Being aware of the challenge of measuring progress, let alone of its very definition, there is no unidirectional answer to this question. However, generally speaking, it cannot be denied that globally, on many fronts, lots of progress has been achieved over the recent decades. Globally poverty has been reduced, and literacy has achieved very high levels. But socio-economic differentiation keeps increasing, and access to education for the majority of youngsters in developing countries is still far from favourable. Although an increasing share of countries does practice democracy, for hundreds of millions around the globe this fundamental human right is still denied. The quality of participatory governance still remains unsatisfactory in most parts of the world, and that justifies the question mark at the end of the title above.
Over the last half-century the awareness to behave sustainably in all three domains: economic, environmental and social, has increased, and this requires monitoring and evaluation of performance in all these domains. It cannot be denied that there are now more indicators, indices and country rankings - reflecting progress and comparing achievements between countries, regions, cities, company and NGO levels - than ever before. This reflects our increasing awareness of being part of a global community, oriented to become knowledge economies which are to run on principles of sustainability. Facts are critical in developing proper insight and well-informed public – which is constantly under pressure of the media, guided by the principle of “Facts Tell, Story Sells” – and they are in the business of selling!
The adopted UN Strategy on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 2030) contains 169 targets and 230 indicators to help us monitor progress. Currently, only 2/3 of the data are systematically collected and publicly available, which means that statistical authorities have an important task to resolve so that we shall be able to follow how all of the targets are being met – and conclude what progress we are making.
Are we in Anthropocene?
The neoclassical economic theory uses the gross domestic product (GDP) as the main indicator of growth. In other words, growth is inseparably linked to the well-being and prosperity of a nation. Therefore, an increase in production and consumption is seen as a way to achieve a better world for all. The higher the growth, the greater the success of the respective system. But we also see that our current economic model is proving to be unstable and incapable in many cases and the current way we do business is not sustainable. This means that we need a different, new, sustainable way of living and doing business. One that has positive effects on our ecosystem. The industrial revolution has enabled economic growth, urbanization and ground-breaking innovations which have brought us many benefits. But this comes with a very high price.
Since the 1950s, an unprecedented increase in human activity has been observed in many areas, and consequently global growth has led to a decline in natural resources needed for growth. The acceleration of progress and the decline of natural resources is called "the great acceleration". In the model of the same name, twelve socio-economic megatrends are set alongside twelve ecological (Earth System) megatrends.
Socio-economic trends. The socio-economic trends are characterized by the dominant feature that people's activities increased rapidly in the second half of the 20th century.
Earth system trends. The acceleration in the Earth system indicators can be seen after 1950. Only from the second half of the 20th century onwards, fundamental changes in the state and functioning of the Earth System, which go beyond the variability limits of the Holocene and can be attributed to human activities, became apparent. From here on, one speaks of the beginning of the Anthropocene.
These indicators show a strong correlation between economic development and changes in the Earth systems since 1950. This indicates that human-induced development made an important contribution to the major changes in the Earth systems (Steffen et al., 2015).
Let us also mention that the Anthropocene Working Group met in Oslo in April 2016 to consolidate evidence supporting the argument for the Anthropocene, as a true geologic epoch. In April 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group announced that they would vote on a formal proposal to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, to continue the process started at the 2016 meeting. On 21 May 2019, 29 members of the 34 person AWG panel voted in favor of an official proposal to be made by 2021. The AWG also voted with 29 votes in favour of a starting date in the mid 20th century. Ten candidate sites for a Global boundary Stratotype Section and Point have been identified, one of which will be chosen to be included in the final proposal. Possible markers include microplastics, heavy metals, or the radioactive nuclei left by tests from thermonuclear weapons.
Towards a better world?
According to Terry Waghorn from Forbes, the approach by many economists to the environment has been to treat it as a free resource until it was polluted or used up. For example, the Living Planet Index shows a decline of 52 percent in biodiversity in the last 35 years. We were seeing a crisis in so many areas (e.g.: two-thirds of the world's fish stocks are either fished at their limit or overfished). Climate change is already being impacted across the planet with changes in weather patterns. The list could go on and on. As governments started to realize the extent of the challenges we were facing, it became clearer that the only way forward was through an agreed global plan. Thus, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provided a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.
Nobel Prize winner in Economics Joseph Stiglitz very clearly defined GDP-based growth as important, but under the condition that people are actually better off. As statistics shows, this is not the case in many countries, including the USA, where the real wages have increased over the 1965-2018 period for only 10% (even dropped for lower categories of workers), while labor productivity rose during the period for over 400%. As shown in Infographic No.3, at the same time the top 400 richest families paid over the last 50 years 200% lower tax rates, and in 2018 even lower rates than the bottom 50% of households. If this is a better world, the answer is very clear: yes, it certainly is a better world, but only for very few people, who obviously became even more influential than in the past.
At the same time - according to Dylan Matthews, Senior Correspondent at Vox - some aspects of life on Earth are getting better. Extreme poverty has fallen by half since 1990, and life expectancy is increasing in poor countries. Big challenges like climate change and the potential collapse of liberal democracy still remain, but the world is slowly getting better on a variety of important, underappreciated dimensions.
The extraordinary rate of economic growth in India and China — as well as slower but still significant growth in other developing countries — has led to a huge decline in the share of the world population living on less than $1.90 a day, from nearly 35 percent in 1987 to under 11 percent in 2013.
- the hunger is falling, though still many people, including children in poor countries, continue dying from hunger;
- the rate of child labor has declined: approximately a 40 percent reduction from 2000 to 2016, people in developed countries have more leisure time;
- life expectancy is rising: female and male life expectancy has increased by more than six years between 1990 and 2016, and the gains were biggest in poor countries in Africa and Asia. Inequalities remain (lifespans in Africa are still a shocking 16.3 years shorter than in Europe) but the gap is slowly closing;
- child mortality is down: In Africa, 17 percent of children died before reaching age 5 in 1990. By 2015, that was down to 8 percent. In the world’s second-largest country, India, child mortality fell by 69 percent in that timespan. In China, the most populous country, it fell even by 83 percent.
Let us also mention the following positive trends:
- the decline of homicide rates in Western Europe;
- violent crime in the US is going down;
- rapidly reduced supply of nuclear weapons;
- more people in the world live in democracy.
Increased access to education has coincided with increased literacy. In 1870, 79.9 percent of African-Americans aged 14 or older were illiterate, and by 1952 that number had fallen to 10.2 percent. But by 1979, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, the illiteracy rate was down to 1.6 percent. Moreover, more people are going to school for longer. We still have a lot to do to improve access to education, but even in developing countries like China and India, average years of schooling have been growing swiftly.
Moore’s law – the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every two years — has fuelled the extraordinary growth in computing power over the past half-century. And while some analysts argue that the pattern identified by Moore has broken down because of physical limitations on how many transistors can fit on a chip, decades of exponential progress is extraordinary, even if the trend doesn’t continue — while the optimists in the industry argue that computing power can continue to grow exponentially.
Let also mention that today internet use is fairly universal in developed countries, and also in developing countries and the world at large, with trends going in the right direction.
Let us also mention a letter to Greta Thunberg by Katie Singer about the rules and regulations and the impacts of EMR exposure. Rules and regulations should protect lives, health and the environment. But Katie Singer gives concrete examples of laws which are a great win for telecom corporations, and a complete disregard of ecosystems and public health. “We’ve developed technologies without the Precautionary Principle1 for decades. Many people believe that telecommunications are “necessary.” Now, how could we apply the Precautionary Principle?”
“To prioritize protections for nature and public health over telecommunications and corporate profits, we’ll need to revise our thinking—and our laws. To slow down or prevent deployment of new infrastructure, including 5G (fifth generation of mobile networks, with cellular antennas deployed at every three to ten houses), we probably don’t have time for new laws. We’ll need to depend on existing ones.”
Civil society has become a critical stakeholder in environmental decision-making processes and a valued partner in implementing and monitoring environmental policies at the local, national, and global levels. They can provide technical assistance to communities and support environment and development programs at the local level while providing policy recommendations to local and national governments and facilitating communication between the government and local actors.
Non-governmental organizations have been an important player in international climate negotiations. This is significant for two reasons:
- they provide governments with expertise and information;
- they help to bridge the lack of democracy and legitimacy in global environmental governance - according to Chandra Pandey from Kathmandu University. European Union funded the EU-NGOs global Project “Strengthening Environmental Governance by Building the Capacity of Non-Governmental Organizations” implemented by the UNDP and delivered and co-financed by the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme. The project aims to promote sustainable development and improved environmental management in target countries from two neighboring regions of the European Region through more effective civil society participation in environmental governance.
The role of NGOs in domestic climate change governance differs from country to country due to varying political, legislative, and even cultural contexts. As the largest CO2 emitter in the world, China is engaged in the challenging process of low-carbon development, which is not achievable through exclusive reliance on top–down management and voluntary actions by the private sector. However, climate change is still a relatively new topic for China's NGOs. Overall, the role of NGOs in China's climate change governance so far has had four main features: government partnership with restricted political space, organization development with inadequate professional capacity, strong international financial reliance but with growing domestic support, and public advocacy with low social recognition, wrote Liu, Wang and Wu in the article The role of nongovernmental organizations in China's climate change governance.
For far too long liberal economists have justified unsustainable use of natural resources and human capital, creating a lack of equilibrium between available material and energy resources, and not treating workers to reach their highest creativity, good health and consequently optimal productivity – resulting in their well-being and happiness. Fortunately, this is now increasingly becoming part of public attention – together with the man-made environmental damage affecting us every day (extreme climatic phenomena like unprecedented massive fires, heat waves, floods, etc.).
There is, however, still a long way to the adoption of regulatory conditions which will force profit-oriented economic operators, as well unreasonable consumers, to behave sustainably and start supporting clean and healthy environment more proactively.
The intention of this Brief was neither to claim that humanity is doing so good, that there is no need to be concerned, neither to state that everything is irreparably bad and that we are doomed. But, going halfway is simply not good enough! One cannot help observing that there is serious lack of objective, factual and balanced evaluation of the state of affairs, targeting the general public. Sometimes, due to lack of proper insight and incomplete perspective, some NGOs tend to over-dramatize, but this creates with many people exactly the opposite impact of the intended one (being to mobilize businesses and people for more responsible action).
Many readers in the general public reject such evaluations as totally exaggerated, while some simply refuse to accept it out of fear to lose their peace of mind. It is an automatic human defense mechanism, i.e.: the tendency to ignore disturbing facts and news – which is again at least partly justified due to the media’s practice to bombard us constantly with dramatic news. The media often do this intentionally in order to attract our attention and maintain high readership and rankings.
On the other hand, there are many people, particularly from financial and business circles, who refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of the problems, which they actually create, and want to disassociate themselves from their responsibility. At least subconsciously, in order to feel better, they reject respective studies, articles and reports as subjective and biased, thereby manipulating the public opinion. It is even worse when public authorities decide to be part of this “brainwashing” exercise. This was the case over last 4 years in the USA, as former president Trump fully embraced the denial attitude towards man-made pollution, which is contributing to global warming. Fortunately, the new president Joseph Biden has immediately overturned this dangerous and irresponsible policy by appointing John Kerry as his special envoy on climate change and returning to the Paris Agreement.
If we want to make further progress, what the authorities, the academic community and experts should be doing, is to inform the general public consistently and professionally on the real challenges, offering actual facts and presenting practical implications to the citizens – who will undoubtedly understand what is wrong and what should be undertaken to bring about positive change.
This is important for two major reasons:
- each of us can and should contribute to a more sustainable economy and consumption patterns;
- only when pressure from below will be strong enough, the authorities will act through the introduction and implementation of proper regulation in order to achieve responsible behavior by the business community and consumers – in line with the long-term public interest. This will bring about progress through which everybody will be better off!
(Article prepared by prof. dr. Ajda Fošner and prof. dr. Boris Cizelj).
1 The Precautionary Principle modernized, “First, do no harm”.
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