Keywords: Economics, economic development, social policy, climate change

Title: The Improving State Of The World

Author: Indur Goklany

Publisher: Cato Institute

ISBN: 1930865988


Ever since people first climbed down from the trees they have been complaining that society has been going to the dogs. If anything the tendency to complain that it's all going to rack and ruin has accelerated to the point where pessimism and angst are the defining features of current public discourse. This despite the fact that here in the West at least, people are living longer, healthy and more prosperous lies. To the long list of doom-laden scenarios - war, pestilence, starvation, over-population - we can now add global warming and environmental degradation as the root causes of the impending destruction of mankind and the planet as a whole. The question that Indur Goklany addresses in this book is quite simple, is the pessimism warranted? Do the facts bear out the belief that things are indeed getting worse and the fear that they will continue to do so. The answer, of course, is in the title of the book.

Goklany marshals an impressive range of official statistics and research materials to show that far from getting worse, things have been improving, particularly in the spheres of health, prosperity, the environment and technology. And it is not just in the prosperous West that things have been getting better, he shows that apart from some parts of sub-Saharan Africa and some of the post-Soviet countries, things have been improving in the rest of the world too. In fact Goklany is at pains to prove that while many parts of the world lag the West, they are also ahead of where the USA and the UK were at comparable levels of economic development. This is an important point, and serves as a useful counter-point to those who are rage against globalisation as bringing poverty and exploitation to the poorest parts of the world.

Goklany also counters the fear that economic development drives increasing levels of environmental degradation. He shows that in general societies enter into an environmental transition at a certain point of development. Simply put when people no longer have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, and can afford health care and education, they begin to turn towards other aspects of improving their lives, and that includes tackling pollution and other environmental problems. In this sense those who care about saving the world should be campaigning for more economic development, not less.

As with Bjorn Lomberg's 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', Goklany's arguments run counter to the prevailing alarmism in the media, and are equally supported using a wide range of statistics from international bodies such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and so on. While these facts and figures do well to support a compelling argument, they do lend an academic tone to the book, which can be dry reading at times.

When it comes to climate change, Goklany takes a pragmatic line rather than jumping into the pro or anti-anthropogenic warming camp. He points out the uncertainties in the science and the complex problems of building layers of models that cascade results from one to the other. Even such a seemingly operation of determining global average temperatures is fraught with problems. While he does not reject the hypothesis that man-made CO2 emissions are driving global warming, he seriously takes to task those who argue that global warming is the single biggest problem facing the world. Again the facts do not bear out the most alarmist rhetoric used by environmentalists. Goklany shows both that existing problems, (such as malaria, malnutrition, indoor air pollution etc), are more immediately damaging to people and that even under different warming scenarios a warmer world provides benefits as wells as problems. Again, Goklany shows that even here improved economic development is a bigger driver for coping with these problems than CO2 mitigation strategies.

There is much to commend this book, that provides nuanced arguments well supported by empirical evidence. While he does not claim that this is 'the best of all possible worlds', he also shows that on the whole things have been getting better for humanity. We feed more people, who are better educated, live longer and healthier lives in a safer, cleaner world. For those interested in countering the pessimism that infects public media, or who wish to understand the different strategies available to tackle climate change, this is an important work.

Contents © London Book Review 2007. Published April 25 2007