The one thing in life that is certain, is the ever-present existence of uncertainty. Paradoxical in itself, this prospect brings both hope for a better future but also fear of the unexpected. They say that hope is the last one to die, but in a world unsettled by inequality, pandemic, and war, the UN now reports that existential uncertainty is at an unprecedented new high and that, for the first time in history, human development has started going backwards.
The UN Development Program’s definition of human development is the advancement of human freedom, agency, and wellbeing.
The last three years of the UNDP’s reports have drawn attention to the inequalities in human development, how this is exacerbated by planetary change, and the resultant emergence of global insecurity.
This year, the UNDP’s latest report, “Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World,” unites all of these concepts under the umbrella of increasing uncertainty.
Our #HDR2022 describes a new uncertainty complex in which our biggest challenges – #ClimateCrisis, biodiversity loss, inequality, political polarization and technological upheaval – feed off each other.
— UN Development (@UNDP) September 12, 2022
Abraham Lincoln once said, “[t]he best way to predict your future is to create it,” and in an age of rapid technological and social innovation, now more than ever we have both the agency and opportunity to shape our own lives for the better.
But, with open possibility comes open-ended outcomes, and instead of using chance as a catalyst for change, we’re increasingly losing our way in worrying about the unknown.
Since the 1990’s the UN have reported consistent progress in ending worldwide poverty and hunger, however due to escalating unrest and economic instability from ongoing conflicts and the global pandemic, we’ve seen a stark increase in both, as well as other inequalities, since 2015.
“Our world faces widespread challenges that are unsettling lives & disrupting the global economy,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
As a result of this rapid increase in global inequality and unrest, feelings of insecurity are on the rise. The UN reports that 90% of the world has now lost the previous six years of progress in human development, reverting back to development levels comparable to that of 2016, and losing much of the ground made towards the 17 SDGs and 2030 Agenda.
But how did we get here? Why is everyone so worried?
The UN report discloses the emergence of an “uncertainty complex.” Born from a series of back-to-back global crises, six out of seven people now report “feeling insecure about many aspects of their lives.”
This collective insecurity is paralyzing, unsettling and destabilizing to society and the economy, quantified by a decrease in the UN’s measure of human potential: the Human Development Index.
The index measures three fundamental dimensions:
- The potential to live a long and healthy life (life expectancy)
- Knowledgeability (time spent in education)
- Standard of living (gross national income per capita)
“Intersecting uncertainty means crises have a devastating impact in today’s deeply connected societies,” the UN wrote on Twitter.
In light of recent years of “incredible global progress,” it stands to question why our perspectives are so pessimistic – as the report says; “uncertainty is not new.”
Generations before us have faced equal if not greater adversity, and they pulled through just fine. It has also been said that hardship can catalyze personal growth and resilience.
Yet, despite full awareness of what’s at stake for “people, societies and the planet,” we are paralysed from making necessary changes for the better.
“We know what the problems are, we have more tools than ever to address them, but we are failing to act,” says the UN.
They go on to explain why we are seeing this “pervasive rise in insecurity” occurring against a “backdrop of incredible global progress,” by unpacking the complexity of our modern world.
They attribute our collective uncertainty to the compounding of three “novel layers of uncertainties” that are interacting “to create new kinds of uncertainty… at a speed and scale beyond what humans have experienced before.”
The three destabilizing layers are:
- Dangerous human-induced planetary change of the Anthropocene
- Sweeping societal transformations to ease planetary pressures
- Widespread and intensifying political and social polarization
The increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, human rights atrocities, and emergence of biological threats to global health are all stark reminders of the unprecedented and catastrophic effects human activity is having on society and the environment.
The UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner, says “the world is scrambling to respond to back-to-back crises.”
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Taken individually, each of these crises can be rationalized, compartmentalized, and processed, but the compounding effect that they have cumulatively has impacted the global perspective.
What’s more, the societal transformations that are required to mitigate these dangerous planetary changes are an incredibly daunting challenge to the historical ways in which we exist and interact with nature.
To top the destabilization trio off, inequality, economic instability, and intensifying polarization propagate distrust in the safety of society, national security and political leadership.
“Trust is down; political extremism is up,” the report reads. Possibly an ideal breeding ground for uncertainty.
How do we set a new course for humanity?
Our new #HDR2022 finds that we must break humanity’s current paralysis by defusing polarization, rebuilding trust and allowing everyone to be part of decision-making.
— UN Development (@UNDP) September 14, 2022
The bottom line is that this trio of destabilizing forces, in combination with a continuous and validating onslaught of crises, unsettles our mental wellbeing and psychological resilience.
“Together, they are painting a picture of uncertain times and unsettled lives,” says the UN.
In the past a worry shared was a worry halved, but in today’s interconnected internet and social media era, a worry shared is a worry10.
Though the online-sphere brings comfort in unity and social-proof, the unrestricted access to information it provides also exposes us to not only the full spectrum of worldwide crises, but also “doomsday preppers” and political extremists, which in the past were localized in small communities and cults.
Omniscience of this kind triggers widespread anxiety, and upon the highly-visible platform of the internet, “hyperinformation” and misinformation are “sowing division.”
However, the report also hammers home that “uncertainty does not need to be paralyzing,” and that there are two sides to every story – “there is both promise and peril in uncertainty.”
Through the “wide-angle lens of human development” we can try to understand uncertainty, and respond accordingly to “unleash our creative and cooperative capacities” and build resilience to shape a better future.
The UN propose that in order to get human development back on track, we need to make better choices.
Human agency could be a “catalyst” of social, economic, political and cultural transformation, in the form of policy decisions made at the governmental level, as well as behavior choices at the individual level. Both are equally responsible for whether we thrive in the face of adversity, or continue to regress as a species.
“When it comes to choices about the future, the narratives we collectively hold can motivate how we act,” says Achim Steiner UNDP Administrator.
First, intervention is required at the institutional and governmental level to bridge the gap between what we’re currently doing as individual societies, and where we really need to be as a global population. We must revise the current unsustainable policies and social systems that perpetuate planetary pressures and unsettle our minds.
The report zeros-in on the tangible “Three I’s” that they suggest will “promote, protect and stimulate” development: investment, insurance and innovation.
Second, as a society we must also reframe our cultural beliefs, values and mindset, to close the gap between how we currently look at the world, and the collective perspective we must reach to successfully navigate and thrive in uncertainty going forward.
Recalibration of the world’s diverse points of view is required to cultivate and legitimize inclusive and “evolving values” that transcend borders. This shift in mindset is essential if new policy and implemented change are to root down and flourish.
The report sheds light on three potential “enablers of cultural change:” education, recognition and representation.
Uncertain times are inevitable, but this report and the efforts of the UNDP could help bring focus to human development in a wider context.
What’s more, the “concrete transformations” they suggest could bring comfort to the unsettled global perspective, and enable us to take action to better-navigate the future, rather than continuing down a path of paralysis.
As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “[i]n any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Want to check out the findings of our 🆕 #HumanDevelopment Report?
WATCH this to learn what challenges we face in these uncertain times and how we can tip the scale toward hope.
— UN Development (@UNDP) September 8, 2022
Correction: This article has been amended since publication to add the complete UN quote on “intersecting uncertainty” for clarity.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Favela in Rio de Janeiro Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.