It’s not as bad as it looks (but is it much worse than it seems?)

[global change, climate change, understanding, pessimism, optimism, attitude]

by Peggy Olive

In the wee hours of the morning, I listened to a replay of one of CBC’s  thought-provoking programs called Ideas. A career diplomat, Paul Heinbecker, was invited to discuss The Challenge of Peace. Among other positions, Heinbecker served as Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations, Ambassador to Germany, and Minister of Political Affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. He also headed the Canadian delegation to the climate change negotiations in Kyoto.

According to Heinbecker, the real challenge is our inadequate understanding of the world we live in. “Thanks to social media, we are bathed in doom and gloom…an endless repetition of the same terrible stories. It is not surprising that people think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, and quickly.”

He goes on to say, “In fact, the reverse is actually true. We are living in a golden age.” Canadians, and the world more generally, have never been richer, healthier, as well-educated, as well-connected, or as safe as we are now.

On hearing this good news, I felt considerable relief, but also some nagging scepticism. Could this be true? Are we really in a golden age (aside from those of us who are golden-agers)? I went to an informative source to answer this question: Our World in Data. This site is hosted by Max Roser, an Oxford economist who says, “Once you turn to statistics, it gets much harder to have a pessimistic story.”

I extracted some numbers from the hundreds of graphs on his site to emphasize the changes that have occurred over my lifetime. Heinbecker is right; living conditions across the globe have greatly improved since I was born. Had I presented the statistics for Canada, a smaller but similar trend would be seen.

So why my scepticism? I noticed that most of the graphs on Our World in Data showed an upward trend as if  this wonderful state of affairs could continue forever. We would live longer, under better conditions, become more educated, and have more abundant food, and all this would be possible as our population climbed above 11 billion.

Continued growth on a planet with finite resources isn’t possible. We will run out of raw materials eventually. Our soils and fresh water reserves are already being depleted and we continue to overload Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gasses that will change our climate for centuries.

Many see this happening in some distant future, and Roser’s graphs confirm that our living conditions have never been better. Even our fears of war and disaster, often exacerbated by the climate crisis, are overblown when compared to the risks of heart disease, cancer, and road traffic accidents. It would appear that we’re worrying needlessly, at least about some things. Paul Kennedy, the host of Ideas, commented briefly on the role media has played in promoting doom and gloom messages, but as Max Roser says, no one listens to the news to hear that nothing bad has happened today.

I don’t  believe that we are ambulance chasers hungry for disturbing news, or alternatively, that the world situation is anywhere near as rosy as these data might lead us to believe. Oddly, Max Roser’s own research is concerned with rising income inequality which is not good news, and does Heinbecker realize that all Golden Ages come to an end? The original Golden Age of Greece lasted only 200 years.

This left me wondering if the positive global trends in our living conditions are part of the reason we are failing to act quickly on climate change. Living in a sustainable way on this planet will be difficult if we see ourselves as better off today than a few decades ago and we expect this situation to continue. Yet there are obvious signs that the gravy train, driven largely by fossil fuels and greed, is at an end. When we recognize that there is only so much track left ahead of us, it is vital that we slow down before it runs out.

Yes, we are very fortunate to have experienced a Golden Age, but we must also recognize that this age is now in decline and it is past time to apply the brakes.



  1. Thanks for sharing this. It is always worthwhile to take a break, look at the world from a different perspective and increase your knowledge of the world.
    Thank you for sharing this insightful article because it gave me another perspective of where are we as humans going in the world.

    I spent time with Elizabeth May yesterday at a family and friends gathering here in Nova Scotia and we had a chance to talk about a variety of significant issues of importance which, coincidentally includes ALL the issues that we as Suzuki Elders or Ambassadors are currently involved in. She also helped buoy our spirits.

    An area of deep concern for me is the relationship we have with our First Nations/Inuit/Metis people because I have lived with them for a great part of my life and I have seen first hand how deplorable, frustrating, impoverished, unhealthy and needy their situation is in the Canada’s north. Geography plays the most important role in almost every single area of concern (so that is a given) but that does not excuse the lack of clean water on half the reserves in Canada. It does not excuse the highest rate of suicide in the world or the highest real unemployment rate. Healthy housing is desperately needed especially when friends of mine write to me saying there are 8-20 people having to live in a three bedroom house with one bathroom! I am ashamed to be Canadian and hear these true stories of my First Nations and Inuit brothers and sisters having to live like this.

    The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (Recommendations) and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women investigation have shone the cultural floodlight on racism in Canada and have awakened the moral and ethical necessity for Canadian citizens’ participation. I believe we must pick up that “torch of necessity” and help enlighten every politician no matter if they want to listen or not.

  2. I think it’s not so much put on the brakes but change to a sustainable way of living. Stop the incessant (capitalist) drive for economic growth, and learn to share the enormous wealth we have. We can live in much less energy intensive homes, get around with less energy intensive transportation, grow the food we need locally and in a more organic way, and so forth. Most of all, we need to figure out a way to do this, to get off the treadmill. With limited resources, this drive for growth will end. The question is, to we get to the future peacefully and intelligently, and come in for a smooth landing, or do we ignore what’s happening and delay acting till Nature delivers the hammer. Some days I’m an optimist, other days (usually after I have overdosed on too much US politics), I’m depressed.
    Good article, Peggy.

    1. All true, but exactly HOW do we go about stopping the incessant drive for economic growth? How do we persuade Kinder Morgan that their pipeline is not in the planet’s best interests? If there was a better way to make obscene profits they would have found it already. I’ve come to realize that the market does not self-regulate the way economists gloat about. One major reason is that environmental impacts are not quantified monetarily in the planning and development process.

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