It’s not as bad as it looks (but is it much worse than it seems?)
[global change, climate change, understanding, pessimism, optimism, attitude]
by Peggy Olive
In the wee hours of the morning, I listened to a replay of one of CBC’s thought-provoking programs called Ideas. A career diplomat, Paul Heinbecker, was invited to discuss The Challenge of Peace. Among other positions, Heinbecker served as Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations, Ambassador to Germany, and Minister of Political Affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He also headed the Canadian delegation to the climate change negotiations in Kyoto.
According to Heinbecker, the real challenge is our inadequate understanding of the world we live in. “Thanks to social media, we are bathed in doom and gloom…an endless repetition of the same terrible stories. It is not surprising that people think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and quickly.”
He goes on to say, “In fact, the reverse is actually true. We are living in a golden age.” Canadians, and the world more generally, have never been richer, healthier, as well-educated, as well-connected, or as safe as we are now.
On hearing this good news, I felt considerable relief, but also some nagging scepticism. Could this be true? Are we really in a golden age (aside from those of us who are golden-agers)? I went to an informative source to answer this question: Our World in Data. This site is hosted by Max Roser, an Oxford economist who says, “Once you turn to statistics, it gets much harder to have a pessimistic story.”
I extracted some numbers from the hundreds of graphs on his site to emphasize the changes that have occurred over my lifetime. Heinbecker is right; living conditions across the globe have greatly improved since I was born. Had I presented the statistics for Canada, a smaller but similar trend would be seen.
So why my scepticism? I noticed that most of the graphs on Our World in Data showed an upward trend as if this wonderful state of affairs could continue forever. We would live longer, under better conditions, become more educated, and have more abundant food, and all this would be possible as our population climbed above 11 billion.
Continued growth on a planet with finite resources isn’t possible. We will run out of raw materials eventually. Our soils and fresh water reserves are already being depleted and we continue to overload Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gasses that will change our climate for centuries.
Many see this happening in some distant future, and Roser’s graphs confirm that our living conditions have never been better. Even our fears of war and disaster, often exacerbated by the climate crisis, are overblown when compared to the risks of heart disease, cancer, and road traffic accidents. It would appear that we’re worrying needlessly, at least about some things. Paul Kennedy, the host of Ideas, commented briefly on the role media has played in promoting doom and gloom messages, but as Max Roser says, no one listens to the news to hear that nothing bad has happened today.
I don’t believe that we are ambulance chasers hungry for disturbing news, or alternatively, that the world situation is anywhere near as rosy as these data might lead us to believe. Oddly, Max Roser’s own research is concerned with rising income inequality which is not good news, and does Heinbecker realize that all Golden Ages come to an end? The original Golden Age of Greece lasted only 200 years.
This left me wondering if the positive global trends in our living conditions are part of the reason we are failing to act quickly on climate change. Living in a sustainable way on this planet will be difficult if we see ourselves as better off today than a few decades ago and we expect this situation to continue. Yet there are obvious signs that the gravy train, driven largely by fossil fuels and greed, is at an end. When we recognize that there is only so much track left ahead of us, it is vital that we slow down before it runs out.
Yes, we are very fortunate to have experienced a Golden Age, but we must also recognize that this age is now in decline and it is past time to apply the brakes.