Despite What You’ve Heard, The World Is Getting Better (But Don’t Get Too Complacent)

Global poverty, health, and education are getting better. Climate change, extremism, and inequality are getting worse. The balance is positive–for now.

Is the world improving or deteriorating? Are people’s lives getting better or worse? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future? No doubt, you can make a case either way. But according to a big new report about the state of the planet, there might be more positives than negatives. The world is mostly getting better, though, of course, we face many challenges.


The assertion is from a Washington, D.C., think tank called The Millennium Project. Its “2015-16 State of the Future” report covers everything from water and sanitation to democratization and gender equality, and it brings together an enormous amount of data from many sources. On the positive side, it sees progress on poverty, school enrollment, mortality, water access, literacy, and hunger. On the negative, it finds that climate pollution, bio-capacity, income inequality, terrorism, and corruption are all worsening.

“It is increasingly clear that humanity has the resources to address its global challenges, but it is not clear that an integrated set of global and local strategies will be implemented together and on the scale necessary to build a better future,” it says.

The report sets out 15 global challenges, then asks whether the world is meeting them. For example, it asks whether we can have clean water for all without water-related conflict. About 2.3 billion people have been hooked up to reliable water supplies since 1990, but 748 million still live without access. At the same time, water tables are drying up in many places. The report recommends innovations like saltwater agriculture, hydroponics, lab-grown meat, as well as more water storage and reforestation.

Another challenge involves spreading market capitalism without the high income inequality that has lately spread with it. Extreme poverty worldwide fell from 51% in 1981 to 17% in 2011, but, by next year, the top 1% of people will control more wealth than the rest of the planet put together, according to one estimate. The United Nations Development Program says income inequality has increased by 9% in industrial countries and by 11% in developing ones over the past 20 years. The report floats ideas like fairer trade practices, closing tax havens, and new taxes on international financial transactions.

Looking ahead to the middle of the century, the report sees several threats to traditional employment including “artificial intelligence that can autonomously create, edit, and implement software … based on feedback from global sensor networks” and the likelihood that populations will continue to grow while many basic-level jobs disappear. This means ideas like a universal income guarantee “have to be seriously considered now–because it may take a generation or two to make such changes,” the report says. Meanwhile, developments in brain and longevity research are likely to see many of us living longer, thus necessitating “massive programs” to teach the elderly how to contribute to society.

Check out more from the report here. It’s packed with good info.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.