The world is getting better

Bjørn Lomborg at New Scientist writes:

FOR the past half century, a fundamental debate has raged between optimists and pessimists over the state of the world. Pessimists build their case on overpopulation, starvation and depletion of resources. Optimists stand for the infallibility of the market economy.

In 1970, arch pessimist Paul Ehrlich, a population biologist at Stanford University in California, predicted that by 1999 the US population would be decimated to 22 million people living on 2400 calories a day – less than the 2560 calories the average African gets today. Economist Julian Simon, his opposite number from the optimist camp, cheerfully claimed that everything was getting better.

We know who was right.

The debate still runs deep in our collective consciousness. We all have an immediate instinct of whether we align with the pessimists or the optimists, and with an almost infinite selection of statistics available, anyone can cherry-pick evidence to confirm their position.

Wouldn’t it be nice to remove the darkened or rose-tinted spectacles for once, and try to quantify how the world really has done and will do in future? I asked some of the world’s leading economists to do just that. The result is a groundbreaking book, How Much Have Global Problems Cost The World? A scorecard from 1900 to 2050.

The basic idea was to measure the damage inflicted by various problems on a comparable scale, without the opportunity to focus on particular areas or statistics that reinforce one point of view or the other.

For each problem, contributors quantified the damage done to humanity and the planet from 1900 until today, and also that projected to happen by 2050. Take air pollution. How much death and destruction did it cause in 1900 or in 2013? And what do we project its damage to be in 2050?

Sounds a useful approach.

We were not able to evaluate all the challenges facing humanity, but I think most would agree that our list includes 10 of the most important: air pollution, climate change, conflicts, education, gender inequality, health, loss of biodiversity, malnutrition, trade barriers, and water and sanitation.

For many of these, ours is the first economic evaluation of the entirety of the problem. I hope this will inspire others to cover other areas such as resources, infrastructure and corruption.

So what does this research show? Neither the pessimists nor the optimists are entirely right. But the optimists win on points – the majority of indicators are going in the right direction.

Some of these are obvious, such as health and education – we live much longer and are much better educated. The cost of poor health in 1900 was a phenomenal 32 per cent of global GDP. Today, it is about 11 per cent and by 2050 will have halved again.

Some are not so obvious. Take air pollution. Outdoor air pollution has got worse in the developing world but better in the developed world, not least because of environmental legislation. A bigger problem, however, is indoor air pollution from using dirty fuels to cook and keep warm, mostly in the developing world. This has been decreasing rapidly, meaning that, overall, damage from air pollution has been falling. In 1900 air pollution cost 23 per cent of GDP; today it is at about 6 per cent, and will probably be reduced to 4 per cent by 2050.

So two huge gains. Sounds like a very worthwhile publication.

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