. The human genome is being sequenced at a pace faster than Moore’s Law. A “Third Industrial Revolution,” involving material science and the customization of manufacturing, is yet in its infancy. And all these fields are beginning to intersect and produce new opportunities that we cannot really foresee.

The good news goes on. Look at the number of college graduates globally. It has risen fourfold in the last four decades for men, but it has risen sevenfold for women. I believe that the empowerment of women, whether in a village in Africa or a boardroom in America, is good for the world. If you are wondering whether women are in fact smarter than men, the evidence now is overwhelming: yes. My favorite example of this is a study done over the last 25 years in which it found that female representatives in the House of Congress were able to bring back $49 million more in federal grants than their male counterparts. So it turns out women are better than men even at pork-barrel spending. We can look forward to a world enriched and ennobled by women’s voices.

What it means for the U.S.
Now you might say, “This is all wonderful for the world at large, but what does this mean for America?” Well, for America and for most places, peace and broader prosperity — “the rise of the rest” — means more opportunities. I remind you that this is a country that still has the largest and most dynamic economy in the world, that dominates the age of technology, that hosts hundreds of the world’s greatest companies, that houses its largest, deepest capital markets, and that has almost all of the world’s greatest universities. There is no equivalent of Harvard in China or India, nor will there be one for decades, perhaps longer.

The United States is also a vital society. It is the only country in the industrialized world that is demographically vibrant. We add 3,000,000 people to the country every year. That itself is a powerful life force, and it is made stronger by the fact that so many of these people are immigrants. They — I should say we — come to this country with aspirations, with hunger, with drive, with determination, and with a fierce love for America. By 2050, America will have a better demographic profile than China. This country has its problems, but I would rather have America’s problems than most any other place in the world.

When I tell you that we live in an age of progress, I am not urging complacency — far from it. We have had daunting challenges over the last 100 years: a depression, two world wars, a Cold War, 9/11 and global economic crisis. But we have overcome them by our response. Human action and human achievement have managed to tackle terrible problems.

We forget our successes. In 2009, the H1N1 virus broke out in Mexico. Now, if you looked back at the trajectory of these kinds of viruses, it is quite conceivable this one would have spread like the Asian flu in 1957 or 1968, in which 4,000,000 people died. But this time, the Mexican health authorities identified the problem early, shared the information with the World Health Organization, learned best practices fast, tracked down where the outbreak began, quarantined people and vaccinated others. The country went on a full-scale alert, banning any large gatherings. In a Catholic country, you couldn’t go to church for three Sundays. Perhaps more importantly, you couldn’t go to soccer matches either. The result was that the virus was contained, to the point where, three months later, people wondered what the big fuss was and asked if we had all overreacted. We didn’t overreact; we reacted, we responded, and we solved the problem.

There are other examples. In the 12 months following the economic peak in 2008, industrial production fell by as much as it did in the first year of the depression. Equity prices and global trade fell more. Yet this time, no Great Depression followed. Why? Because of the coordinated actions of governments around the world. 9/11 did not usher in an age of terrorism, with al-Qaeda going from strength to strength. Why? Because countries cooperated in fighting them and other terror groups, with considerable success. When we can come together, when we cooperate, when we put aside petty differences, the results are astounding.

So, when we look at the problems we face — economic crises, terrorism, climate change, resource scarcity — keep in mind that these problems are real, but also that the human reaction and response to them will also be real. We can more easily map out the big problem than the thousands of individual actions governments, firms, organizations, and people will take that will constitute the solution.

In a sense, I’m betting on the graduates. I believe that your actions will have consequences. Your efforts will make a difference.

I know I am expected to provide some advice at a commencement. Should you go into nanotechnology or bioengineering? What are the industries of the future? Honestly, I have no idea. But one thing I do know is that human beings will reward and honor those talents of heart and mind they have always honored for thousands of years: intelligence, hard work, discipline, courage, loyalty and, perhaps above all, love and a generosity of spirit. Those are the qualities that, at the end of the day, make you live a great life, one that is rewarded by the outside world, and a good life, one that is rewarded only by those who know you best. These are the virtues that people honor, that they built statues for 5,000 years ago. Well, nobody builds statues anymore. They build weird, modernist sculptures with strange pieces of metal falling off of them, but you get my idea. Trust yourself; you know what you should do. You know the kind of life you should live. You don’t need an ethics course to know what you shouldn’t do. Just trust in your instincts, be true to them, and you will make for yourself a great and a good life. And, in doing so, you will change the world.

At my age I don’t feel competent to give you much advice, but I will give you one last piece of wisdom that comes with age. For all of you who are graduating students or, really, anyone who is still young, trust me. You cannot possibly understand the love that your parents have for you until you have children of your own. Once you have your own kids, their strange behavior will suddenly make sense. But don’t wait that long. On this day of all days, give them a hug, and tell them that you love them.

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Topics: Culture • Economy • Education • From Fareed

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soundoff (422 Responses)
  1. Bob

    It is great to read something positive and upbeat such as this at a time when so much of the media focuses on dysfunction, violence, and failure. May we continue to live in a world where we have the option to "walk in beauty".

    December 11, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  2. minnie mouse

    When I first read this, I felt happy. Then I read that the [average] Chinese are 10 times richer than they were 50 years ago. And I think I know at whose expense ..... and whose fault: the "American" companies who gave our jobs to Asia.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  3. martin

    Is Fareed Zakaria still a plagerist or can that be cured by proper political alignment?

    December 21, 2013 at 10:18 am | Reply
  4. ObjectiveObserver

    Having both feet on the ground I have to look up with a telescope to see the fantasy world described at Harvard. Driving a fancy car and having ones credit card maxed out in a dangerous combination! Does Fareed pay his credit card bill on time?

    December 24, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  5. Graeme

    Dear Faried,
    I am a huge fan of your show.
    I live in Cape Town South Africa.
    I came across this article which may interest you.
    Sorry about the length !!

    Note that the person below is 1102 feet above the ground and is sweeping the dirt off this
    twenty first century engineering marvel with a broom that was designed centuries ago and
    has no safety line.
    Blasting and coating this steel superstructure in a couple of decades will be an interesting
    project.
    Aizhai Bridge in Hunan province is 336 m (1,102 ft.) high and has a 1,176 m (3,858 ft.) span.
    It connects two traffic tunnels in the mountains, cutting the time needed to traverse the
    canyon from 30 minutes to 1 minute. Construction took five years.
    Work finished at the end of last year, making it the world's longest and highest suspension
    bridge.
    A brave worker put the final touches on the Anzhaite Bridge .. The bridge, which connects to
    two tunnels, was built to ease traffic Drivers can take in the views of the Dehang Canyon People and
    traffic during the
    Opening ceremony. Vehicles motor along a two-way, four-lane motorway.
    Pedestrians walk along it on a special walkway under the road.

    Chinese Supremacy

    This article, though aimed at a US audience, gives a scary insight into China's growing economic
    power.
    A Little Known Reality.
    June 8, 2013. Source: Michael Snyder, Guest Post
    In future China will employ millions of American workers and dominate thousands of small
    communities all over the United States. Chinese acquisition of U.S. Businesses set a new all-time record
    last year, and it is on pace to shatter that record this year.

    The Smithfield Foods acquisition is an example. Smithfield Foods is the largest pork producer and
    processor in the world. It has facilities in 26 U.S. States and it employs tens of thousands of Americans.
    It directly owns 460 farms and has contracts with approximately 2,100 others. But now a Chinese
    company has bought it for $ 4.7 billion, and that means that the Chinese will now be the most
    important employer in dozens of rural communities all over America.

    Thanks in part to our massively bloated trade deficit with China, the Chinese have trillions of dollars to
    spend.
    They are only just starting to exercise their economic muscle.

    It is important to keep in mind that there is often not much of a difference between “the Chinese
    government” and “Chinese corporations”. In 2011, 43 percent of all profits in China were produced
    by companies where the Chinese government had a controlling interest in.

    Last year a Chinese company spent $2.6 billion to purchase AMC entertainment – one of the largest
    movie theater
    chains in the United States. Now that Chinese company controls more movie ticket sales
    than anyone else in the world.
    But China is not just relying on acquisitions to expand its economic power. “Economic beachheads”
    are being
    established all over America. For example, Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group, Inc.
    recently broke ground on a $100 million plant in Thomasville, Alabama. Many of the residents of
    Thomasville, Alabama will be glad to have jobs, but it will also become yet another community that will
    now be heavily dependent on communist China.

    And guess where else Chinese companies are putting down roots? Detroit. Chinese-owned companies
    are investing in American businesses and new vehicle technology, selling everything from seat belts to
    shock absorbers in retail stores, and hiring experienced engineers and designers in an effort to soak up
    the talent and expertise of domestic automakers and their suppliers. If you recently purchased an
    “American-made” vehicle, there is a really good chance that it has a number of Chinese parts in it.
    Industry analysts are hard-pressed to put a number on the Chinese suppliers operating in the United
    States.
    China seems particularly interested in acquiring energy resources in the United States. For example,
    China is actually mining for coal in the mountains of Tennessee. Guizhou Gouchuang Energy Holdings
    Group spent 616 million dollars to acquire Triple H Coal Co. In Jacksboro, Tennessee. At the time,
    that acquisition really didn’t make much news, but now a group of conservatives in Tennessee is trying
    to stop the Chinese from blowing up their mountains and taking their coal.

    And pretty soon China may want to build entire cities in the United States just like they have been
    doing in other countries.
    Right now China is actually building a city larger than Manhattan just outside Minsk, the capital of
    Belarus.
    Are you starting to get the picture? China is on the rise. If you doubt this, just read the following:
    # When you total up all imports and exports, China is now the number one trading nation on the entire
    planet.
    # Overall, the U.S. has run a trade deficit with China over the past decade that comes to more than
    2.3 trillion dollars.
    # China has more foreign currency reserves than anyone else on the planet.
    # China now has the largest new car market in the entire world.
    # China now produces more than twice as many automobiles as the United States does. After being
    bailed out by U.S. taxpayers, GM is involved in 11 joint ventures with Chinese companies.
    # China is the number one gold producer in the world.
    # The uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team were made in China.
    # 85% of all artificial Christmas trees the world over are made in China.
    # The new World Trade Center tower in New York is going to include glass imported from China.
    # China now consumes more energy than the United States does.
    # China is now in aggregate the leading manufacturer of goods in the entire world.
    # China uses more cement than the rest of the world combined.
    # China is now the number one producer of wind and solar power on the entire globe.
    # China produces 3 times as much coal and 11 times as much steel as the United States does.
    # China produces more than 90 percent of the global supply of rare earth elements.
    # China is now the number one supplier of components that are critical to the operation of any national defense system.
    # In published scientific research articles China is expected to become number one in the world very
    shortly.

    And what we have seen so far may just be the tip of the iceberg. For now, I will just leave you with one piece of advice –
    learn to speak Chinese. You are going to need it !

    GUESS WE BETTER KEEP DRILLING IN NORTH DAKOTA BEFORE CHINA FIGURES OUT A WAY
    TO RUN A PIPE LINE DIRECTLY UNDER OUR OIL AND GOES STRAIGHT TO CHINA.

    January 15, 2014 at 8:17 am | Reply
    • jojnjo

      January 15/2014. Man, you're running ahead of yourself, but I guess writing a comment or a thesis that long must have made you feel you took 5 days to write same.

      March 9, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Reply
      • jojnjo

        Sorry, man, I thought you wrote that today as this is the leading topic on Fareed's blog...& it also means I'm way behind you...

        March 9, 2014 at 11:06 pm |
  6. tapangivo

    Look at the last paragraph in this article. Fareed clearly tells gays off. Thanks you Fareed for your inspiration. You are a true human.

    January 15, 2014 at 9:43 am | Reply
  7. Pari Mostovoj

    Dear Fareed,

    Your programs are based on research and facts and I have learned from them. Very few programs on CNN are worth watching and yours is one of them. Thank you.

    March 16, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  8. MEHBOOB ILAHI

    It was so heartening to read this speech. I do believe that we should not fall prey to the pessmist and gloomy picture some sanction of media paint around this beautiful world of ours. We should give our new blood hope not despair. Good job, Fareed...!

    March 18, 2014 at 1:01 am | Reply
  9. Telma Alves de Lima

    Fareed, I totally agree with your point of view Congratulations on this article!

    March 30, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Reply
  10. David Scott

    US Policy Construct – Winning only to Lose. After the has US spent huge amounts of blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan they are generally detested in both countries; to the point where even US contractors have difficulty getting contracts. Has the US recognized that they have a problem with their strategic construct of “winning” wars? Are they thinking about what went wrong?

    May 8, 2014 at 7:35 am | Reply
  11. Masood

    Civilizations come and go, nations flourish and perish. The US of the decade gone by has perhaps seen the best of American dominance in an increasingly multi-polar world. America would continue to largely dominate as long as it retains its economic well-being to attract top immigrant talent from across the world especially China & India. The challenge for America would be to remain attractive enough to attract global talent and dominate in economic terms.

    It takes a lasting period of peace, military and economic dominance to harness human potential and be at the leading edge of human innovation that touches the life of billions of human and brings sea change in the way humans conduct themselves in carrying out their chores. America clearly had everything going their way since the 2nd world war up until 9/11 when it all started looking challenging and threatening. 9/11 seems more like a symbolic tipping point for US and i think if you look at the stats it would agree with my view. Rise of China, recession in US, rise of BRICS, turkey, EU all of it has been to challenge dominance of US

    When the Harvard's of today has to look up to the east to retain and survive its glory that would perhaps be the tipping point to turn the tides in favor of the new oxfords of the east.

    Time is running out and clearly doesnt looks to favor US. The killing flying machines, war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Guantamo Bay has made America lose their moral standing in the world. It made the world realise that American politics and foreign policy is evil at its worst and its only about expedience and political correctedness at its best.

    God bless America and deprecate their hegemony so they can keep themselves grounded. they clearly havent been able to shoulder their greatness and carry it forward
    Best Regards
    Masood

    June 8, 2014 at 8:07 am | Reply
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