Is everything really getting worse?

Anyone ever feel that climate change issues sometimes feel so big and complex that real change seems impossible? It is easy to become gloomy and depressed. To succeed in building a sustainable and decarbonized society we need hope, enthusiasm, inspiration and strong will. We need to convince ourselves that the impossible is possible – irrespective of what the media is telling us. There are more “good stories” out there – and we should seek them out, share them and let them inspire us.

But we all live in an intense global media reality. What we perceive as “the truth” seems to be very colored by the “today’s” headlines, and less by actual facts. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Much of the daily news is focused on things that go wrong – a never ending string of disasters, wars, terrorist attacks, and personal tragedies. Personally I am so used to the constant flow of negative news that I almost jump in the sofa when a real positive story unfolds on the screen.

Is the world actually getting worse by the minute, and are we not able to solve serious global issues even when we agree to join forces?

I decided to check it out myself, and to my pleasant surprise I found numerous examples of how strong willed individuals, local communities, organizations, national governments and even the UN are playing roles in solving grave and “impossible” issues.

Millions of people still struggle every day to feed their families, have no access to electricity or clean water, or have no hope of ever attending school. But this picture is breaking. Millions of people are also crossing the poverty line, and in 2009 the Economist announced that half the world’s population belonged to the middle class. The developed was spurred by rapid growth in emerging countries – China being a prime example. It had its middle class grow from 15 % to 62 % of the population between 1990 and 2005.

At the same time global population growth is being curbed – with only a small number of countries primarily in sub-Sahara Africa, still having a growth rate above replenishment rate of 2,1. This means that global population growth is slowing and is projected to stop at 9 billion.

Most of us think that breaching basic human rights is a new development. Wrong. It is the concept of “human rights” that is a modern idea – secured by the United Nations and its member countries. Who ever heard of human rights 200 years ago? Never in recorded history has the globe experienced fewer wars. Death penalty was widely used and promoted in not so distant times. In 2013 less than 10% of the world’s nations still actively use capital punishment. Too many, yes, but declining.

We are all living longer. Life expectancy has increased by around 2.5 years every decade for at least the last 160 years. In the developing world, vaccines, clean drinking water, and improved sanitation account for virtually all of the increase in life expectancy. Children mortality rates have been cut in half the last 20 years and 47 million more children attend school than 20 years ago.

In the 20th century, the massive reduction in infant and childhood deaths due to infectious diseases is the primary driver of increased average life expectancy in the developing world. Universal vaccination is the main contributor to this drastic drop, with several enormous killer diseases like smallpox, measles and tuberculosis now either wiped out or radically reduced. The fight against polio is almost won, with the total number of polio cases reduced by 99% since 1988; and we may soon experience an AIDS-free generation. During the last 3 years, the number of children infected has been reduced by ¼.

Many of our serious environmental challenges from the 70’s and 80’s are largely solved, and almost forgotten. Whoever thought it would be possible to fish in London’s pride, the Thames River? In 1957, the pollution levels became so bad that the river was declared biologically dead. Fifty years later the Thames has been hailed as an environmental success story, and teems with life; with125 species of fish swimming beneath its surface.

Remember the ozone hole? A signature environmental concern of the 1980s has become a signature environmental success story. In the long term, worldwide adherence to the Montreal Protocol and its amendments has scientists expecting that the ozone layer will once again reach full strength.

Acid rain was one of the most talked about problems in Norway – seriously threatening all life in lakes in geographic areas. About 90 per cent of the sulfur and 80 per cent of the nitrogen deposited in Norway originated in other European countries. A great deal has been done to reduce the sulfur emissions and the pollution has been substantially reduced as a result.

So – do I believe that everything is “rosy and dandy” – and that we can surf along into a trouble-free sustainable future? No, not at all.

What I do believe is that to solve our biggest challenge ever – namely climate change – we need firstly to really believe that it’s possible. If we don’t – we will fail – reaping havoc on the earth as we know it. We need less people telling us what does not work, what can wrong and why things are impossible. Instead we need to be optimistic, engaged and solution-oriented, and have the ability to learn from past successes. If we decide it is important enough, and join forces – climate change can be curbed.