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von Hans Dembowski

Shadows and light in global affairs

There is a strong sense of gloom in much recent media debate, and there certainly are reasons to worry. Positive developments, however, tend to get less attention. They matter too.

Late last week, two excellent journalists published two quite different lists. George Monbiot spelled out his 13 greatest worries in the Guardian, whereas German Lopez elaborated six ways the world has been getting better recently.

Both authors make sense, though both somewhat confuse national issues with global ones. Monbiot spends more words on discussing Britain’s referendum vote to leave the EU than on the loss of biodiversity, and Lopez lists dropping crime rates in the USA among five other ways “the world” is getting better, including rising life expectancies, declining poverty and fewer wars at the global level.

That said, both lists look basically accurate, though they are probably both a bit exaggerated. Monbiot, for example, totally disregards the business case for protecting the climate, pretending that everything is up to governments. Luckily, that is not so. Yes, climate change is a dramatic, unprecedented challenge. Unchecked, it will change Earth for ever and cause terrible political disruption. But the chances of getting a grip on the matter are now better than seven years ago, when the climate summit in Copenhagen failed. An important reason for the better outlook is technological progress concerning renewables and energy efficiency.

Monbiot’s claim that we can expect 60 more harvests before agriculture fails looks vague, moreover. Yes, farm land is being eroded and soils must be protected. But no, it is impossible to extrapolate current trends of human impacts on nature over several decades.

I agree with Monbiot that there is a real chance of right-wing radical Marine Le Pen being elected French president next year, but I doubt French voters will give her party, the Front National, a majority in the Asemblée Nationale in the parliamentary election that will be held a few weeks after the presidential election. I don’t think she will be able to form a government. Cohabitation with a coalition of parties that oppose her will be awkward, but it may yet reveal that she is unfit to wield power.

What Lopez writes, on the other hand, is largely correct, as far as I can tell. However, I doubt the statistics are as solid as the precise numbers suggest. The mega-trend is quite clear – while about one third of humankind did not get enough food half a century ago, the share has quite certainly dropped to somewhere between one seventh and one eighth today. The real share, however, is not known because the need is greatest in strife-affected places where it is impossible to hold a proper census. Without a proper census, however, it is impossible to calculate reliable numbers from random samples of people.

The truth is that humankind is facing huge challenges, but the situation is not entirely hopeless.

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