Q10 What are some nagging long term global problems that you see getting better this year?

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New Year’s Eve 2019 Forecast (What’s this?)

I remain overall optimistic about where the world is heading even with some significant concerns on trends that keep me up at night (see Q13 for United States system risks and Q14 for global).

The top two trends that blow-my-mind away whenever I think of them in the historic perspective is the reduction of absolute poverty and child mortality.

Declining absolute poverty (people living on <$2/day) is the first historic trend. In 1995 1.9B people were living in absolute poverty, and by 2015 that number had reduced to 50% of that rate. Where absolute poverty used to be a global condition, it is now focused in the African continent and parts of India, and even within Africa it’s not a continent-wide phenomenon as many places like Ethiopia and Ghana are doing well. Even though reduction of absolute poverty has slowed, it hasn’t stopped. I think we’re at a 65% reduction from 1995 levels with an estimate that we’ll level out at 500M in absolute poverty by 2030 (a net 74% reduction.) 

Child and infant mortality rates are the second of these historic trends. There’s so much tied into this, including maternal health, woman participation in the labor force, implied access to health infrastructure – it’s not just about the pain of losing the child. Two centuries ago the global child & infant mortality rate was close to 50%. By the middle of the 20th Century it was ~23%. In 2015 it was under 5%. And it continues to decline. Much like absolute poverty is no longer a global condition, but clustered in certain regions of Africa, so to is child and infant mortality.

Global violence, which had a recent peak in 2015 during the Syrian Civil War and ISIS expansion is declining again. But the historical trend, even including that peak of 2015, is of vastly reduced global violence due to conflict and criminal homicides etc.

In some ways it is these historic mind-blowing things we’ve accomplished that is leading to climate change. More people are living, less are dying, and they’re living in much better conditions than their ancestors could have imagined. All that takes stuff (economic activity) and currently economic activity runs on carbon. Hence…climate change!

But even in the usage of “stuff” there’s hope. We already know that birth rates are counterintuitively dynamic to level of economic of development. The more prosperous a family is, the less children it tends to have. Rather than a Malthusian trap of exploding population with ever less prosperity to divide between it, the reality is that at a certain threshold effect (when low child & infant mortality and the intersection of cost of raising a child vs. benefits) pushes population rates below the replacement rate. This now seems to be appearing with “stuff usage” that among the developed advanced economies, relative and absolute usage of stuff is also declining. This is good news because it answers Jevon’s Paradox. The paradox has traditionally been that even as technology makes us more efficient at using stuff in making things, because it’s more efficient we consume more stuff which may be more efficient per unit, but still on an absolute level increases material use.  But that effect seems to be tapering off in advanced countries.

Domestic material consumption per capita is dropping in developed economies.  Because it’s a rate, that doesn’t mean we’ve beat Jevon’s Paradox. But those rates are dropping so low, that in some countries like the UK, the absolute material consumption is now less than it was in the past. This is an amazing trick when you consider an ever-growing population.

Likewise, land use for agriculture, which is a form of “stuff” is one of the most impactful human side-effects of population.  As the human population grew, it required more habitable land to be converted to agriculture, until we reached a point where about 50% of the habitable land is now used for agriculture. But much like material consumption seems to be peaking in developed countries, so too is land-use for agriculture appear to be peaking, and perhaps even declining  as we head into the 2020’s. The less land we use for agriculture, the more that land can be returned to natural habitats which has a host of beneficial effects. (For example, in many advanced countries there’s greater forest coverage today than there was in 1900, this helps both ecosystems and carbon sequestration.)

These are just a few of the positive macro developments that we it’s easy to overlook when looking for the bad things in the world.


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