Earth from Apollo 8, 1968. Photo courtesy NASA
When the Beatles’ John Lennon first heard Paul McCartney’s It’s Getting Better all the Time, he had only one suggestion, adding, “can’t get no worse,” to the chorus. The former sentiment is, in fact, true. The latter is not: It can get worse.
Nicholas Kristof asserted, in a provocative and much-discussed piece in The New York Times, that despite appearances, many things are getting better all the time. Kristof cites statistics such as the halving of child mortality, rising levels of education and literacy, and much-reduced levels of extreme poverty. That’s all excellent news, and quite true.
Yet other things are getting worse. Sea levels are rising fast, and the ice caps of our youth are doomed. Many millions of acres of brush and woodland in Russia, Australia, Brazil, Borneo, California, and elsewhere around the world are afire — and the dry season is just beginning.
Earth Overshoot (EO) day, the date by which a given year’s total planetary-resource budget has been used, keeps arriving earlier and earlier, such as the EO date of July 29th in 2019. The rest of the year was fueled, mined, grown, watered, and logged on this year’s credit.
Kristof himself acknowledges this, quoting Oxford economist Max Roser’s well-known koan stating that, “The world is much better. The world is awful. The world can be much better.” Given this, how do we reconcile the first two facts, these two truths moving in opposite directions?
 The Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967, Parlophone Records
Some critical things — like the lives of the poor — are improving, while others — such as the condition of the earth’s ecosystems — are declining dangerously. How do we make sense of this?
The answer is, we don’t. They exist on separate tracks. The world is getting better. And also getting worse.
Kate Raworth’s conception of this dichotomy as a donut is helpful here. When both what Raworth calls the Social Foundation and the ‘Ecological Ceiling’ are respected, all is well, all is balanced.
Think of the inner ring of the donut as the “floor” of providing basic necessities (adequate food, water, education, health, freedom, etc.) and the outer rim as the “ceiling” of planetary boundaries (not using more fresh water than can be replenished, not pumping more carbon into the atmosphere than it can absorb without changing the climate).
This only makes sense: leaving people below the ‘floor’ consigns millions or billions of people to less than they deserve. Crashing through the ceiling consigns millions or billions of tomorrow’s citizens to less than they deserve.
 This is not a question of those alive today versus those as-yet unborn. Though 2100 seems far away, many of today’s young people will live to see it. They are today’s citizens and tomorrow’s citizens.
If the Social Foundation — or chunks thereof — shrinks into the donut hole, there is a shortfall, and people don’t have enough of their basic needs met. If, conversely, the Ecological Ceiling rises above the outer rim of the donut, we have exceeded — or ‘overshot’ in Raworth’s model — our planet’s ability to support our activity.
In fact, and to Kristof’s key point, the Social Foundation is rising in several of its most crucial metrics. Yet as we know, we have also broken through the Ecological Ceiling to the point where we are borrowing against our future on a daily basis. Which brings us to economist Roser’s third assertion: that the world could be much better.
In fact, as we can now clearly see, we must make the world much better, and fast. To do this we must find a better way, a system that encourages improvements in social and material progress for the poor without undermining the future of those very same people – and billions of others.
The improvements Kristof notes are examples of raising more people above the floor, so their basic needs are being met. This must continue, both because it is just, and because people who don’t have enough today are, understandably, less likely to focus on protecting the future. If this trend goes retrograde, it will hamper our ability to improve our environmental trajectory.
And so, as noted above, the good stuff Kristof cites actually depends on our not continuing the bad stuff. More people being literate is great — but what’s the value of that if they don’t have enough water? A cell phone is potentially a wonderful boon, but does it really help if its production and business model create conditions where its owner’s farm has become a desert?
And water issues have plenty of company as things that could derail progress. Topsoil erosion is lowering the productivity of land, even when there’s enough water. The combination of soil and water issues would be a double whammy to the billions of people — such as the 70% of Africans who depend on agriculture for their livelihood or to help feed themselves.
Another critical issue is that 190 million people are projected to live in coastal areas that, if current trends continue, will be below the high-tide line in 2100. Any resulting large-scale dislocation would present huge social, economic, and political challenges.
The consequences of exceeding environmental limits will damage our ability to make social progress. After all, the economy is — as has been written elsewhere — a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.
So, what can we do? Can we find a better way?
We can indeed. The very inefficiencies in our current systems that caused this situation also suggest the way forward.
Let’s take consumption first. Most of the world’s resource consumption today isn’t directed at basic needs. Spending fewer resources on things that aren’t necessities would leave plenty for expanded access to things that are.
That doesn’t necessarily mean having fewer niceties, just spending less of our available resources on them. This is especially true because our production and distribution systems are almost unbelievably inefficient. The food wasted by the US and Europe alone is enough to feed the entire world, for example. In addition, a lot of what comes out of factories isn’t even the product we care about, but trash, pollution, packaging, and other non-product outputs.
Our end-of-use systems are even worse, consigning billions of dollars’ worth of formerly valuable — sometimes even currently valuable — products to the trash heap.
And often there are better, less-wasteful ways to get what we want. Clean electricity is obvious, but the same story can occur with physical goods. At one time, we owned records and CDs, but streaming services offer the music without the hassle of ownership and are now predominant. Ride hailing, Airbnb, Zipcar, bikeshare, and many others have pioneered a transition from an ownership model to pay-for-service.
This can dramatically shrink environmental footprint. The transition to streaming, for example, means we have eliminated the vast majority of the manufacture, distribution, storage, and disposal of CDs. A full transition to ride-share and Zipcar could have a dramatic impact on auto manufacturing, the space allocated to driveways and garages, and a host of other positive ancillary effects.
It is indeed possible to continue the good trends while changing the bad ones. We know the world is, in some important ways, getting better. We know, too, that the world is awful. It is our task now to stop the slide and make it much better.