Can the United Nations help make the world a better place to live?

The Cooperative Society Newsletter
March 2019, Issue 14
by E.G. Nadeau and Luc Nadeau

This article gives an emphatic “yes” to the question posed in the title, presents brief reviews of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals Program (2000-2015) and the follow-up Sustainable Development Goals Program (2016-2030), and suggests some improvements in the way the latter program is being implemented.

These two sets of goals are world-changers! If they are successfully carried out, we are talking about a world without extreme poverty or hunger, universal access to decent healthcare, education and jobs for all 8 billion of us, solving the most critical problem of our age – the catastrophe of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and achieving a number of other fundamental social, economic, and environmental goals.

As those of you who follow the activities of The Cooperative Society Project know, these goals are in close alignment to ours. So, let’s take a look at progress to date.

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
In 2000, when Kofi Annan was the Secretary-General, the UN’s 191 member countries voted unanimously to achieve 8 social, economic, and environmental goals over the next fifteen years to improve the quality of life around the world, using 1990 as the starting point for calculating improvements.

How did they (we) do?

Very well! Here are some highlights from the 2015 Millennium Development Goals Report:

  • “Extreme poverty has declined significantly over the last two decades. In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day. That proportion dropped to [projected] 14% in 2015.”
  • “The primary school net enrollment rate in the developing regions has reached 91% in 2015, up from 83% in 2000.”
  • “Despite population growth in the developing regions, the number of deaths of children under five has declined from 12.7 million in 1990 to almost 6 million in 2015 globally.”
  • “Since 1990, the maternal mortality ratio has declined by 45% worldwide.”

millennium development goalsThe report also provides information on environmental and economic change. Despite increased access to clean drinking water, improved sanitation, and other environmental improvements, the primary environmental issue – carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – worsened substantially during this time. According to the report, there were a number of improvements in economic conditions in developing countries from 1990 to 2015, including increased development assistance, an increase in duty-free exports, reduced debt, and access to International telecommunications.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Based in significant part on the effectiveness of the MDG program, United Nations members, under Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s leadership, unanimously approved another 15-year initiative (2016-2030) to improve the quality of life around the world. This time, UN members voted to address 17 goals, a big increase over the 2000-2015 program.

The 2018 SDG Report provides information on trends related to the eight MDG goals, as well as data on the nine new SDG goals. Following are a few findings contained in the report.

    • Estimates of extreme poverty continued to decline. Revised data indicate that “11% of the world population, or 783 million people, lived below the extreme poverty threshold in 2013.”
    • On the negative side of the ledger, “The proportion of undernourished people worldwide increased from 10.6% in 2015 to 11.0% in 2016. This translates to 815 million people worldwide in 2016, up from 777 million in 2015.”
    • Market-distorting agricultural subsidies continued to decline.
    • Access to primary education increased. However, the report expressed concerns about inadequate teacher training and children’s lack of proficiency in reading and mathematics.
    • The report also observed that, “While some forms of discrimination against women and girls are diminishing, gender inequality continues to hold women back and deprives them of basic rights and opportunities.”
    • Access to clean drinking water and sanitation were both improving, but progress was below the rate required to meet the 2030 program goals.
    • On the energy front, “Those lacking access to electricity have fallen below 1 billion, a doubling in coverage between 2000 and 2016.” But the goal of “ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” by 2030 will be very difficult to achieve.
    • As the report states, “The five-year average global temperature from 2013 to 2017 was . . .  the highest on record. The world continues to experience rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases.” Thus, the program’s and the Paris Agreement’s goals for drastically reducing carbon emissions by 2030 will take an unprecedented amount of cooperation among countries, communities, and corporations to achieve.
    • Earning inequalities were still pervasive: “Men earned 12.5% more than women in 40 out of 45 countries with data. Youth were three times more likely to be unemployed than adults in 2017.”
sustainable development goals
For complete information about each of these 17 goals, click on this link to a UN-provided website

Since the SDG program did not go into effect until 2016, it is too early to do an evaluation of its effectiveness. But there are a number of early-stage comments that can be made about the program.

It is very ambitious
There are more than twice as many SDG goals as MDG goals. There are pluses and minuses to this expansion. On the plus side, the impacts of the SDG program can be more far-reaching. On the problematic side, there is the danger of being less successful because of an attempt to over-reach — possibly accomplishing less by trying to do too much.

It provides continuity with the MDG program
This is a plus, because longer-term trends can be tracked and addressed.

It incorporates the goals of the Paris Agreement and other environmental goals
This interconnection is very important because “climate action,” “life below water,” and “life on land” are inextricably connected with the social and economic goals of the program.

It has a tendency to downplay some problems
It appears to emphasize positive results and focus less on negative ones. The biggest example of this is related to climate change. Much research, including that done by the United Nations, stresses that we are in a crisis mode during the next decade or so. If our actions are not accelerated dramatically, we are highly likely to exceed a 2°C increase in the temperature of the earth’s surface relative to what it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Such an increase would lead to catastrophic weather changes and related disasters. However, the report does not present the warnings from this research. (In fairness to the UN, much of the research emphasizing the extreme urgency of the climate crisis was published after the 2018 report.)

Inadequate communication of the goals and accomplishments of the program
This is the biggest criticism that we have after doing a review of the information that the United Nations provides about the SDG program on the Internet. Following are a few examples of SDG communication problems:

  • Right off the bat, when one looks up “SDGs,” using Google search, one encounters two separate United Nations websites presenting information on the program. These sites are run by different divisions of the UN: The Development Program and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Since theUN is coordinating a worldwide, cooperative initiative to achieve the SDG goals, it would make sense to have the UN’s internal divisions present a united front to the world in its presentation of the SDGs.
  • Neither of the homepages for these two websites provides a clear introduction to the SDG program, nor do any of the primary topics referenced at the top of the websites.
  • That is not to say that there isn’t plenty of useful information. Altogether, there are hundreds of sites that one can click to from the main websites, but without clear roadmaps, the reader doesn’t know how to make choices among this avalanche of information.
  • The SDG program has put out very informative annual reports in 2016, 2017, and 2018. But one wouldn’t know this by combing through all of the major topics on both of these websites. There is excellent information in these reports related to progress and lack of progress on the 17 goals. (See, for example, the section above summarizing some key findings from the 2018 report.) The trick is finding the reports.

Our major takeaway from this critique of information provided by the UN on the web is:

Communication and education related to the SDG program would benefit enormously by having an easily accessible webpage providing a level 101 “Introduction to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Program.” This primer should be understandable by someone with a middle school education and should provide clear links to additional information that the reader may want to access in order to learn more about the program – in particular, more detailed information on its predecessor program, the MDG goals and the current 17 SDG goals, and links to the annual reports.

Despite these criticisms of the SDG program’s communications problems, we were pleased with the substantive progress that the program has made since its inception in January 2016. Read the reports, especially the one for 2018, and judge for yourself.


Is life getting better all the time? A comparative review of three new books that say “Yes”

The Cooperative Society Newsletter
May 2018, Issue 9
By E.G. Nadeau

Three books by well-known authors hit the shelves in early 2018. Taken together, they make a convincing case that the world is becoming a better place for human beings. In the face of daily bombardments in the media and from dystopian politicians and pundits about how bad things are, it is refreshing to read about some of the many upbeat trends that are occurring in our world today.

There are significant areas of overlap among the three books. All rely on scientific data that show an improving quality of life for most people around the world – in many cases, trends that have been underway for a century or more. Each critiques pessimism and ignorance about what’s really going on in the world. All three provide valuable insights into ways in which human society is improving. But they tend to downplay some of the ways in which things are getting worse or more threatening. This is especially true regarding climate change.

A brief overview of the books and their authors

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress pinker enlightenment nowThe author, Steven Pinker, is a psychology professor at Harvard. His best-known previous book is The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), which makes the case for a long historical trend of reduced violence in the world. Enlightenment Now extends the argument of Better Angels to include a wide range of other ways in which the quality of our lives is improving.

Pinker’s book wins my prize for the most systematic presentation of the ways in which the human condition is getting better. Pinker devotes chapters to life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. He relies heavily on both historical graphs and narrative to make his points.

It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear
easterbrook it's better than it looks
The author, Gregg Easterbrook, has 10 previous books to his credit, including the New York Times bestseller The Progress Paradox (2003), the subtitle of which is: Life gets better while people feel worse. It’s Better Than It Looks is in many ways a sequel to The Progress Paradox. According to Easterbrook, life is still getting better, but many of us continue to feel bad about the present and pessimistic about the future.

In the first part of his book, Easterbrook writes a series of essays on why the world is doing well despite all the doom and gloom in the media. He follows with a second series of essays focusing on the failure of “declinism” as a worldview and asserts that humans are up to the challenge of addressing the problems of climate change, inequality, and whatever other adversities may come our way in the future. Easterbrook doesn’t use visuals but instead provides detailed endnotes to support his analyses.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A general shortcoming is that all three have a tendency to sugarcoat or downplay some major contemporary problems – in particular, climate change, concentration of economic power, and inequality.[/perfectpullquote]

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things are Better Than You Think
rosling factfulness
The author, Hans Rosling, who died in February 2017 while Factfulness was being written, was a Swedish medical doctor and co-founder of the Swedish chapter of Doctors Without Borders. He is probably best known for his brilliant TED talks on international health and related matters. (Check out some examples on YouTube.) The book was jointly written by Rosling, his son Ola, and his daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Ronnlund, who together also founded the Gapminder Foundation. (In keeping with the first-person singular style of the book, I will refer to the author as Rosling and skip the et al.)

Rosling relies on a combination of charts, graphs, and narrative. For Rosling and his co-authors, the primary aim of the book is to “fight devastating ignorance” and promote “a fact-based worldview [from which] we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.” The book teaches us how to be clear-eyed critical thinkers and to not fall into a variety of traps that prevent us from seeing the world as it is. Examples illustrate some of the distorted views we hold. For example, survey data indicate that most of us think extreme poverty, child mortality, and maternal mortality around the world are increasing. The data show just the opposite. He makes the point that we have to learn to see more clearly and accurately measure what’s happening in order to implement effective solutions.

The books have some pitfalls

A general shortcoming is that all three have a tendency to sugarcoat or downplay some major contemporary problems – in particular, climate change, concentration of economic power, and inequality.

There is always a danger when an author bases his or her book on a particular worldview such as “things are getting better all the time” that the book will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, emphasizing the good things that are happening and downplaying some of the bad things. All three of these authors can justifiably be accused of this kind of bias even though they argue that their findings are “science-based.” But there is still plenty of good, evidence-based analyses in all three books.

I am most forgiving of Rosling when it comes to this criticism. Although he cherry-picks positive examples, his primary purpose is to illustrate how to think and act critically, not to weigh the good and the bad in the world today.

Easterbrook and Pinker, in their own ways, are guiltier of this shortcoming.

Easterbrook is a journalist who has clearly done a lot of research on the state of the world, but his writing is channeled into making the case that: “Optimism is the best argument for reform – and the bow that propels the arrow of history.” Thus, his chapters on climate change and inequality essentially amount to: We’ll figure these issues out. We humans always find a way to solve our problems.

Where I noticed Pinker’s most egregious departure from “factfulness” is in his chapter on the environment. For whatever reason, Pinker is enamored of nuclear energy and feels the need to push it as a better alternative to reducing carbon emissions than solar and wind energy. He makes this case despite the fact that the latter two energy sources are already cheaper than nuclear power. These renewable energy sources don’t require the long lead time and high costs of developing and decommissioning nuclear plants. They also don’t face the danger of catastrophic meltdowns and ongoing safety concerns. Besides, on a purely pragmatic level, only one nuclear plant has been built in the last 20 years in the United States. Germany has decided to phase out all of its nuclear power plants by 2022 in reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Japan itself initially shuttered all of its nuclear power plants after the 2011 crisis. It is gradually bringing some of them back online, but nuclear energy will never regain the prominence it had in Japan prior to 2011. Despite these setbacks, nuclear power is likely to play an important but decreasing role in meeting the world’s energy needs over the next few decades.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Another characteristic of all three authors is that they take a piecemeal rather than a comprehensive approach to evaluating and recommending improvements in human conditions.[/perfectpullquote]

In his attempt to debunk solar and wind energy, Pinker makes the following outrageous statement: “To satisfy the world’s needs with renewables by 2050 will require tiling windmills and solar panels over an entire area the size of the United States (including Alaska), plus Mexico, Central America and the inhabited portion of Canada.” Several references that I checked, including the 2017 United Nations Emission Gap Report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and an article in Forbes magazine painted a very different picture of the potential for wind and solar to provide most if not all of the world’s electricity needs without blanketing it in panels and wind towers. One source wrote that a combined area of 43,000 mi.² of solar panels could meet all of the world’s electrical energy needs. That’s about the size of Virginia or Tennessee or a little over 1% of the Sahara Desert.

Although a bit of a digression, Pinker also brings up the old bugaboo about what happens “…when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.” The obvious answer is the storage of energy in batteries and by other means. Storage technology has taken off by leaps and bounds in the last few years, including utility-scale projects in Australia, the United States and elsewhere. It’s ironic that Pinker downplays economies of scales and exponential growth when it comes to renewable energy, even though he presents more than a dozen tables in his book that illustrate the fallacy of assuming linear patterns of change over time.

Another characteristic of all three authors is that they take a piecemeal rather than a comprehensive approach to evaluating and recommending improvements in human conditions.

There is a danger in viewing societal change as nothing more than a scorecard tallying up the ways in which life is getting better rather than understanding it as an interactive process in which the various components build on (or tear down) one another.

A dramatic example is the relationship between climate change and the range of other variables that affect our world. One could argue that the harnessing of fossil fuel was one of the most important engines of economic growth over the past 200 years. But now, dependence on fossil-fuel energy is the biggest threat to our quality of life and that of the planet going forward. We need to change our energy paradigm in order to avoid catastrophe.

One could make a similar argument regarding capitalism. The insatiable quest for profit and the concentration of economic decision-making in the hands of a small number of corporations and government leaders may be just as unsustainable as a fossil-fuel-powered energy system.

Looking toward the future

None of the authors take a big-picture approach to economic and political change. Yet if we’re going to continue to improve the quality of life, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll need to change our international economic and political system to do so. It has evolved dramatically over time. The market economy of mercantilism in 16th-century Europe was far different from the internationally regulated, technology-driven market economy of the early 21st century. So, why shouldn’t we expect continued dramatic change in the international economy of the future? In what ways should it evolve in order to better sustain human beings and the planet on which we live?

the cooperative societyMy son Luc and I are writing the second edition of The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History to be published in August. Our main goals in the book are to evaluate whether or not we as a species are moving toward a fundamentally different kind of society based on cooperation, democracy, the equitable distribution of resources, and a sustainable relationship with the environment. We realistically assess where human society is getting better and where it is not, and we make recommendations about ways in which we can make a transition toward such a society.

Our book—and those by Pinker, Easterbrook and Rosling—have in common the use of science-based measurement to gauge human progress. However, we differ in three important ways. Our research shows that some things are getting better (such as the quality-of-life improvements cited by the three authors), but others are not (climate change, and economic and political inequality). We take a comprehensive view of the interplay among a variety of factors in determining our future in addition to presenting an item-by-item scorecard. And, most importantly, we stress that humans are not just objects of history but can play active roles in making our society better.