Chicken little forecast

Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.


What Could Go Right? Can we quit the 90s nostalgia?

The receipts have arrived: the world is demonstrably better off today than it was 30 years ago.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

This is our weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right? Sign up here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday at 6am ET. You can read past issues here.

Progress is a fact

In 2015, almost 200 countries got together and agreed to 17 goals for improving life on Earth. These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cover everything from climate action to eliminating hunger, with 2030 set as the target year for meeting them. This Tuesday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released its annual report on how the world is doing when it comes to the SDGs.

The bad news: Forecasting 15 years into the future, no one expected a worldwide pandemic or a war in Ukraine that would threaten food stability in Africa. These events have caused real setbacks in our progress toward the SDGs. The good news: Tracking across the past 30 years, we have still improved when it comes to almost every goal.

For example, with the exception of the last bullet point below, which includes data from the last decade only, these are some of the changes we have made since 1990:

  • The share of the global population with access to clean water and sanitation has increased by 100 percent.
  • Children under five are now around 30 percent less likely to be stunted or malnourished.
  • Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births have declined by 40 percent.
  • The prevalence of 15 neglected tropical diseases, like dengue and leprosy, has declined by more than 70 percent.
  • 76 percent of adults worldwide now own a financial account, up from 51 percent a decade ago. (In developing countries, 71 percent of adults now own a financial account, representing a 30-percentage point increase over the last decade.)

As journalist Derek Thompson put it in an Atlantic piece about the report, “it is hard to argue that human progress is some sort of sales pitch from the pathologically optimistic. Progress is simply a fact.” 

It’s unlikely that we’ll meet the SDGs by 2030—the report says we would need to multiply our current pace by five to do so. But the same principle of unknowability that made it impossible to predict this decade’s crises applies to good fortune as well. “No projection can ever account for the possibility of game-changing innovation,” Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates write in the introduction, “because when those breakthroughs happen, they change all the fundamental assumptions embedded in that equation.”

You can take a spin through the report yourself here. It’s user-friendly.

A side note on vaccines

Another bright figure from the report is that we have cut the percent of children who die before reaching five years old in half, from 8 percent in 1990 to 3.6 percent in 2021. Speaking to Thompson in The Atlantic, Bill Gates attributed the success to getting “vaccines out to almost all of the children in the world.” 

In that vein, we were thrilled this week by the announcement of the most effective malaria vaccine yet. It’s the first one to reach—and surpass—the World Health Organization’s efficacy target of 75 percent. Production is waiting on results from a larger trial, but ideally should begin in 2023.

And another vaccine that Gates himself has his eye on is one that prevents pneumonia, the leading cause of death among children under five.

Before we go

World-changing they may not be, but coffee-industry-changing? Maybe . . . anyway, we adore these new, fully compostable “coffee balls” from Swiss company Migros. Chuck your plastic Nespresso capsules in favor of these caffeinated rolie-polies wrapped in a flavorless seaweed husk that you can dispose of guilt-free! Okay, yeah, you have to buy their special coffeemaker to use the balls. But the system is no-waste, so we’re feeling positive about “ballin’ out” becoming the latest coffee trend.

Another week, another country going through a paradigm shift in human rights. Vietnam’s Ministry of Health has issued guidance that being gay, bisexual, or transgender “is not an illness” and cannot be “cured.” Advocacy groups have set their sights on same-sex marriage next.

And, a small collection of potential progress we’re watching in the United States: 1) President Biden’s “moonshot” to reduce the death rate from cancer by 50 percent in 25 years; 2) whether the Internal Revenue Service might really offer free e-filing one day; and 3) the status of the country’s first potential over-the-counter birth control pill.

Below in the links section, a breakthrough for saving coral in Florida, carbon capture devices for small emitters in Japan, anti-censorship tools for reading blocked news in Russia, and more.

Secretly Sexy

A pop-up section in which we celebrate numbers that represent substantial improvement in people’s lives

Another huge improvement: The US reduced child poverty by a whopping 59 percent between 1993 and 2019. The New York Times has the story.

Are we really addicted to technology?

When we say we’re addicted to something, we stop asking what our behavior is a response to, and give up the power we have to change it. | Read more

What’s Next for the World?

Since we’re on the topic of SDGs today, we’re revisiting our conversation with TPN Member John McArthur, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, about how nations and governments push forward on “all the big stuff.” | Listen to the episode

Progress, Please

(Found good news? Tweet at us @progressntwrk or email.)

Other good stuff in the news 🚛


Science & Tech:

Politics & Policy:

Public Health:

Society & Culture:


TPN Member originals 🧠

(Who are our Members? Get to know them.)

Department of Ideas 💡
(A staff recommendation guaranteed to give your brain some food for thought.)

The myth of ideological polarizationThe Wall Street Journal
“Left” and “right” are illusory categories. What we’re really experiencing is tribal hostility.

Why we picked it: What do “left” and “right” even mean anymore? The answer might be “nothing,” itself a kind of freedom. Pair this op-ed from the summer with this follow-up interview in the Tangle newsletter, which is lengthier but thought-provoking. —Emma Varvaloucas

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Until Next Time

Make no mistake: the progress presented in this newsletter, while big, has been shown at actual size.👇

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.