Weekend edition—A fine year, next-wave CEOs, meal forensics

Good morning, Quartz readers!

A lot went wrong in 2018, so much that it feels necessary to remind people of the quiet, positive advances that were also made. While it may be hard to believe, 2018 was in many ways the best year yet to be a human living on Earth (as we show here in 15 charts).

For example, one of the worst pieces of news was that carbon emissions are set to rise this year over last. But the share of global energy that came from renewables finally passed 10%, and, for the first time, in 2017 the number of people without electricity fell below 1 billion. (Throughout, figures were published in 2018 and reflect the latest data available.)

Electricity access is essential to health, education, and economic stability, and all of those measures also improved in the past year. One of the simplest ways to assess global poverty is to compare the difference between what the average person makes a day, and a predetermined global poverty line. The difference was about $0.25 in 1990, and is now nearing $0.05; every year the gap closes a little more.

Meanwhile, literacy rates have been steadily climbing for decades, and even a small change can make a huge difference: The 0.23 percentage-point increase from 2015 to 2016 means about 11.5 million more people can read.

Probably the biggest invisible improvements the world sees year to year are essential indicators of overall global public health, like rates of infant mortality, maternal mortality, childhood stunting, and teen pregnancy. These are important, because they represent access the average person alive has to health-care professionals, facilities, medicine, and more. All of these rates have been falling in the past few decades, in some cases dramatically, and every single one fell again in 2018.

Another positive trend that can fly under the radar, especially in wealthier countries, is how the global gender gap in education continues to close. New data published this year show that, in 2016, there were 99.7 girls enrolled in primary and secondary school for every 100 boys. For comparison, in 1986 that number was 85.1. Again, it might seem incremental, but given the size of the global population, those tiny increases have outsized impact.

There’s obviously much more to do for women’s equality. There’s also so much to do for the environment, to reduce poverty and conflict, to improve access to clean water and sanitation, to increase food security, and to eradicate preventable diseases and improve public health worldwide. But being worried for our future doesn’t mean we can’t or should not be grateful for the good things we’ve already done. —Elijah Wolfson

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Alternatives to New Year’s resolutions. What if the promises we make to ourselves in January do more harm than good? Rosie Spinks explains why she opted instead to set out a life thesis: a guiding credo that governs her decisions. Olivia Goldhill, meanwhile, argues for allowing yourself to grow according to your whims and interests, and appreciating aspects of life that are typically undervalued.

On giving up fast fashion and learning how to shop again. Cycling through cheap, disposable clothing is easy thanks to brands like H&M and Forever 21, but it’s also wasteful and feeds an industry rife with harsh labor conditions and environmentally unsustainable practices. Jackie Bischof decided to give up fast fashion in 2018. In 2019, she aims to buy clothes designed to last—even if it costs her.

The rise of the chief human resources officer. Companies have never been more interested in talent management—or in the people responsible for it. In the final piece of our series The Talent Quotient, Heather Landy suggests that the next wave of CEOs will have experience as chief HR, people, talent, or culture officers, and argues that companies who don’t already have top executive talent in these roles are missing the bigger picture.

Meet the video-game designer hoping to bring players to tears. Five years ago the Smithsonian Museum added a video game called Flower to its permanent collection. Ephrat Livni profiles Jenova Chen, the innovative designer behind the game, who wants to cultivate peace, compassion, and personal transformation through a medium often blamed for tapping baser instincts like aggression and violence.

The American dream began to fade for Indian techies in 2018. Since coming to power in January 2017, the Trump administration has clamped down on the H-1B work visa, which for a generation of Indians has been a golden ticket to the US. Ananya Bhattacharya looks at the history of the visa, including its creation in 1990 and expansion in the following decades. Many Indians, she notes, are finding greener pastures in places like Canada, or happily returning home.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

The food-chain story behind the stuff we eat. What if you could trace the ingredients of your latest meal back to the original producers? Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld tackle just such a task for Grub Street, learning about Peruvian coffee growers, Japanese fish breeders, and Italian tomato canners. Eschewing commentary, they make exhaustive research their centerpiece.

The reality-TV producer behind Trump’s path to the presidency. Had he not been cast for The Apprentice, Donald Trump would not likely have become the US president. For the New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe profiles Mark Burnett, the British commando-turned-producer who put the emotionally volatile Trump in that role and, in the process, resurrected him as an icon of American success.

North Korea’s shadowy alternative financial system. Kim Jong Un’s regime relies on an array of tactics to evade US and UN sanctions. Who would guess that North Korea was behind timber in Africa being sold to a Chinese company that paid a Singaporean commodities trader? For the Wall Street Journal, Niharika Mandhana and Aruna Viswanatha explore the head-spinning machinations the regime uses to continue doing business on the global stage (paywall).

The effects of Trump’s retreat on the environment. The US president has enthusiastically rolled back environmental regulations and touted it as freeing businesses from government shackles. For the New York Times, a team of reporters shows the consequences (paywall) in local communities, from poisoned air near Houston to contaminated waterways in West Virginia’s coal country.

The gig: delivering packages for Amazon. Austin Murphy wrote cover stories for Sports Illustrated for decades, interviewing US presidents and authoring six books along the way. More recently he found himself delivering packages for Amazon, enjoying the novelty of “playing for the team that’s winning big.” As he writes for the Atlantic, the role posed one major challenge for him: finding a place to pee.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, adult diapers, and stress-free resolutions to hi@qz.com. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and Kira Bindrim.