© 2022 by Alan AtKisson
Part 1 in a series of essays. DRAFT published 19 July 2022 at AlanAtKisson.com
In 1999 I published my first book, Believing Cassandra. That book – which opens with a retelling of the history of another book, The Limits to Growth (1972) – was an instant hit in its very tiny niche, earning “Bestseller” status for its category and sending me around the world on the keynote-speaker circuit. Believing Cassandra was purchased in boxloads by organizations as diverse as Nike Inc., the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Army. For many years it held a spot in university courses, and there was enough demand for it as an introductory book on global sustainability trends and strategies for action that a second, updated edition came out in 2010.
These past few weeks, I began going through Believing Cassandra again to see what might need to be updated if I decided to put out a third edition. Does the book hold up? Is its message still relevant, given the rapid expansion of sustainable development over the past decade? Is it worth updating the data, the examples, the general framing of sustainability? And what about the trends I described, both good and bad? Have things turned out the way I and others expected?
In this series of essays, I will share my initial findings from this review process, starting with an overarching reflection: an initial review of the data suggests that the World has gotten mostly better since 1999 (and especially since 2010), but that the health of Nature has continued to get worse. In Believing Cassandra, I use “World” to mean the whole human family and its activity on this planet, and “Nature” to refer to the biosphere as well as the non-living planetary systems that keep us alive.
Such simple summaries do not, however, reflect the situation well, or even accurately — which is the subject of this first essay. Here is something I wrote in 1999, on page 8 of Believing Cassandra, to describe the global situation at that time:
Today, we live in a World of swelling populations concentrated in the poorest regions, disappearing fish and fresh water resources, declining food production per capita, global financial turmoil, increasingly desperate migration (often caused by natural or environmental disaster), rising conflict over land and resources, toxic pollution affecting nearly every living organism, and a dangerously changing climate caused by the ever-increasing emissions from our cars, power plants, and factories.
When I updated the book in 2010, I saw no reason to change that one-sentence summary. In just 68 words, it paints an undeniably gloomy picture of global trends. But is it accurate now? Would I write it differently today? Let’s take the sentence apart, piece by piece, and look at the current and historical data underlying its claims.
1. “Today, we live in a World of swelling populations concentrated in the poorest regions …”
Surprise: this one-sentence summary is no longer accurate. The situation regarding global poverty, population growth, and the relationship between them has changed dramatically since when I began researching my book in the 1990s. Much of that change was already under way in 2010, but it accelerated dramatically in the years after that.
The biggest changes have occurred in China and India. By 2020, China declared that it had completely eliminated extreme poverty, by its own definition of that term. In effect, just 6% of China’s total population at the time (1.4 billion) were counted as poor. And those were just the overall national numbers, which aggregate urban and rural trends together. If you only looked at the Chinese countryside, the story was even more dramatic: from 98% poverty in 1978 to 5% in 2020. No matter which specific definition of the “poverty line” one uses, the transformation in China is truly remarkable.
But the story in India, whose population grew by about 40% between 2000 and 2020, also reaching about 1.4 billion, is also remarkable. That country is also expected to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 – despite the dip in the economy resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Reducing poverty is one of the great human success stories of the early 21st century. The goal set by the UN in the year 2000 was to cut global poverty in half within 15 years. That goal was accomplished far ahead of schedule. There were about 1,7 billion poor people in the year 2000. By 2015, that number had dropped to just over 700 million. China and India were the global motors for that change.
So where are the World’s poor today? A recent study of global poverty trends over the past three decades summarizes the situation this way:
Whereas in 1990, poverty was concentrated in low-income, Asian countries, today’s (and tomorrow’s) poverty is largely found in sub-Saharan Africa and fragile and conflict-affected states [emphasis added]. By 2030, sub-Saharan African countries will account for 9 of the top 10 countries by poverty headcount. Sixty percent of the global poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected states. (Karas and Dooley, “The evolution of global poverty 1990-2020,” 2 February 2022, Brookings Institution)
What about population growth? Globally, it has been steadily slowing down for decades. But in sub-Saharan Africa – where much of global poverty is increasingly concentrated, as noted above – the growth rate is still 2.7%, which is much higher than any other major region in the world.
The details of global poverty analysis are numerous and complicated and the World has gotten much more sophisticated in its methods for measuring it. But obviously I would be forced to rewrite this first part of my global-summary sentence if I were to produce a third edition of my first book. Perhaps it would go something like this: “Today, we live in a World where the number of people living in poverty has rapidly declined – but poverty remains persistent in those regions affected by conflict and swelling populations.”
2. “… disappearing fish and freshwater resources, …”
Summarizing global trends in fish stocks is tricky business. On the one hand, the amount of wild fish caught by humans has essentially remained stable since the 1990s. What has changed has been the type of fish caught (e.g. switching to deeper-water fish when surface-dwelling species become relatively depleted) as well as the region-scale picture, with different species experiencing very different fates, depending on a wide range of human and natural factors. Cod off the coast of Canada, for example, have never recovered after their crash in the 1970s and 1980s. Bottom-dwelling fish in UK waters have declined over 75% since their peak in the 1960s.
But quite a number of fisheries have recovered after collapsing, thanks to effective reforms in fisheries management. And the number of fish that people are either catching in the wild or growing in pens, and then either eating or feeding to their land animals, is absolutely not declining, but rather steadily growing, thanks to the rapid rise of aquaculture. I completely missed this extremely important trend in the first two editions of Believing Cassandra. In 1999, global aquaculture production was about 30% of the world’s total fish consumption. By 2015, it was more than half of the total. The most recent data I see suggests that aquaculture is now much bigger than the capture of wild fish, perhaps by as much as 50%. (I say “perhaps” because measuring total fish production and consumption is even tricker. In its most recent global survey of fish production, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization devotes a special section to the data revisions that were required from the 2018 to the 2020 edition. The revisions mostly resulted in lower totals.)
It goes without saying that producing fish through aquaculture requires resources – including energy and feed – that are often not sustainable in the long run. But still, “disappearing fish” no longer works as a simple or even accurate summary of the situation. The global picture is much more nuanced. A just-released global study of biodiversity trends from the international program known IPBES notes that “Countries with robust fisheries management have seen stocks increasing in abundance” (such as bluefin tuna in the Atlantic) but also notes that “the status of stocks is often poorly known, but generally believed to be below the abundance that would maximise sustainable food production”. Translation: we don’t know for sure, but we are probably still fishing too much.
Freshwater resources are another story entirely – and also an extremely complex one. In 1999, when I drafted Believing Cassandra, as well as when I updated the book in 2010, it seemed that most global assessments of fresh water availability were ringing alarm bells about the future. Unsustainable agricultural groundwater extraction, a warming planet, melting glaciers (which store water for many people in poorer regions), pollution and other trends were creating both water scarcity and water stress.
Water scarcity and water stress are still big problems today, for much the same reasons. But finding good scientific summaries with clear messages about global trends is a challenge, because the global picture has, again, become much more complicated – not least because of climate change and its increasing reality and impact. The best global study I could find uses data from a special satellite-based measuring system, called “GRACE”, that looked at changes in the total mass of water in basins around the world between 2002 and 2017. Here is how the researchers summarized their findings, published in 2019:
The availability of fresh water is rapidly changing all over the world, creating a tenuous future that requires attention from policymakers and the public. … The world’s wet regions are getting wetter and its dry areas are getting drier much more quickly than previously thought, changes that threaten the availability of fresh water and create new risks to people’s health, the food supply, and the environment. (Jay Famigletti, “A Map of the Future of Water,” Pew Charitable Trusts, 3 March 2019.)
Considering the recent headlines – e.g. major floods in Sydney, major droughts in Italy – that sounds about right. But again, I would have to edit my sentence: “disappearing” is no longer defensible as a simple summary of the global situation regarding either fish or fresh water. So here is my proposed rewrite of this phrase. The message is less simple, less alarming, but no less important: this is a World of “uncertain trends in our fish stocks, and rapid and troubling changes in our freshwater resources.”
3. … declining food production per capita, …
On this point, I was simply wrong. Global food production per capita has been steadily and constantly increasing since 1990.
In my defense, I was listening intently to other leaders in sustainability at the time, well-known researchers who had long been ringing alarm bells about falling grain stockpiles and pressures on land use from growing populations. (Such researchers are often accused of being gloomy “Cassandras,” even when they eventually prove to be right, which was the whole point of my book.) Also, the problem of inequality in the distribution of food production was a problem then and remains a challenge today.
But let the public record show: I allowed the general atmosphere of worry about food futures, which was the prevalent zeitgeist within the sustainability research community, to affect my reading of the actual data. I humbly retract this inaccurate statement.
A correct reading of the data, in global summary, goes roughly like this: we live in a World where food production has both steadily increased and become more efficient, meaning it takes less cropland to feed each person (see a good analysis of global food production trends from 1990-2013 in this research paper from 2020).
Global food production is a success story because it has led to reduced hunger around the World, but it is not an unequivocally positive story. In the World’s poorest regions, increasing crop efficiency is not keeping ahead of population growth, which means cropland demand is growing. And that means pressures on biodiversity are growing, as forests and other wild habitats get converted to cropland. Food production also contributes mightily to climate change; it faces regional challenges regarding freshwater availability (see above); and on a finite planet, there are obvious ultimate limits to the amount of cropland available to us, limits that we must continuously work to live within, not least through our dietary choices.
But reviewing the global data from the last few decades was a rather harsh lesson to me. My plainly incorrect summary statement about “declining food production per capita” somehow evaded not only my own journalistic judgment, but also numerous editors and reviewers, across two editions of the book. (No one has ever questioned that statement, at least not directly to me.) We must all have been affected by the general warning signals and alarm bells about food production that we were constantly hearing in the professional sustainability community. In this case, it seems I “believed Cassandra” a little too well.
But what about the future? Will this positive trend eventually turn negative, as many still worry or claim? I am very reluctant to say. In fact, from what I have seen over the past two decades, humans seem quite capable of both advancing farming technology quickly and changing their diets, which is what it will take to keep feeding the World. Plant-based diets are suddenly getting popular. Even fast-food chains offer good-tasting veggie hamburgers now. It’s all about choices. Serious students of this question will want to look at the UN Food and Agriculture Organizations future-scenario study from 2018 (and many other more recent articles).
For a new version of Believing Cassandra, I would have to write something like this: we live in a World of increasing food production per capita — but with important choices ahead of us if we want to continue that trend and eliminate hunger sustainably.
4. … global financial turmoil, …
When I was drafting Believing Cassandra, the World was wrestling with the serious fallout of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. When I updated the book in 2010, we were still reeling from the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. The statement “global financial turmoil” still seems like a reasonable summary of what was going on at both points in time.
But “global financial turmoil” also seems like a reasonable thing to say about our own time. As I write this article, in mid-2022, inflation is heating up globally as a side effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Stock markets are falling. And the new markets in cryptocurrency are crashing. Many leaders, including the people who run our central banks, are demonstrably worried.
But so far at least, the global economy has not stopped in its tracks or crashed completely, and it is not likely to collapse any time soon. Which prompts this reflection: when are we not affected by “global financial turmoil”? The complexity of the global financial system grows continuously. Crises appear with great regularity. National and international regulatory mechanisms adapt, innovate, and manage the crises. Dealing with continuous change at this scale is a tremendous challenge – and I can say this with confidence thanks to professional interactions with some of the world’s leading financial actors over the past few years – but the World actually seems to be getting better at handling the risks, as well as the consequences of the inevitable breakdowns.
So in fact, deploying the phrase “global financial turmoil” in this way, with its overtones of warning about great trouble ahead or even impending future collapse, no longer works for me. I would amend the phrase like this: we live in a World of growing financial complexity, which brings with it unavoidable risk and occasional crisis but which also, on the whole, has exhibited a rather remarkable stability.
Issuing warnings about financial challenges is still useful in this situation. We need our financial Cassandras to make the World stay on its toes and avoid real meltdowns in our currencies, debt structures, and investment markets. But perhaps the financial sky is not so close to falling as I seemed to be implying back in 1999 and 2010. If we stay vigilant, we will probably be okay. And that is an important insight, because in fact there are other, much bigger problems to worry about. (See especially point 8 below.)
5. … increasingly desperate migration (often caused by natural or environmental disaster), …
On this point, I was definitely not wrong. In fact I underestimated just how quickly and steadily this problem would grow, and what decisive consequences it would have for our World.
Since 1990, the number of migrants in the world – people who are on the move seeking work or safety somewhere else than where they would otherwise live – has doubled to about 300 million. Around one-third of these people are refugees displaced by war, violence, human rights abuses, and/or climate change. And the number of refugees has doubled in just the last ten years.
The phrase “increasingly desperate” is also horribly accurate, given the number of people who are now dying in their attempts to reach political safety or economic possibility: to pick just one example, over 3,000 died just trying to get to Europe by sea in 2021.
Unfortunately, in an update of Believing Cassandra, this phrase – first penned over two decades ago – would not need to be changed. It seems to be getting truer all the time.
6. … rising conflict over land and resources …
Unfortunately again, this brief summary of the global situation has held up and remains accurate, which means that the problem has continued growing. The Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) has documented a steadily rising number of active armed conflicts in the World since Believing Cassandra was first published – from just over 30 in 2002 to 56 in 2020. PRIO also notes that “Both shortages and abundance of resources have increasingly been linked to conflict activity.”
Sadly, no update required.
7. … toxic pollution affecting nearly every living organism, …
In retrospect, I was indulging in hyperbole when I composed this phrase. To claim that toxic pollution affects “nearly every living organism” is a bit absurd when you consider that Earth may be home to a trillion different species of microbes alone. (Estimates of the number of individual bacteria truly make the head spin.) So, scratch that line. It is pure exaggeration.
But unfortunately, we cannot scratch the problem itself. Exposure to toxic chemicals of all kinds is estimated to be the number one cause of death in human beings, according to a global study in the Lancet. There is even a scientific name now for the cumulative exposure faced by each individual, over the course of their lifetime, to the 2,900 catalogued toxins in our environment: the “exposome”. Many of the chemicals in the exposome are persistent, meaning they get into your body and stay there. And new chemicals are being added to this creepy cocktail all the time – most recently, ubiquitous microplastics.
In the interests of scientific accuracy, as well as good writing, let me officially rephrase this summary: we live in a World where everyone is exposed to an enormous and expanding medley of toxic chemicals, a problem that is likely the number one threat to our health today and whose long-term effects we are far from understanding.
8. … and a dangerously changing climate caused by the ever-increasing emissions from our cars, power plants and factories.
This last phrase is a real killer, and I mean that literally. Regardless of how right or wrong the text of Believing Cassandra was in its descriptions and interpretations of the other global trends mentioned above, the gist of this final statement – written sixteen years before the signing of the Paris Agreement – is no longer in doubt. There is today a shared global understanding that we have a “dangerously changing climate.” Most days, you can read about it in the news.
There are two picky details that would nonetheless cause me to amend statement number 8 above: (1) CO2 emissions growth from the transport sector has slowed (it actually fell by 10% during the Covid-19 pandemic) and emissions could start falling in coming years, as the world converts to electric and other low-emission technologies. More and more people reading a book like Believing Cassandra might have a Tesla charging up in the garage. So listing “cars” first (because I thought people reading the book could easily relate to their cars) no longer works well here, even though fossil-fuel-driven cars and trucks will be with us for many years to come. (2) In 2020, the global Covid-19 pandemic caused a small decrease in CO2 emissions overall, which makes the description “ever-increasing” technically false — even though emissions rebounded to their highest levels in history in 2021.
But these matters of textual exactness are truly petty in comparison to the actual problem. As I write this article, global warming is once again making headlines by fueling deadly heat waves and forest fires across Europe. The link between climate change and increasing incidence of weather-related disaster, once hotly debated, is no longer controversial. Most of the World knows that we are in serious trouble. Recently the Prime Minister of Spain said plainly, “Climate change kills.” These days, even global oil companies are making “net zero” pledges to drawn down their carbon emissions.
And the Cassandras of yesterday are saying, “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
At the same time (in fact, on the same day that I started writing this essay) the New York Times has reported that US action to address climate change is unlikely reach the levels needed to avert dangerous climate change due to the growing problem of inflation. What the United States does or does not do matters greatly, since it remains the World’s largest economy. But it seems that today’s version of “global financial turmoil” – that is, the kind of short-term economic problem about which I wrote about in point 4 above – is once again pushing our biggest long-term global crisis, affecting life on Earth for generations to come, down the list of political priorities. At least, for now. If the real Cassandra of Troy were here, she would certainly have something to say about that.
Conclusion: major revision required
To add it all up: my one-sentence summary of global sustainability trends, which seemed accurate in both the 1999 and 2010 versions of Believing Cassandra, would require serious revision in 2022. Nor could that same summary be done in just one comprehensible sentence: the world has become far too complicated for that. Perhaps I could replace it with another short sentence reflecting on how we have continued to “purchase” improved global welfare for the growing human World at the “cost” of sacrificing Nature and endangering ourselves — but that is actually related to another set of trends and quite a different story, with its own nuances, ambiguities and uncertainties.
We are only on page 8, and already Believing Cassandra needs a serious overhaul. Partly this is because both the World’s and Nature’s sustainability issues have become much more complicated, and the science of analyzing them has advanced in parallel. Today’s Cassandras – who now form a large army of researchers working at universities, institutes, public agencies and civil society organizations around the World – speak a very different language of “planetary boundaries”, “tipping points”, and “resilience”, and they have even renamed our current historical era to reflect humanity’s dominant impact on Nature. They say we are all living in the “Anthropocene”.
But in larger part, Believing Cassandra would have to be revised because we are already living in the future World that sustainability’s pioneers have been warning us about for half a century – but also trying to change for the better. In some ways, those efforts to change the World’s trajectory succeeded: there are positive changes happening all around us. Catastrophes like mass hunger or the complete collapse of global fisheries have been avoided, renewables and efficiency are transforming our energy systems, and many fewer people live in crushing poverty. We don’t think so much about the positive aspects of these trends because, as a newspaper editor told me many years ago, “positive trends aren’t news.”
So can we relax? Is “The Sustainability Transformation” – also the title of my second book, first published in 2008 – already happening, already here? Or do those of us working for a sustainable future need to redouble our efforts, and our numbers?
What do you think?
This is part one in a series of essays revisiting my published books and re-examining them for their relevance in today’s world. You can follow the series at my blog, AlanAtKisson.com.
 USD 2.30 per day considering price levels in 2011. The World Bank was using USD 1.90 per day.
 Follow this link for an introduction to multidimensional poverty analysis and other tools, which is what we use at the agency I work for now, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.