So if you say progress is real and still possible, and it needs to change so we don’t pay the same high price for it in environmental harm and rising inequality, then there’s a question: what could it – should it – look like?
Pondering this, I found myself turning to the obvious – at least, obvious to people in my kind of work – the UN’s Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Agreed in 2015, the headline goals break down into 169 targets to achieve by 2030.
The SDGs represent a view of human progress as it could be, towards a better world that is not just imaginable but practicable. They are the aids we need to navigate a safe route on the journey of human progress.
The interlinked goals outline what we need to so the living conditions of ordinary people can improve without our scientific, technological and economic endeavours coming up with new ways to batter nature. Alongside this, we need to ensure our desire to live secure lives does not feed mutual fears, toxic rivalries and military confrontation. It is worth taking the time to read through the SDGs and realise how many good things the United Nations committed itself to just five years ago.
Assessing the state of the world
Threaded through the SDGs, five basic challenges confront humanity. Depicting them forms the substance of the latest edition of my book, The State of the World Atlas. They are
- the production and distribution of wealth and poverty;
- human rights and the respect with which ordinary people are treated by those in power;
- the question of war and peace;
- the health of the people; and
- the health of the planet.
Five distinct but linked challenges.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are not the same for all. Not surprisingly, wealth, privilege and power offer more effective protection to some than is available to all. The same is true of the effects of climate change and many other aspects of environmental deterioration. Throughout the industrial age, rich factory owners managed to live well away from the part of the city their factories polluted. There is no health or environmental issue that is purely about physiological health or how things are in nature. The source of the problem, how it is defined, the allocation of resources to address it – all are shaped by how society is governed.
Social inequalities and lack of respect for human rights often mean there is no way to express grievances except through anger, to which power responds through repression. That explosive mixture can quickly generate political instability and open armed conflict. The socially destabilising effects of climate change and environmental crisis only add to those pressures.
Recent years have seen a distinct decline in how well these five challenges are addressed.The new edition of The State of the World Atlas its tenth. For the ninth in 2013, summing it up, the balance sheet wasn’t bad.
I had a relatively positive assessment on rights and respect, partly because democracy was growing, as well as on war and peace and on health. But any progress on wealth and poverty was marred by growing inequalities and by damage to the natural environment.
So on three of the five challenges, the record, while not perfect, was not bad; on the other two, it was clearly deficient. Since then, though there’s been a lot of noise about the two laggards, there has been no progress on inequality and not much on the environment. On democracy, the statistics of democracy remain good but its quality is weaker in many countries. Worldwide, insecurity has spread and worsened. And on the health front, there is the pandemic.
Bad – but not bad forever
So there is more bad news than a few years ago. But the tools for improvement are available. The UN’s Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrate that. In The State of the World Atlas, there are snapshots of peace operations, advances in healthcare, economic reform so the natural environment is better respected, initiatives to build peace, environmental protection, choices some people are making to live lives and to run businesses in ways that are more in tune with the rhythms of nature.
When we bemoan the state of the world today, it is easy to forget that it is only a handful of years since the SDGs were agreed. Or, because it’s only a handful, see them through grey-tinted glasses as little more than exercise in hypocrisy.
And that would be to miss the point to a grotesque degree. It was surprising even in the world of 2015 that they could be agreed but they were. And if you think that was just in time, I wouldn’t argue. They were quite some achievement. They are quite some aid for moving on with a different and better kind of progress.