All of the news is not bad

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By Linda Starke

Thirty years ago I wrote a book entitled Signs of Hope: Working Towards Our Common Future. It was a follow-up to Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, known as the Brundtland Commission. My goal was to look at the positive developments during the three years since that report came out. It was, of course, a short book.

Most of the few positive changes had to do with the environment. Governments pledged to protect the ozone layer. Three out of four Americans identified themselves as environmentalists. Mayors and ministers of energy launched tree planting campaigns to slow global warming. (Yes, some people were worrying about climate change in the 1980s.) Consumers clamored for “future-friendly” products.

But the Brundtland Commission brought international attention to the concept of sustainable development, which it defined as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is not just about environmental problems. The commissioners were clear on the simultaneous importance of ending global poverty and meeting people’s needs today.

“A world in which poverty and inequity are endemic,” the Commission wrote, “will always be prone to ecological and other crises.” The final chapter of my book was entitled The Unfinished Agenda because in 1990 the statistics on poverty, illiteracy, the lack of clean water, and childhood and maternal mortality around the world were alarming. 

Thirty years later the picture looks different. The health of the planet is a grave concern despite all the environmental fervour of the late 1980s, but people’s lives have quietly, without much fanfare, improved overall. In a recent New York Times article, columnist Nicholas Kristof detailed some signs of hope. Although four per cent of children today die by the age of 15, in 1950 that number was 27 per cent. In 2016, according to the World Bank, 214 women died in childbirth per 100,000 live births, but in 2001 that figure was 342 women per 100,000 live births. And less than 10 per cent of the world now lives on less than $2 a day — the UN’s definition of extreme poverty — while in 1981 that figure was 42 per cent. Five decades ago most people in the world could not read, but 86 per cent of adults were literate in 2015.

Kristof writes a column about such improvements in human development every December because “I fear that the news media and the humanitarian world focus so relentlessly on the bad news that we leave the public believing that every trend is going in the wrong direction.” 

Yes, in the last 30 years climate change morphed into a climate emergency and then escalated into a climate crisis. So that is clearly the wrong direction. The agenda of sustainable development remains unfinished, but the lives of many of the poorest of the 7.7 billion people on Earth have improved a little bit. Not enough, but a bit. A small hopeful sign.

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