By any measure, humanity has made a lot of progress in the last few decades. Average life expectancy has gone from an average of 47 years in 1950 to roughly 69 years now. In that time, death rates for kids under five have fallen by three quarters. And over the last 30 years, 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty. But all this progress has come at a cost that isn’t always properly taken into account. In effect, “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present,” says a major new report.
That cost comes in form of environmental degradation that threatens to make people’s lives worse not better, says the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, a group of 15 prominent academics and policymakers from eight countries. “In essence, humanity has traded off many of the Earth’s supportive and regulating processes to feed and fuel human population growth and development,” it says.
The report, and two research papers that accompany it, forecast some startlingly bad impacts from environmental problems like climate change and water scarcity. For example, they predict that global warming will lead to 250,000 additional deaths a year between 2030 and 2050. They say that increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will lower the zinc content of food crops and thus put 138 million people at risk of zinc deficiency by 2050 (a particularly serious problem for young mothers). And they forecast that rising temperatures will kill off millions of important pollinating insects, like bees, causing 1.4 million additional deaths annually.
This level of destruction requires entire structural new ways of thinking. In response, the commission calls for better accounting of environmental impacts in economic decision-making, for example by replacing the metric of gross domestic product, which accounts only for growth, with something more subtle. It recommends better “surveillance systems” for assessing environmental-health links. And it calls for policies to reduce the waste of natural resources and establish cities that are more resilient to environmental problems. “A growing body of evidence shows that the health of humanity is intrinsically linked to the health of the environment, but by its actions humanity now threatens to destabilize the Earth’s key life-support systems,” it says.
Read more about the report here.