Editorial: Peril and Possibility

THE SHOW TODAY is brought to you by the numbers 120 and 1.2 billion.

THE SHOW TODAY is brought to you by the numbers 120 and 1.2 billion.

120 is the World Wildlife Fund’s current estimate of the percentage of global carrying capacity for human life that we are currently using. Despite improvements in environmental behaviour and resource efficiency on many fronts, our overall demands on the planet are now excessive. And they are still growing. We are, with increasing speed, wrecking the only home we have. 1.2 billion is roughly the number of people now living on less than $1 per day. But income is an imperfect indicator of well-being. In good social and ecological circumstances, a family with almost no income can be reasonably well fed and secure. But more often, some multiple of $1 per day is needed to avoid serious deprivation. Probably 1.2 billion underestimates the number of lives today that are seriously constrained by material insufficiency.

The trends in deep poverty are mixed. In some places, conditions for the very poor are improving. In others, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, they are getting worse. But almost everywhere the gap between rich and poor is widening, even though in the majority of countries the richest fifth of the population already has 10 times the wealth of the poorest fifth.

These numbers are imprecise. The world is complicated and diverse, and data collection is uneven in many places. But these are not matters requiring precision. It is the general situation that we need to grasp. Human pressures on the biophysical foundations of our survival are unsustainable and still growing, even though many people do not have bare sufficiency. And most of the material gains from our expanding activities are going to the already rich.

Given their importance, it is worth wondering why these two numbers get so little attention in conventional media or ordinary conversation.

It is not that we are uninterested in numbers. The lives of modern individuals and nations are defined by measures and calculations: wages and prices, cholesterol levels and blood pressure readings, GDP comparisons, life expectancy estimates, course grade averages, currency exchange rates, sports scores, fuel efficiency ratings, contaminants in parts per million, global warming in degrees Celsius.

If we fail to notice the big numbers that matter most, it is not because we lack the numerical skills and can’t form the big picture. More likely it is because the picture seems too bleak and the requirements for action too large. Avoidance and denial are not just easier. They are within our reach.

Certainly, we must keep an eye on the big picture and continue our dogged reporting of unsustainable practices and negative trends. But we should not imagine that this might be a winning strategy for change. Doom is a poor motivator.
Moreover, the most dangerous overall global trends cannot be reversed by any single grand initiative. Our only serious chance lies in millions of small, positive, mutually reinforcing steps taken by individuals, communities and other organizations everywhere.

And so in this issue of look at measuring progress, not because we don’t see the looming evils, but because we need to recognize the possibilities as well as the perils. Tomorrow’s show can only be brought to us by innumerable small successes.

University of Waterloo professor and the magazine’s long-time editor, Robert Gibson chairs Alternatives’ editorial board and writes our back-page column: What’s the Big Idea. He reads every word of every issue and can be thanked for the best – and the poopiest – article titles. Substitution gets us genetic engineering, nuclear reactors, ocean draggers and unconventional oil.