Until fairly recently, modern humans wandered the Earth in small bands across a bountiful, seemingly endless landscape. The idea of a limited world was largely ignored. Until half a century ago, there was never any need to ask the question.
Now things are different.
Despite persistent wars, famine and disease, modern society has nevertheless grown at a frankly astonishing rate. The Agricultural Revolution, expanding infrastructure and advances in medical care have helped increase mean living standards globally. In many respects our society is better off today than it was 1990, when 46 percent of the world’s population lived in chronic poverty. By 2005 that number had fallen to 27 percent, and is projected to fall below 15 percent in 2015. We have witnessed similar progress in education: more children are attending school, and more of those children are girls.
It’s worth noting that these improvements have been achieved despite a growing world population, which is finally showing signs of slowing — but therein lies another problem. Slower population growth does not equate to population stabilization; we still expect the world to grow increasingly overcrowded. Barring any disasters, the overall population will reach about 9 billion by 2040.
More of us live in urban environments. The creation of necessary infrastructure, educational and employment opportunities for the rising middle classes is placing considerable pressure not only on governments and the economy, but also on non-renewable resources and ecosystems. The problem is further exacerbated by a marked disparity in growth rates around various regions of the world. Rising populations, coupled with widening disparities of living standards, ecological destruction and natural disasters are poised to create the largest people movements in history.
Thanks to pervasive media technologies, many of us are well aware of the misfortunes of others. Unfortunately, our society has traditionally shown little enthusiasm for sharing wealth, especially on a global scale. International acts of altruism — however well meaning — tend to be sporadic and poorly organized at best.
It’s not all bad news. We are (at last) seriously considering sustainable development solutions. Furthermore, we are beginning to realise that we need to build a different kind of society, with a revised economic framework that is celebrated for its contribution to society and the world.
If nothing else, we may imagine how business, the economy and the world could look if we think and act long term. We are, after all, working towards a more human future, leaving behind centuries of expansion and uncontrolled consumption. We will always be a species on the move, a bigger tribe inhabiting a smaller world — but now it’s time to take a different path. In order to survive, we need nothing less than an evolution in thought and cooperation — a transition into becoming a responsible society.
Part of the above text was derived from the 50+20 Agenda, which will be launched at the UN PRME 3rd Global Forum during the RIO+20 summit.