Troubled Planet

How healthy is the world?Commentary: Gilding the global lily

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 21 December 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1461

How healthy is the world?

  1. Bj⊘rn Lomborg, director (
  1. Danish Environmental Assessment Institute, Linnésgade 18, DK-1361 Copenhagen K, Denmark
  2. Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia

    We are often told that we are destroying our environment and that living conditions are deteriorating. The author of The Skeptical Environmentalist looks at global data and comes up with a more optimistic view

    In The Skeptical Environmentalist I set out to describe the entire state of the world in a single book.1 This was by no means easy, and so I was a bit hesitant when the BMJ asked me to do the same again—only this time in 1500 words. So how can the true state of the world be reduced to 1500 words? Of course, it cannot be. But by relying on official statistics, global trends, and long term tendencies (what I usually refer to as fundamentals), we can draw a reasonably good picture. However, not everything can be fitted into this picture, and this article will focus on human welfare.

    Summary points

    Life expectancy and prosperity have risen in developed and developing countries over the past 50 years and are expected to continue to rise

    Food production should keep up with population growth without greatly encroaching on forest area

    Available energy resources are increasing

    Pollution is likely to fall as countries become wealthier

    The Kyoto agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will have little effect on global warming

    Measuring human welfare is complex because it consists of a myriad of inter-related subjective and objective factors. I will therefore focus on international acknowledged objective indicators of human welfare such as life expectancy, prosperity, and the fulfilment of basic needs.

    Life expectancy

    One of the central aspects of human welfare is life itself. Life expectancy is a proxy for the general state of health, but it also possesses an intrinsic value. Figure 1 shows the remarkable increase in life expectancy for the developing world over the past 50 years, from 41 years …

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