Human Progress at the Precipice

December 15, 2020

Factory emissions in advanced economies can contribute to major hurricanes or widespread droughts in small island developing states. Plastic pollution from hundreds of miles away can find its way into marine ecosystems, destroying reefs and other biodiversity and increasing the vulnerabilities of coastal communities. And viruses can jump from animal to human and travel across the world in a heartbeat.

These are snapshots of the new geological age we are living in – the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans – whereby humans have fundamentally changed the planetary systems needed for the survival of life on Earth. The devastation caused by COVID-19 is the latest warning that humanity has reached a precipice, but the pandemic can also be an opportunity to choose a different route, one where the power humans wield over the planet is used to regenerate, not destroy.

The new Human Development Report just launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) argues that we need nothing short of a great transformation to flourish in the next frontier of human progress. This starts by rejecting the idea that we must choose between people and planet. It is neither or both, because if it is not sustainable it is not development.

After 30 years of continued research, this year’s report introduces a new experimental lens to its Human Development Index. By adding two new metrics – carbon dioxide emissions and material footprint – it shows how the global development landscape changes when you consider the wellbeing of people alongside planetary pressures. In the Eastern Caribbean, we see a mixed picture of planetary pressures. While the contributions of these SIDS to global carbon emissions are miniscule in global terms, some countries in the region have per capita emissions above the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, underscoring the opportunity to move toward cleaner, renewable sources of energy. Meanwhile, in other countries in the Eastern Caribbean, material consumption – a metric that tracks average material use in the country – is well below the average for countries in the very high or high human development groups.

There is enormous potential in actions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore ecosystems. Ventures like coastal management, reforestation, and urban green spaces can benefit both the natural world and local communities. In Dominica, Grenada and St. Kitts and Nevis, major strides have been made to preserve and protect marine and terrestrial ecosystems. In partnership with the Global Environment Facility, UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean has supported the expansion of crucial Protected Areas, helping to transition communities to more sustainable farming and fishing practices and expand livelihood opportunities by creating sustainable financing mechanisms for Protected Areas.

However, the main barriers to necessary transformations are inequalities – of both power and opportunity - within and between countries. The strain on our planet mirrors and reinforces the strain facing many of our societies. Inequalities among people are both a cause and a consequence of the burden we are placing on the planet. And the gross imbalances of power are the major obstacles in the way of finding solutions.

Many conversations have focussed on returning to "normal" as if that were a viable option. Whether we like it or not, the world which we live in today was virtually unthinkable at the beginning of the year. This crisis has given us the opportunity to define the "new normal"; in this new age, myopic solutions to problems are simply not enough. The choices we make as humanity must address the root causes of the problems, so we do not need to choose environment over communities, or growth over the wellbeing of future of generations to come.

As we come to the end of a year that has defied all expectations, it must be understood that the COVID-19 pandemic is a warning sign of what is to come. It is time to consider what the story of this new frontier will be. We are the first generation of the Anthropocene, and the choices made today will decide the future for all those to come.

-   Jason LaCorbinière  Head of Cluster Poverty, Governance and Monitoring and Evaluation UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean

-   Ugo Blanco Resident Representative a.i UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean

 To learn more about the 2020 Human Development report and UNDP’s analysis on the experimental Planetary Pressures-Adjusted HDI, visit


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