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The State of the World

Today is publication day for the new edition of The State of the World Atlas. It presents information about the world – economics, politics, conflict, health, environment and demography – in a variety of forms, primarily in maps and other visuals, also in text. If you will excuse me, I want to introduce it to you.

coverGolden illusions

This century, though we are not far into it, has already seen the evaporation of two illusory golden ages. After the end of the Cold War in 1989-91, the USA seemed set to enjoy a golden age as the sole superpower while its allies basked in the security it generated. Those comfortable assumptions were detonated in 2001, not only by the force of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US and subsequent attacks elsewhere, but also by the wide-reaching, aggressive, and ultimately self-defeating, US “war on terror”. 

Even so, there was a sense that economic growth and prosperity were broadly dependable. There were winners and losers as always, but for most people in the rich world times were pretty good, and for many people in poorer countries conditions were also improving a little. But it was based on an unsustainable and unbalanced system of debt and credit that came to an end with the shattering credit crunch in 2007 and 2008, triggering recession and a financial catastrophe whose full effects had not played out some four or five years later.

The loss of those golden illusions has created an environment that is not conducive to finding bold responses to the give big issues – wealth and poverty, war and peace, rights and respect, and the health both of the people and of the planet.

Wealth and poverty

The world is marked by large inequalities of wealth. Though the proportion of the world’s population that lives in the extreme poverty of less than one dollar a day is declining, progress is slow and more than one third of all people live on less than two dollars a day.

At the start of the century, world leaders undertook to make a major new effort to help developing countries move forward. In the confident spirit of that time, more money was committed and targets were set with a fixed date – 2015. These Millennium Development Goals have guided Western countries’ official development assistance ever since. In the much less confident spirit in which these donor governments are working a decade on, still reeling from the economic aftershocks of 2008, it is clear that there has been progress but the targets will not be met.

The MDG effort is largely an effort of the old world powers. It remains uncertain whether it will be in any sense taken up by the rising powers of China and India. China’s economic out-performance of the US, Europe and the rest of old capitalism has been dramatic since 1990 and staggering sicne 2008, even if the shrinking of its world markets is hurting now. We have yet to see anything like the full political consequences of this.

War and peace

This is not a peaceful world and yet it is more peaceful today than at any time since before the First World War and, some argue, ever. Armed conflict remains a major cause of death, yet by comparison with earlier times, there are markedly fewer wars and they are less lethal. There has been an avalanche of peace agreements in the two decades since the end of the Cold War, and a major, sustained if quiet effort not only to make peace, but then to lay the foundations for long-term peace in conflict-affected countries.

Of course, it’s not a case job done. In many countries, peace hasn’t really been achieved peace but, rather, conflict has been bottled up. Look at what is happening in Belfast these days as an example.

In many countries, there are patterns of violent conflict that are from a different mould than civil wars. They are generated by, and reinforce, a dangerous intersection between crime and politics, and in several cases they revolve around the trade in illegal narcotics.

And there remains a risk that the number of civil wars could increase. The environmental, demographic and economic pressures are there and the governments that have tended to fund peace efforts include several that have been economically hard hit since 2008. Some may conclude they face too many competing calls on economic resources to be able to support long-term peacebuilding.

That’s the risk. But if the UN and those governments can stay focused, a reasonably successful record of building peace will continue.

Rights and respect

In 2012 48 per cent of the world’s population live in established democracies, up from 43 per cent in 2008. Governing in this way is a relatively new development. The trend of history has only been moving in that direction for one or two centuries and until the last 20-25 years it would have been impossible to think of democratic government as the global norm.

Like peace, the democratic trend needs safeguarding. Sadly, when it is well established and the struggle to achieve it has been forgotten, it often seems barely to be taken seriously by those who could most benefit from it.

A good litmus test of the depth of democracy as well the rule of law is respect for human rights. The web of international agreements and laws that support human rights is steadily strengthening, with the result that a brighter light is on shone human rights are abused.

For rights to be real, the responsibility to respect them must also be embraced. In the best functioning communities, there is a balanced sense of rights and responsibilities.  A society that respects human rights is one in which people not only have a clear sense of their rights but also of their duties to each other.

Health of the people

Without our good health, what can we do? Providing for our own and each other’s health is fundamental. Health is a matter both of political choice and of personal responsibility, both government policy and individual behaviour.

In broad terms, health is improving. There is still too much suffering from curable and preventable conditions and, in many countries, the way that psychological disorders are handled is a scandal. But medical science is advancing, the sequencing of the human genome has been worked out, the genetics of cancers are being unlocked, and new treatments are coming through.

Scientific progress alone will not be enough. The main ailments whose incidence is increasing today have social causes – lifestyle diseases whether of poverty or spreading prosperity. On most of these, the cure lies in prevention through education, behavioural change and social progress.

Health of the planet

On top of all this, there is growing awareness about the unfolding crisis in the natural environment. Compared to the other events that have shaped the spirit of our time, changes in the natural environment are slow moving; their timescale is much longer than a four- or five-year political cycle, which is the maximum many of us are used to thinking in. By the standards of 21st-century political culture, they do not deserve the name of crisis at all. But we do seem to be approaching some turning points – some planetary boundaries.

Basic arithmetic shows that the majority of the world’s population will face water scarcity before 2030. As our economic output has soared, we have pumped large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the past 200 years and the laws of physics say the effect of that is to increase the global average temperature, which is happening. And at the same time, we have generated waste and thrown it away as garbage with abandon and if we go to the right places we can see the consequences of that with our own eyes.

Knowing the world

Our enemies in trying to generate new and better approaches on the environment and on the other four big issues are inequality, unfairness and social exclusion, short termism, and blinkered allegiance to norms and policies that used to be functional. Anything and everything that limits the amount of knowledge that can be brought to bear on a problem and the number of knowledge-holders that can get engaged is an obstacle.

Of course, knowledge is not the same as wisdom. You can know all the facts and still not be able to act wisely. But without knowledge, it is harder to be wise.

There is no new knowledge as such in the atlas but for many people it will be much more available, more accessible in this form than in the statistical tables of the dry reference books and reports from which its drawn. That, at least, is my hope. Helping increase the accessibility of some of the world’s very large store of knowledge and thus making it more useable for wise decisions – that is the ambition of the 9th edition of The State of the World Atlas.

Post originally written by Dan Smith on his blog.

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