Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Happier New Year?

Many find the season to be gloomy – they spend too much, eat too much, spend too much time with relatives they don’t particularly like and watch very poor television. It makes them cranky, flatulent and negative. For many, the season brings out negative emotions and impressions about the state of the world.

Yet the world is in a very good shape. It is richer, healthier and cleaner than ever. Let’s look at some facts.

Daily food intake in poor countries is now 2,666 calories per person per day – an increase of 38% since the mid 1960’s. This has occurred despite the significant growth in population in these countries in this same time – up by 83%. One factor that helps this is the significant decline in world food prices over the last four decades – down 75% in real terms.

Poverty, though still very real for many, is on the decline. In 1820, 85% of the world’s population lived in abject poverty. Today the figure is nearer 20%. The number of people living on $1 a day is around 6% - down from 18% in the late 1970’s. The $2 a day number is also down from 39% to 18% in this same time frame. We don’t yet see the end of poverty or its implications, but these numbers represent real progress.

Life expectancy is also on the rise. In 1900 life expectancy around the world was 31 years – now its 67 years and rising. In Canada it is currently 80. While some countries are still low – Angola, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe are all under 50 – the average continues to rise. The gap in life expectancy between rich and poor countries is now just 12.2 years – it was 25 years in the 1960’s.

Child labour is down. In the early 1960’s one quarter of all children under fourteen were working. Now it is less than 10%. More children are in school than ever before and global rates of illiteracy have fallen from 46% of all children in 1970 to around 18% today.

We use much less energy than we used to. One tone of coal produces twelve times more energy than it did just a century ago. Energy intensity of developed nations – a way of measuring the energy efficiency of a nation – has been falling at 1.3% each year for the last century and demand from the richest countries will fall this year, despite strong economic growth. Intensive agriculture has made it possible to produce more food from less agricultural land, enabling land to be returned to different uses. A recent study showed that our forests are making a comeback – trees are thicker now than they were one hundred years ago and the volume of trees is rising in China, Vietnam and Spain. One forecast suggests that, by 2050, the global forest will have expanded by 10%

The driver for all of these developments is economic growth. More specifically, it is the strong globalization of trade, knowledge and skills. As we support the reduction of poverty in India and China by enabling them to engage in the global economy and as we transfer skills, knowledge and resources more freely now than at any time in history, the quality of life for people improves. We still have a long way to go, but we are making real progress.

While global warming is a fact, the impact will be less than anticipated. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change next report due in February is expected to indicate that the impact of global warming on sea levels will be less than anticipated and that the role of humans in creating warming is half that suggested in previous reports. In fact, the role of the sun in climate change – the sun is now warmer than it has been in over 11,400 years – is much greater than hitherto acknowledged. We need to leverage the opportunities of global warming rather than implementing draconian measures which will halt the war on poverty and hunger. We need to redouble our efforts to develop cleaner energy technologies and require their use, but not at the expense of a firm focus on growth.

As for critical illnesses, such as aids, malaria, TB, diabetes, treatments are improving and breakthroughs in genetic engineering, stem cell research and our understanding of the functioning of human systems are all providing new routes for cures. Just recently a team working at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the University of Calgary and the Jackson Laboratory in Maine have found a diabetes pathway that originates in the nervous system. It appears that the nervous system closes down the effective insulin production of the pancreas, but that this can be reversed by a simple injection – ending diabetes, at least in mice.

Technological innovation is this stimulating significant advances in biotechnology, fuels, the more efficient use of renewable resources and for different forms of transportation. Skilled scientists, technologists and engineers have made major contributions to global well-being and will continue to do so, provided we continue to invest in innovation, research and commercialization.

So, as you face down that final piece of turkey and set aside the seventh glass of something or other, think of the world as one of hope. The evidence is there that mankind can manage its existence on this planet – we don’t have to start looking for new homes on the planet Mars or give up all our habits to save the planet. We are making progress. There is always more to do, but we can do what is needed in the spirit of moving on rather than in the spirit of turning back the clock.

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