So are things in the world getting better, or worse? New Scientist has a nifty graphic that delivers the goods, tracking 19 global trends from 1990 through 2005.
In a nutshell, people’s lives generally seem to be improving. Life spans are increasing, death rates from infectious diseases are falling, and fatalities among infants, children, and mothers are on the decline. Likewise, access to clean water and sanitation are improving. Not all trends are going in the right direction—there’s a lot of malnourishment in parts of the world; the number of armed conflicts is on the rise; and we could certainly hope for much more rapid progress. Yet overall, the trends in human well-being are moving slowly in the right direction.
Meanwhile, nature is taking it on the chin. Although the developed world is gradually reforesting, the developing world is losing forests at a furious clip. Global CO2 emissions are up, as is humanity’s “ecological footprint.”
Curiously, this global snapshot is perfectly consistent with what the Cascadia Scorecard suggests is happening in the Pacific Northwest. People are doing…if not as well as we can hope, at least as well as can be expected. Despite fluctuations in economic security, life expectancy in the Pacific Northwest is gradually rising; and fertility rates have moderated since 1990, reflecting improved economic and social standing for women. And yet our per-person energy consumption remains stubbornly high, total population continues to rise, and key wildlife species—and the ecosystems that support them—are struggling. Sage-grouse populations, in particular, are down sharply in the last few years.
I think it’s tempting to believe that the two broad trends are somehow linked—that, say, human well-being is improving because we’re ignoring the needs of nature. But that’s simply a mistake; correlation isn’t causation. And when you get beyond global (or regional) averages, a different story emerges: some nations of the world, and some parts of the Northwest, are doing quite well in protecting the interests of both people and nature simultaneously—becoming more energy efficient, say, while notching clear improvements in human health.
Looking at the specifics, rather than global averages, offers some evidence that across-the-board progress really is possible. As disappointing as some trend lines have been, they’re just information, not a prison sentence.