Silver lining ... Howlong farmer Nick Ennis welcomes the rain.
In the name of progress, the media tends to focus on the negative events. But Malcolm Knox finds there was plenty to smile about in 2010.
'Happiness writes in white ink on a white page.''
Henry de Montherlant, who coined the aphorism, was a French dramatist, not a newspaper editor, but the principle that conflict is necessary for a dramatic story holds as fast for news reporting as for theatre.
Dispute, treachery, misbehaviour and war are the base metals out of which our news is built. If the 2010 federal election had been a cakewalk, it would have barely rated; instead, weeks of pre- and post-poll knife fighting made it compulsive viewing for many. If Michael McGurk's foes had sent him an invoice rather than a death squad, his name would remain in obscurity. The poor people of Pakistan, Sumatra, Haiti and Qinghai province in China would have happily stayed out of the news pages but for the natural disasters that befell them. Committing, or being the victim of, a serious crime remains the surest route to Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame. If it bleeds, it still leads.
Introducing the iPad.
Introducing the iPad.
If conflict tends to crowd out good news, whether on a global scale or in small acts of human kindness, the positives also suffer, in newsworthiness terms, by happening slowly, without an earth-shattering climax or a staged event. For instance, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the number of undernourished people in the world declined by 100 million this year, from 1,023,000,000 in 2009 to 925 million. Most of the fall was in Asia, where the recovery from the world economic crisis was the swiftest.
While such numbers for world hunger cannot be a source of congratulation, in the past 40 years humanity has done an improved job. In 1969-70, according to FAO, 880 million were undernourished. The ratio of people without adequate nutrition has, in those 40 years, fallen from one in four to one in seven. It's a hugely significant achievement that barely raised a ripple.
The UN's 2010 Human Development Report, which measures a range of quality-of-life indices in poorer countries, is also full of good news, finding that ''most developing countries made dramatic yet often underestimated progress in health, education and basic living standards in recent decades, with many of the poorest countries posting the greatest gains''.
After years of negotiations, the Beatles land on iTunes.
After years of negotiations, the Beatles land on iTunes. Photo: AP
It found that, in the past 40 years, life expectancy in developing countries has risen from 59 to 70 years, school enrolment is up from 55 per cent to 70 per cent and per capita gross domestic product doubled from $US5000 to more than $US10,000. The director of the UN Development Program, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, says: ''The report shows that people today are healthier, wealthier and better educated than before.'' In only three countries - the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe - have people's living conditions gone backwards in that time.
Another area of significant global progress that might have slipped through the cracks is eliminating disease. In October, the FAO announced the success of a 16-year project to eradicate rinderpest, a lethal virus that has killed cattle and caused famines. The eradication, says a British veterinarian, Peter Roeder, who worked on the project, ''is probably the most remarkable achievement in the history of veterinary science''. It has been 30 years since the last major successful disease eradication, that of smallpox.
Steady improvements don't grab the big headlines but are more relevant to our lives than whose bra strap Mark McInnes snapped or which NSW government minister quit. Two NSW research organisations reported this year on long-term progress. The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research published research showing downward trends in violent crime, property crime and most other yardsticks of unlawful activity. The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre found that the use of heroin, methamphetamine, cannabis and cocaine are all lower than they were in 2000 and all, aside from heroin, have been declining since 2005. No large-scale research on tobacco smoking was published this year but it, too, is in long-term decline.
A child gets vaccinated for measles in China.
A child gets vaccinated for measles in China. Photo: Reuters
Our average life expectancy of 81.4 years, due to be updated after next year's census, has increased by 22 years in the past century and by two years in the past decade. Cancer mortality, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, fell by 1 per cent between 2000 and the most recent measured year, 2007. There was no predicted third wave of H1N1 influenza this year.
For much of the year, farmers were celebrating 2010. The drought-declared portion of NSW fell from 95 per cent to less than 10 per cent, with a commensurate improvement in potential harvests. Then nature taught another of its lessons, which is that good news, if it doesn't know when to stop, can become bad news. For the areas that were not flooded, this was a good year. For the unlucky others, it was a good year until they ran into Said Hanrahan's law, which is that every kind of weather gives some cause for pessimism.
Medical research proceeds incrementally, with the occasional show-stopper. This year, stem-cell therapy was infused into the brain of a stroke victim for the first time, offering hope for the 60,000 Australians who suffer strokes each year. Stem-cell therapy was responsible for many of the year's medical advances, including the first-ever laboratory-grown set of lungs, but the eye-opening medical invention of the year - literally - was an ''electric eye'', a tiny camera fitted into eye-glasses that transmits images to a chip in the brain that stimulates optic nerves connected to the retina. The device has the potential to return sight to the severely visually impaired.
An artist's impression of Earth-type planet GJ1214b.
An artist's impression of Earth-type planet GJ1214b. Photo: AP
It's not all about us, however. This year, thanks to the eye of the amazing Kepler space telescope, NASA scientists found 750 possible new planets of basic structure similar to our own. The future of the Amazon rainforest continued to improve, with Brazil announcing that the rate of deforestation fell by more than half this year, marking a 90 per cent improvement since 2004. James Cook University marine scientists discovered a new species of pygmy sea horse and the first worldwide census of marine life raised previous estimates of known marine species from 230,000 to 250,000.
The scientist who helped map the human genome in 2001, Craig Venter, completed a 15-year quest to synthesise a bacterial cell that replicates on its own, holding out hopes for fast production of vaccines and biofuels. University of Maryland scientists succeeded in teleporting data from one atom to another, a kind of holy grail in the field and the basis for faster, more compact computers.
Consumer technology is, of course, one of the best-funded areas of research and development and Time magazine's list of the best inventions of 2010 reflects this. Top of the list was Apple's iPad. Others included spray-on fabric, an English-teaching robot, a beef-powered train (biodiesel made from rendered beef fat), a driverless car, improved 3-D glasses and a software product, developed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, that can detect sarcastic sentences in product reviews. Seriously.
Apple also negotiated a deal, after several years, with the Beatles and EMI to get the band's music on to iTunes. But Apple didn't have a monopoly on new communications gadgets: a big invention was Google's Android operating system for mobile phones, an open-source alternative to Apple's iPhone with many similar smartphone properties.
It's worth recognising what governments did this year. The federal government increased hospital funding by 50 per cent, added more than 2000 places for doctors and nurses into the nation's health systems and increased the pension by more than $50 a week for aged singles. A national curriculum for English, maths, science and history was delivered and 235,000 new vocational trainees started work under the national Productivity Places Program. It's not a newspaper's role to spruik government achievements but rather to try to strip away the associated hype and spin; however, although it's not newsworthy, it can also be noted our taxes paid for public administrations that did not allow the nation to fall into recession, anarchy or any more war than to what they were already committed.
Sometimes the greatest human achievements are acts not of invention but of prevention. Qantas pilot Richard de Crespigny and his crew, in safely returning their stricken A380 to Singapore, and the rescue of 33 Chilean miners after 69 days underground showed the difference between an incident and a catastrophe can rely on the professional competence of individuals.
At the other end of human achievement is all the stuff you would have missed if not for Guinness World Records. This year, achievements included the world's longest awareness ribbon (244.44 metres, by an American drug-testing company); largest burrito (5799.44 tonnes, in La Paz, Mexico; it later fed 27,000 people); longest distance travelled by multiple people on a slip-and-slide in one hour (25,017 metres by students from the University of Oregon); and largest flag (a Lebanese national flag, measuring 302 metres by 203 metres). Just so you know.
What should not be overlooked, in any analysis of human achievements and their reporting in the media, is that we have a catalogue of heroism and goodness every day. We record stories of people who have founded companies and charities, who have inspired others with their teaching or research or community spirit, who have contributed mightily to our intellectual, artistic or sporting life and who have made their mark through generosity or simply through love and kindness towards their family and friends. Perhaps it's because of this need for a daily dose of good news that so many readers pay such attention to the obituaries.