We are at the opposite ends of our lives. I am seventy-four and you all of eighteen. At twelve I started writing ‘Letters to the World’, in which I talked about impending doom. That was just when we were about to enter the nineteen sixties. You are famous and perhaps even ‘infamous’ in some circles as a leader of youth in civil society. But I want to get back to you and tell what we, your grandparents faced and, though we leave you with so many challenges, what we have done.
When I was born in the second half of the nineteen forties, the average lifespan on this earth was, to use imperfect figures of 1950 (nineteen fifty), around from far less than fifty to over seventy years. The difference at that time between what we call developed and developing countries was, to give you two examples, rather drastic. Norway, for instance, had a life expectancy of around seventy while that in Mali was less than thirty. The United States had a life expectancy of around was around seventy and that of China was around thirty-five. In 2020 (twenty-twenty) the comparative figures were around 80 (eighty) for Norway but almost 60 (sixty) in Mali, around 78 (seventy-eight) for the USA but getting close to 77 (seventy seven) in China.
Those were things we were mainly preoccupied with in the second half of the twentieth century — getting people to live better so that they can live longer. Was that wrong? But inevitably, as these strides were made through efforts at improving agricult (go to the ‘Green Revolution’), transportation and, especially health care (for, instance, penicillin), population grew everywhere and exploded in other places. Norway, for instance, had a population of around 3.2 (three point two) million in 1950 while Mali had a population of just less than 5 (five million). Norway’s population in 2020 (twenty twenty) was around 5.4 (five point four) million while that of Mali had gone to over 20 (twenty) million. The population of the USA in 1950 was just over 150 (one hundred fifty) million while that of China was around 550 (five hundred fifty) million. In 2020, the population of the USA stood at around 330 (three hundred thirty) million while that of China stood at around 1,400,000,000 (one billion four hundred) million.
Now we go to another factor, the number of children. The average number of children per woman in Norway in 1950 was around 2.5 (two point ) while that in Mali was around 7 (seven) children per woman. In 2020 the average number of children per woman in Norway was around 1.7 (one point seven) and in Mali around 5.7 (five point seven). In the USA the number in 1950 was around 3 (three) in 1950 and had gone down to less than 1.8 (one point eight) in 2020. In China the fertility rate in 1950 was around 5 (five) and had gone down to less than 1.5 (one point five) in 2020.
Look at the changes in life expectancy and fertility and consider how they correlate. People will have more children depending on how they count on their own and their children’s survival. Further look at country policies. China, centrally controlled, mandated a one child policy in the 1970’s when the number of children per woman had been around four. Why? Well, simply because China wanted to industrialize, assume a certain place in the world and meet its peoples’ hopes for a more comfortable existence. Life expectancy in 1975 in China was already around 64 (sixty-four) years.
But how did China know or calculate? Well, much was studied and known by the 1960’s (nineteen sixties) and ’70s (seventies) and quite a number followed upon. There were even warnings about the overuse of resources, the effects on water, on desertification, on the environment as population, peoples’ lifespans increased, and material ‘welfare’ improved. The Club of Rome came out with a book in 1972 called ‘Limits to Growth’. It was quite popular and has had updates.
There were about 2.5 (two point five) billion people around the time I was born. We are now close to 8 (eight) billion. However, look at another figure and be astounded. The number of vehicles on this planet, of which there were about 100 (one hundred) million in 1950 (nineteen fifty), has at least risen to over 2 (two) billion. I’ve also seen other figures that put the number of vehicles at 500 (five hundred)million in 1970 and 3.5 (three point five) billion now. In any case, those are staggering increases and their impact on the environment something which we are beginning to really feel. You know that.
However, think of all the people who feel they have better and freer lives because of them. Think about the fact that, though we speak constantly about the vast differences between the rich and the poor, there are in fact as fewer differences in the most basic area, ‘life’ itself, than there were in 1950. We have erred but not because we were horrible but because we wanted a better, longer life possible for humankind.
But for a moment let’s go to the international system and the role it has played. Let us start with predicted calculations. Scientists meeting at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva talked and wrote about large future epidemics in the 1970s, just as they discussed and wrote about desertification, urbanization and environmental degradation. Note that UN’s environmental organization was founded in 1972. The first big UN world population conference was held in 1974. I, at the time an interpreter based in UN Geneva, was part of that conference in Bucharest. I also worked UN environmental conferences, a big one in Nairobi later in the decade. In fact, those of us in the international community, have been talking, writing, and warning about everything that is hitting us now. Moreover, some of us even made life changing decisions as a result of it. For instance, colleagues of mine and I decided not to have any children.
Yet could what is happening now been prevented? Was anything achieved? Well, our population only doubled since 1970. It was nearing four billion then and is about to hit eight billion now. We would, however, have as many as eleven billion if we had continued to increase as we had been at the time. Over time vehicles were built to use less fuel per kilometer. In 1970 many car models consumed as many as 20 (twenty) liters per 100 (hundred) kilometers. Today, some consume as few as 2 (two) liters per 100 (hundred) kilometers. So, the warnings did have an impact. On the other hand, had the world heeded more, we would have been facing fewer challenges. But think about the challenges we faced in 1950 (nineteen fifty): incredible inequalities in well being and lifespan. We were able to really decrease them! Think of the way the Chinese live today compared to the way they lived in 1950 (nineteen fifty)!
To be blunt, Greta, we get used to catastrophic events, we bemoan them, but, if we are not personally subject to them, we go back to our ‘normal’ lives. I almost have to laugh because, in spite of the coronavirus having filled children’s ICUs in my city, in spite of another spike in overall cases, the highways around me are back to normal, so congested in the morning rush that cars are crawling, looking like ants on a small screen.
You know about the UN sustainable development goals. Most may not. Well, they were worked out between 2012 and 2015 and included inputs from ‘civil society’, that is organizations and institutions like the ones you have been involved with that are interested in what the United Nations does and play a part what it is doing. As a representative of a non-governmental organization, I was, along with hundreds of thousands of others, one who filled in our preferences. However, considering what we are living through, should we look at them again? Should we revise them? What should our goals be?
What is the hope for the future?
It lies with all of us.
The pandemic coupled with the weather events in the last few years have to make all of us, each one of us, rethink how we live. During the middle of World War II, the allies, with Churchill and Roosevelt leading, dared think of a United Nations to try to prevent another world war and create a better life for all humanity. It was a catalyst that led to the establishment of hundreds of organizations, thousands of programs and incredible improvements in certain areas but also resulted in new complicated challenges. The task before us, the young and old, today, is to have the minds and hearts to help form an ‘enlightened public opinion’ that makes it easier for all to adapt, as well as possible, to new realities while at the same time, hopefully, prevent or mitigate the worst possible scenarios.
We should be able to look at what we have achieved and be thankful for it. We should be aware of how complicated the road ahead is, one of adaptation and hope, that will lead us, humans, to our next step, up the ladder of positive evolution and not down into an abyss of recrimination and destruction.