Dec 16, 2020 - World

UN report: Humanity is at an "unprecedented moment"

A nurse takes care of a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit in Germany.

A nurse takes care of a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit in Germany. Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

A new UN report on human development makes the case that our species faces a dire future of our own making.

The big picture: The COVID-19 pandemic — which emerged from nature but is in every other way a human-made catastrophe — is the most recent signal that we are firmly in the Anthropocene, a new epoch in which human beings are the most powerful force on the Earth. What comes next is on us.

What's happening: The 2020 Human Development Report — published earlier this week — marks the 30th year the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has assessed the holistic state of humanity.

  • The short version: it's not good, as COVID-19 illustrates the pressures we've put on the planet — pressures that have "grown exponentially over the past 100 years," as UNDP administrator Achim Steiner writes.
  • Beyond the direct costs of the pandemic, COVID-19 has thrown human development into reverse, with social mobility declining and social instability rising.
  • Climate change — the clearest and biggest challenge posed by the Anthropocene — continued its acceleration, with 2020 likely to go down as the hottest year on record.

Of note: The peril and the promise of the Anthropocene are seen most clearly in the case of existential risks, those catastrophic dangers that threaten the future of human civilization.

  • While we've always faced rare but potent cosmic threats like asteroids, today "the dominant risks to its survival come from humanity itself," writes existential risk scholar Toby Ord in the report.
  • But the same power that poses existential risks in the form of nuclear war or bioengineered pandemics means that "humanity’s future is largely within humanity’s control" — provided we're willing to take those risks more seriously than we have to date.

The bottom line: For better or for worse, we'll be the authors of our own future.

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