We’ve never had it so good

Interview: Indur Goklany, author of The Improving State of the World, slaps down today's voguish pessimists with some eye-opening facts.

Daniel Ben-Ami

Topics Politics

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The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, Indur Goklany, Cato 2007

It is a sobering thought that, until relatively recently, most readers of this article would be dead before they reached their current age. As recently as 1900 the average human life expectancy worldwide is estimated to have been about 31 years. In the Middle Ages it was 20-30. Even those readers who have not yet reached their twenties would probably not have many years left if they lived in the pre-industrial era.

That assumes, of course, you were lucky enough to be able to read. Mass literacy is another recent development. For most of human history people were – literally – preoccupied with a life-and-death struggle to find enough to eat. The idea that, at least in the developed world, starvation would no longer be an imminent threat would be hard to imagine. The possibility of people sitting at a computer screen reading articles on the internet would be almost impossible to conceive.

Yet rather than celebrate the immense achievements of economic development, there is a widespread feeling of resentment. Many people in the developed world believe that life is getting worse. Economic growth and technological development are viewed with anxiety and sometimes outright hostility. If our great-grandparents could be brought back to life they would be astonished by humanity’s achievements but also bewildered by our ungrateful attitudes towards these gains.

In this context, The Improving State of the World should be warmly welcomed. Not only does Indur Goklany, a policy analyst based in Washington DC, show how human well-being has improved immensely in recent years. He also points the way to improving things still further in the future.

Goklany, who has worked in environmental policy for over 30 years, says it was partly his Indian upbringing that motivated him to write the book. Most of the people he meets in his professional capacity, specialising in climate change and in health policy, have a bleak view of the world. They tend to assume things are getting worse all the time. ‘I don’t share that point of view,’ he tells me. ‘A lot of that has to do with my background. Because I’m an Indian I’ve got an idea of how bad things can really be.’ That led him to spend seven years ‘moonlighting’ on the book to set the record straight. He has also written previous books on the precautionary principle and on air quality as well as numerous articles (1).

Goklany, an electrical engineer by training, bases his case on the systematic examination of masses of facts and data. It is not possible to summarise the details in a relatively short review but some of the main indicators of human well-being are clear.

Perhaps life expectancy is the single most important. The average human life span has more than doubled from 31 years in 1900 to 66.8 in 2003. In the developed world it had risen to 75.6 years by 2003 while in the developing world it was 63.4.

Closely related to rising life expectancy is the sharp fall in infant mortality. In the Middle Ages more than 200 babies out of every 1,000 live births died before the age of one. In other words, one in five children failed to reach their first birthday. While today it is considered ‘natural’ for children to outlive their parents, at least in the developed world, that is a relatively recent development. It used to be a common experience for parents to see their children die. Today the average global infant mortality figure has fallen to 56.8 per 1,000 while in the developed countries it is 7.1.

A large part of the improvement is life expectancy and infant mortality is the result of an increase in the quantity and quality of food available. The global average for food available in terms of calories per person per day rose from 2,254 in 1961 to 2,804 in 2002. For developed countries the rise over that period was 24 per cent while for developing countries it was 38 per cent.

These figures alone tell several stories. The first is that the whole of humanity, including the developing world, has benefited as a result of rising prosperity. Although there remains a substantial gap between the rich and poor countries, the developing world is still much better off than it was. And in terms of the main indicators of human well-being the gap has narrowed substantially even though it remains significant. The developing world has benefited both from rising prosperity and the diffusion of technology. A key challenge now is to close the gap completely.

There are exceptions to this improving trend but these confirm rather than contradict the close connection between economic growth and quality of life. The countries of the former Eastern bloc, and the former Soviet Union in particular, suffered enormous social dislocation with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. For several years in the 1990s the economy shrank and key social indicators, such as life expectancy, worsened. Sub-Saharan Africa has also suffered terribly as a result of sluggish economic growth, along with new and resurgent diseases, since the late 1980s.

One important reason Africa has suffered has to do with problems with the diffusion of technology. One of the most tragic is the impact of bans on the use of DDT, an insecticide which is particularly effective at killing mosquitoes. Western governments discouraged the use of DDT as a result of health and environmental concerns highlighted by environmentalists. ‘African governments were nudged into rejecting what was available and very effective but had a very bad environmental reputation,’ says Goklany. Such campaigns failed to properly balance environmental factors against the immense human cost of malaria. The World Health Organisation estimates there are at least 500million acute cases of malaria a year globally leading to over one million deaths. About 90 per cent of the deaths occur in Africa and young children are the main victims (2).

Goklany, who had two bouts of malaria as a child, says some people object to the white residue sometimes left by DDT when it is sprayed indoors. But in his experience this was not a concern for those threatened by the disease. ‘I don’t remember anyone complaining about the white residue. If you’ve ever had malaria you don’t complain about that because it’s a disease that, if you get it, knocks out several weeks of your life, even if you get over it eventually.’

Those who favoured the indoor spraying of DDT were vindicated in September 2006 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) once again approved the practice. After nearly 30 years of being phased out the WHO conceded the science and data justified the use of DDT (3).

But the combination of economic growth and technological development is not just beneficial to human well-being in a narrow sense. Goklany also argues strongly that the environment becomes better fit for human beings as a result of progress. For example, his book starts by quoting a passage from Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) which describes London mired in coal dust and factory smoke. At that time, diseases such as cholera and typhoid were rife as London’s water supply was grossly polluted. But the building of London’s sewage system and the implementation of public health measures cleaned up the city. Londoners now enjoy a cleaner environment than ever despite – or rather because of – the greater level of economic development.

What is true of London also applies more generally. Greater prosperity makes it possible to clean the air and rivers. Biodiversity can also increase, and the amount of forested land can expand. Higher agricultural productivity means there is often less pressure on land than in the past. ‘If you look at the data, richer countries are generally better off environmentally than poor countries,’ says Goklany.

In fact one of the ways The Improving State of the World differs from similar books is in spelling out a theory of what Goklany calls ‘environmental transition’. The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, overlaps with Goklany’s book in using data to show that human well-being is improving (4). But Goklany goes further in explaining how the combination of economic growth and technological development allows humans to improve their environment.

In the early stages of development the primary aim is – as would be expected – promoting growth. But as countries become wealthier they can afford to broaden their focus. ‘The richer a country, the greater its ability to do something about environmental concerns,’ says Goklany. ‘And the reason is simple – they have the economic infrastructure and the human capital to do something about it.’ In effect, the richer countries have the ability to buy themselves a better environment.

The theory of environmental transition leads to unexpected insights and hope for the future. For instance, Goklany concedes that the fish supplies in the world’s oceans are at the wrong side of the environmental transition. Over-fishing is causing dwindling supplies in many areas. This is particularly tragic as the oceans, despite making up 71 per cent of the earth’s surface area, only supply about one per cent of humans’ calorie requirements and about five per cent of our protein.

However, unlike environmentalists, he does not draw the conclusion that limits ought to be placed on using the oceans as a food resource. On the contrary, he likens the present system of fishing to the primitive hunter-gathering that preceded the advent of agriculture on the land about 10,000 years ago. Just as agriculture allowed for massive increases in the productivity of food production on the land, he argues that aquaculture – commercially farming the sea – could substantially bolster output from the oceans. ‘We have developed agriculture for land but we haven’t done a whole lot for our oceans,’ he says.

So far, aquaculture has only taken off at the margins, such as inland areas, rather than marine areas. For many developing countries it is increasing in importance as a source of food. For example, in 2002 China was responsible for 69.8 per cent of the world’s aquaculture production with another 12.7 per cent coming from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand and Viet Nam. However, Goklany believes the potential to develop this source of food still further is enormous. He also argues that developing aquaculture would lessen pressure on the land as the need to harvest land areas as a source of food would be reduced.

Despite Goklany’s positive assessment of what humanity has achieved so far he does not see future progress as inevitable. In particular he regards the precautionary principle, which he sees as being widely applied in contemporary society, as a barrier to development. It has become standard practice to one-sidedly exaggerate the risks of technological developments while downplaying the benefits.

Genetically modified (GM) crops, which Goklany sees as capable of improving both the quality and quantity of food available to humanity, are a prime example. Such crops have fed 300million Americans and tens of millions of visitors to the country with no apparent ill-effects since 1996. Yet there are still widespread and unfounded fears in Europe about the potential dangers of GM foods.

If there is a problem with Goklany’s work it stems, like its strengths, from his technocratic approach. For example, he calls for an ‘honest’ application of the precautionary principle based on a balanced assessment of the risks and rewards of any technological advance. Yet the problem with the precautionary principle is not simply that its advocates are dishonest about assessing risks. A key question is: What is it about contemporary society that pre-disposes so many people to be fearful of risks and blind to the benefits of progress? Such questions are, by their nature, beyond the scope of a straightforward analysis of the data on human well-being.

When pushed, Goklany concedes that anti-technology attitudes are probably deep-rooted, particularly in Europe. ‘I suspect you’re right,’ he says. But it is not a question he examines in the book. He also sees Europe as the main culprit in this respect while underestimating the strong culture of risk aversion in America. Precaution is an organising principle of state policy on both sides of the Atlantic. What was once a defining characteristic of environmentalism has become mainstream.

Nor does he consider the question of why growth scepticism has become so strong despite the immense benefits of progress. While he recognises this is an important question he decided to define it as outside the remit of his book.

In a way the final criticism is churlish. Examining the roots of growth scepticism is itself a substantial task. It also demands a fundamentally different approach to one rooted in numerical data. The chapter in Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist that attempted to sketch an answer to the question was the weakest in the book.

Overall, The Improving State of the World is an excellent antidote to the miserabalist attitudes that dominate contemporary society. Indur Goklany has painstakingly conducted a thorough and balanced assessment of the data to show that human well-being is better than ever. He also points the way to improving things still further in the future while warning of the risks of precaution. It does not provide the whole story but it is a vital component in the case against those who attack human progress.

The Improving State of the World is published by Cato (buy this book from Amazon (UK) Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

Visit Daniel Ben-Ami’s website at

(1) His earlier books were Clearing the Air (Cato 1999) and The Precautionary Principle (Cato 2001). His many articles include a critique of the Stern report on climate change, co-authored with several others, in the October-December 2006 issue of World Economics.

(2) WHO gives indoor use of DDT a clean bill of health for controlling malaria, WHO press release, 15 September 2006. For earlier spiked articles on the DDT controversy see Roger Bate, Without DDT, malaria bites back and Dave Hallsworth, Why we need DDT.

(3) WHO gives indoor use of DDT a clean bill of health for controlling malaria, WHO press release, 15 September 2006

(4) Bjørn Lomborg The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge 2001). See The Skeptical Environmentalist, by John Gillott and ‘This is a case of table pounding’, by Helene Guldberg.

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Topics Politics


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