Sir James Bevan on Our Earth, Our Future and Reasons to be Optimistic
"One reason to be an optimist is that it’s good for you: studies show that people who have a positive outlook on life live longer, are healthier, more prosperous and more successful. But as I’ve tried to show you today, a better reason to be an optimist – about our world and our future - is that it’s justified by the facts."
So said Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, in a March 2023 speech at the University of Sussex entitled "Our Earth, Our Future: Reasons to be Cheerful."
Sir James said:
It’s easy to be a pessimist about our world. You can point to any number of problems that make life difficult and the future uncertain. And it’s much easier to get a story into the media if it’s bad news.
But let me try today to persuade you that the pessimists are wrong. That not only is this a good time to be alive but that it’s the best of all times to be a human.
Why it’s great to be alive now
Fred Astaire, the great Hollywood dancer, was once asked in his later years what he thought of growing old. He said that it was better than the alternative.
And of course being alive at any time is almost always preferable to the alternative. But I would suggest that in almost all parts of the world being a live human in 2023 is better than at any time in the past.
The first condition of a good life is good health. And in 2023 we humans are healthier than ever before. We are better fed: the percentage of undernourished people in the world, which was nearly 20% not much more than ten years ago, is down to around 10% today. Fewer women than ever now die in childbirth: global maternal mortality has been cut by half since 1990. And fewer children than ever before die in childhood: since 1960, the mortality rate for those under five has been cut by more than half.
We are living longer than ever before. A thousand years ago the average person lived to the age of twenty. Ever since then life expectancy has been rising. The world average life expectancy for a person born today is now 70 years for men and 75 years for women. In richer countries like ours it’s even higher.
The life expectancy of a baby born in the UK today is 81.77 years. What looks like a miracle – the quadrupling of life expectancy over the last millennium – is almost entirely due to some very basic and practical things: improved nutrition and health care, sanitation and access to clean running water.
We are not only healthier and longer-living. We are richer than ever before. The average human now earns three times as much in real terms than 50 years ago. The average Chinese person is ten times richer.
And as prosperity grows, poverty is dropping. Since this University was founded in 1961, the percentage of the world’s people living in poverty has been cut by a greater amount than ever previously recorded. In 1990 more than a third (36%) of the world’s population lived in poverty (defined by the UN as $1.90 a day). By 2010 that was down to 16% and by 2015 it was only 10%. That means that the lives of literally billions of people are better now than they were. And it means that the dream of ending poverty for all is within our reach.
Democracy and human rights
Most of us have more freedom than ever before. For most of human history, most people did not get to choose their rulers. But today, after the great wave of decolonisation and the collapse of totalitarian states in Europe, democracy – however flawed in some places - is the default. It is the countries that are not democracies that are now the odd ones out.
More people are exercising their human rights than ever before, including in terms of race, sex, gender, age, sexuality, disability, freedom of belief and expression.
The world is becoming a better place for 50% of its population: women. That is not to say that women everywhere don’t still face huge challenges which men do not: they do, and those challenges are almost all because of men.
But all over the globe women are asserting and acquiring rights which men have long taken for granted: the right to work, to vote, to equal pay, to hold public office, to own property, to education, to serve in the military, to have a bank account, to enter into legal agreements, to decide for themselves whether and who they marry, and whether and when they have children.
None of that means that the battle for gender equality has been won, that it’s easy to be female in today’s world or that women everywhere are better off. As the father of three girls, and someone who has lived all over the world including in Africa and India, I know that women everywhere still face massive challenges. But I do think that in most parts of the world now there has never been a better time in history to be born a girl.
We know more things than we have ever known, and more people know them. More people are being educated today than ever, and to a higher standard. Technology is empowering everyone.
Your mobile phone – and most people in the world now either have or have access to a smartphone - gives you instant access to all the knowledge in the world.
Challenge the conventional wisdom
Even some of the things we think are bad about the 21st century are good.
Take urbanisation. In 2007 the world crossed a little-noticed threshold: that was the first year in human history in which there were more people living in cities than in rural environments.
That’s a good thing, because cities are more efficient: people who live in cities take up less space, use less energy, produce proportionately less carbon per head (reducing their impact on the climate emergency) and have less impact on natural ecosystems than those who live in the country. Cities are also places in which people tend to be more prosperous, and in which education and creativity flourish. Cities are not part of the problem we face in the 21st century: they are part of the solution.
Another example where the conventional wisdom is wrong: population growth. The number of people in the world has more than doubled over my lifetime. That does pose challenges. But a rising population is a sign of success, not failure: it is a consequence of economic growth and progress in technology, development and healthcare, all of which have boosted life expectancy.
Nor, as people used to think, does population growth automatically mean greater poverty: on the contrary, as the global population has grown, the average person has got richer. And although the world population is still growing, the rate of increase has been falling for the last 50 years. So with the right policies we can not only manage our population, we can give better lives to all.
If you worry about climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and the depletion of the world’s natural resources, you’re right. These affect all of us, but they impact most severely on those who are least responsible for them and most damaged by them – developing countries and poor or marginalised people. So tackling the climate emergency, for example, is not just an environmental issue: it’s a justice issue.
The Climate Emergency
And there too I see reasons for optimism.
Five things need to be true if we are to tackle the climate emergency successfully. Most of them weren’t even a few years ago, but increasingly now they are.
First, we need to know what the problem is and the solution. And we do. The problem is the massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the industrial revolution which is warming the planet and making our climate more extreme. The solution is to reduce and as far as possible stop the emissions that are causing the climate to change; and to adapt our infrastructure, our economies and our lifestyles so we can all live safely and well in a climate-changed world.
Second, because the climate emergency can only be stopped by collective global action, there needs to be international consensus on the need to tackle it, agreement on how, and a mechanism to ensure it gets done. And there is: the UN process under which the international community has come together to tackle the problem. Is it moving as far and as fast as we would all like? No. But is it a necessary condition of success and is it making progress? Yes and yes.
Third, governments around the world need to take action themselves to tackle the climate emergency at national level. And increasingly they all are, not least because their own peoples are pressing them to do so. I’ve met a lot of politicians in my time, all over the world, and they all have one thing in common: they listen to the public.
Fourth, businesses need to change what they produce and how so they stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution. And increasingly that is happening, not just because it’s the right thing to do but mostly because it’s the smart thing to do. Sustainable businesses attract investment, talent and customers that others do not.
And fifth, each of us as individuals needs to change how we live, because each of us is part of the problem too. And increasingly all over the world people are. They are changing how they travel, how and where they live, how they power their vehicles, heat their homes, what they eat, and who they vote for.
So the ingredients for success in tackling the climate emergency are in place. We just need to redouble our efforts and keep going, and we can crack this.
The Environment Agency
And that leads me to the last thing that keeps me optimistic: the work of the organisation I have led for the last seven and a half years, the Environment Agency, and the people who do that work.
Our people care passionately about creating a better place for people and wildlife. And their work has done – and will continue to do – precisely that.
The EA has helped the nation become more resilient to the impacts of the changing climate, by building and maintaining hundreds of flood defences all over the country, and by our planning and placemaking work which has helped create places which are not just better to live in, but safer and more resilient to the effects of climate change. We have helped reduce the extent of climate change by regulating down the greenhouse gas emissions of most industries in this country, and with our own drive to become a Net Zero organisation by 2030.
We have healthier air, land and water in this country than we did, in large part due to the EA’s work. Air pollution kills, and our regulation of polluting industries has taken a progressively higher proportion of the worst pollutants out of the air we all breathe. Contaminated land ruins nature and blocks growth: there is a lot less of it in this country today than there was because of our remediation work. Clean and plentiful water is about the single most important thing there is for humans and nature. And while there is much more to do on that, many of our coastal waters and rivers are in a better state now than have been for decades, in large part because of the work of the EA.
The EA has helped deliver green growth, by factoring that into all we do at local level and by the planning and regulatory role we’ve played in every single major national infrastructure project, from HS2 to Hinkley Point nuclear power station to the Thames Tideway sewer. And because almost everything we do is helping to tackle the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis, we are helping build a sustainable future.
And if some or all of that sounds attractive, then I invite all of you who are currently thinking about what you want to do with the rest of your life to consider joining us. Together we can create not just a better place but a better world.
So much for the optimism. Before I finish let me be very clear about two things I am not saying.
First, I am not saying that everything is great. We still face massive challenges. Inequality, injustice, poverty, violence and oppression still blight far too many human lives in 2023. And while in most parts of the world it may be pretty good to be a human today, for most other species on this planet – for most of our plants and wildlife – it’s a lot less good than it was.
Second, I am not saying that because life is better for most humans now than it was that we should sit back and do nothing. The only reason life is better now for most of us is that other humans who went before us didn’t sit back and do nothing. The progress we have seen over the last millennium didn’t happen by accident. It happened because countless millions of women and men – whose names are almost all lost to history - made it happen.
And if we do want to build a better world now than the one we have, and I certainly do, it’s on all of us to make that happen. We all have agency, and we all need to use it.
One reason to be an optimist is that it’s good for you: studies show that people who have a positive outlook on life live longer, are healthier, more prosperous and more successful. But as I’ve tried to show you today, a better reason to be an optimist – about our world and our future - is that it’s justified by the facts.
Either way, my final message to you today is simple: be happy, be you and be human – but above all be active, because we can each change the world for the better. As the Extinction Rebellion posters say, the single biggest threat to the planet is the belief that someone else will save it.