During the 2012 presidential election, Republicans assailed President Barack Obama's economic record by invoking Ronald Reagan's famous question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
What if we asked the same question about the world? Four years is a long time, and you might be surprised by just how much has changed since Obama was elected in 2008. Here's a look at eight of the most important and interesting trends.
Yes, the world had iPhones four years ago and Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit were all part of the webscape, but the face of technology has changed dramatically since the last election -- most notably by reaching roughly a billion more people. Since November 2008, the number of Internet users worldwide has soared from roughly 1.5 to roughly 2.5 billion -- a 40 percent increase. At the same time, the number of Facebook users increased tenfold from 100 million to more than 1 billion and the average number of Tweets per day increased from around 300,000 to 340 million. (During the hour-and-a-half-long presidential debate in Denver, Twitter fanatics posted more than 10 million times.)
Just how much the speed of technological change has affected world politics still a matter for debate, but it seems clear that Twitter and Facebook played at least some role in the uprisings that spread across the Arab world in 2011. The Occupy movement, too, made use of social media and, perhaps more creatively, harnessed the power of drones -- now sold privately for as little as $300 -- to monitor police brutality. (Watch this video from Occupy Warsaw.) Other technological advances that were perhaps unimaginable back in 2008 include private space travel, radar that can see through walls, and mosquito lasers.
At this time four years ago, Lehman Brothers had only recently collapsed, Japan still had a larger economy than China, and European leaders had yet to hold their first debt crisis summit. Unfortunately, this period of great change has not brought much relief to a sluggish global economy. The International Labor Organization estimates that the global unemployment rate has risen from 5.6 percent in 2008 to a projected 6 percent in 2012 (with more than 200 million people currently out of work around the world out of 3.3 billion workers), and reports that the 2011 global employment rate of 60.3 percent is 0.9 percentage points lower than before the recession -- translating into 50 million "missing" jobs in the world economy. As youth and long-term unemployment rise, poverty rates and inequality have also increased in half of the world's advanced economies and one-third of the world's developing economies, heightening the risk of social unrest everywhere from Europe to North Africa. World gross product has recovered after falling 2.4 percent in 2009, but growth is decelerating, raising the specter of another economic downturn afflicting developed and developing countries alike.
The United States is still the largest economy in the world, but over the course of Obama's term China has
overtaken Japan as the world's second-largest
economy and Brazil has
surpassed Britain as the world's sixth-largest.
Meanwhile, the United States has fallen from first place in the World Economic
Global Competitiveness Index to seventh place in
the organization's 2012-2013 ranking (Switzerland now tops the list). The report praised the country's innovative corporate sector,
first-class university system, and flexible labor markets but raised alarm
bells about its partisan gridlock and wasteful spending. "A lack of
macroeconomic stability continues to be the country's greatest area of weakness,"
the study concluded.
ARCTIC SEA MELT
Four years is too short of an interval to meaningfully capture the extent of climate change, but one area that stands out for its rapid deterioration is Arctic sea melt. Every summer, part of the Arctic Ocean melts away and historically, about half of it is gone by September. Since scientists began monitoring ice melt in the 1970s, however, melting has accelerated substantially so that ice now covers only about a quarter of the Arctic Ocean at its lowest point. Even in the last four years, the low point -- the day when melting stops and the sea begins to gradually freeze over again -- has dropped appreciably, from 1.61 million square miles of ice coverage (29 percent of the Arctic Ocean) in 2008 to 1.32 million square miles (24 percent of the Arctic Ocean) in 2012.
The average ice extent for the month of September, a standard measure for the study of Arctic sea ice, tells a similar story. In 2008, it stood at 1.80 million square miles, whereas this year it clocked in at 1.39 million square miles -- 48.7 percent below average and the lowest level in the satellite era. Arctic ice is disappearing so quickly that Peter Wadhams, a Cambridge University professor who has been collecting data on ice thickness from submarines for many years, predicts that the ice will melt completely by 2015 or 2016.