In 2001, Bjorn Lomborg, a professor of statistics, wrote a book called The Sceptical Environmentalist. In its preface, he wrote that the book was an outcome of a study he carried out to challenge an interview given by the American economist Julian Simon, who maintained that the world was going to be a better place to live.
To quote Prof Simon's long-term forecast, "The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people in most countries most of the time, indefinitely." Simon concludes, "I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."
As a self-confessed, left-wing Green Peace member, Lomborg decided to challenge Simon by looking at the data. His conclusion: "A large number of his points stood up to scrutiny and conflicted with what we believed ourself. The air in the developed world is becoming less, not more, polluted, people in the developing countries are not starving more but less and so on." It appears that despite data to the contrary, doomsday thinking is 'anchored' in our minds. It takes effort to overcome this bias.
Things that improved in 2017
Future Crunch website recently carried an article '99 Reasons 2017 Was a Great Year' - an excellent compilation of things that went right in 2017. I curate some points from there and some of my own to show you the good things that have happened.
Medical technology: Medical technology is one area that has grown the most. Death from AIDS has dropped in half since 2005 and half the patients around the world are now getting treatment (according to www.sciencemag.org).
Death from the top four non-communicable diseases - heart attack, cancer, diabetes and chronic-respiratory disorder - are down 16 per cent since 2000. Deaths on account of tuberculosis are down 37 per cent since 2000, saving an estimated 53 million lives. Leprosy is now easily curable - worldwide cases have dropped 97 per cent since 1985 and a new plan has set 2020 for eradication of the disease. The WHO has unveiled a new vaccine for cholera that is cheap and effective.
"The first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today...whether they realize it or not, barring accidents and suicide, most people now 40 years or younger can expect to live for centuries," claims Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey. Leave out the hyperbole, but the possibility that life expectancy will grow beyond 100 years is almost within sight. It is estimated that life expectancy of the whole world in 1900 was around 30 years. In 1950, it increased to 46.5 years and in 1998 to 67 years. In the last century, life expectancy has doubled. New understanding of the ageing process and improvement in medical and manufacturing capability have the potential to double it further from here.
Child labour: According to the latest report from the International Labour Organization in 2016, 98 million fewer children were engaged in exploitative work as compared to 2000. While an estimated 152 million children worldwide are still labourers, the number has dropped from the 250 million estimated in 2000. Of the 135 countries covered in the report, 61 per cent reported "moderate" to "significant" advancement, while only 6 per cent regressed.
Sanitation: Over 2014 to 2017, 275 million Indians gained access to sanitation facilities. The link www.gatesnotes.com is worth exploring - if only to take a look at the dashboard. Better access to clean water and sanitation has reduced child death from diarrhoea globally by 33 per cent since 2005. A decrease in pollution in the Ganges brought Gangetic dolphins, one of the four freshwater dolphin species in the world, back from the brink of extinction.
Trees: In 2016, Uttar Pradesh set a new world record by planting 50 million trees in one day. In 2017, Madhya Pradesh attempted a new world record. The event was watched by officials from the Guinness World Records. 66.3 million trees of 20 species were planted by 1.5 million volunteers in the catchment area of the Narmada in just 12 hours.
The Ozone hole over Antarctica in 2017 is the smallest it has been since 1998.
Energy: Solar made up almost 40 per cent of capacity addition in India in this year. It now makes up about 14 gigawatt of India's energy mix, of which 11 gigawatt was added only in 2016-2017. The pace could have been higher if electricity boards were willing to purchase more power. China, of course, is going gangbusters, adding 54 GW in 2017. Renewables are now growing 12x faster than the rest of the economy in the US. A fall of 25 per cent in the price of solar is a key reason for the rapid expansion. In the UK, the price of offshore wind energy dropped more than 50 per cent in two years.
Coal is feeling the heat. In November, a global coalition of 20 countries, including UK, France, Mexico, pledged to end the use of coal by 2030. While global warming may not have been stopped for now, the dependence on coal and other fossil fuels will likely reduce faster than we think.
The list can go on. Life is improving for all of us and will continue to do so. Best wishes for the new year!
Anand Tandon is an independent analyst.