Ignore the doomsters: on nearly every measure our planet is getting fairer, healthier and safer
How is the world doing? Answering this question has led to clashes between pessimists and optimists for centuries. In 1798 Thomas Malthus made a famous pitch for the pessimists, predicting that large proportions of humanity would remain in starvation because the population would always increase faster than food production. Similarly, William Stanley Jevons worried in 1865 that Britain would run out of coal and economic growth. These worries were woven together in the hugely influential 1972 book, Limits to Growth, which predicted a world running out of food and raw materials while drowning in pollution. This bleak view has a pervasive influence on the environmental movement to this day.
The optimists, on the other hand, have cheerfully countered that there is no need to worry and everything is getting better. Perhaps it’s time we looked at the evidence.
Together with 21 of the world’s top economists, I’ve tried to do just that, creating a scorecard from 1900 to 2050. Across ten important areas, such as air pollution and biodiversity, we have estimated the relative cost of various problems in the year 1900. Then in 1901, 1902 and all the way to 2013, with predictions to 2050.
Using classic economic valuations of everything from lost lives and bad health to the impact of illiteracy on income, to lost wetlands and increased hurricane damage from global warming, the economists show how much each problem costs. To estimate the size of the problem, it is compared with the total resources available to fix it. This gives us the problem as expressed in terms of a percentage of GDP.
The trends below show some surprising results. Overall they emphasise that there is a realistic position between the extremes: s ince 1900 the world has become an amazingly better place, and although there are still problems, it is likely to continue to get better to 2050.
1 Air pollution
The biggest environmental problem in the world is air pollution. Most deaths are caused by indoor pollution from cooking and heating with dung and twigs. Over the 20th century, 260 million died from indoor air pollution in the developing world — about twice the toll in all the century’s wars. This is more than four times the number who died from outdoor air pollution. As poverty receded and clean fuels got cheaper, the risk has fallen eight-fold and will decline another 70 per cent until 2050.
In 1900 air pollution cost 23 per cent of global GDP; today it is 6 per cent and by 2050 it will be 4 per cent.
The cost of war has dramatically declined since 1914. The First World War cost about 20 per cent of world GDP and the Second World War almost 40 per cent. On average, the 20th-century military cost about 5 per cent of GDP per year. Yet since the Korean War and a peak of 7 per cent, global costs have declined steadily through 3.5 per cent in 1980 to about 1.7 per cent now.
A pessimistic forecast for 2050 estimates 1.8 per cent, an optimistic one 1.6 per cent. The important takeaway is that the heavy military costs of the 20th century have been turned into what looks like a permanent peace dividend.
In 1900 the average human life expectancy was 32. Today it is 69 and it will be 76 in 2050.
Take smallpox, the biggest single killer in the 20th century. It killed some 400 million people before being eradicated in 1979. In 1970 only some 5 per cent of infants were vaccinated against measles, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio. By 2000, 85 per cent were vaccinated, saving about three million lives a year — more, each year, than world peace would have saved in the 20th century.
The cost of poor health at the outset of that century was a phenomenal 32 per cent of global GDP. Today, it is down to about 11 per cent and by 2050 will have halved again.