Is the world getting better or getting worse? Individual responses are influenced by local circumstance. Global measures of progress are available, however, and there are two broad conclusions that should be drawn: humans are winning, and our planet is not.

On the whole, the human condition continues to improve. The Human Development Index – focused on health, education, and income outcomes in 189 countries – shows that in the past 25 years, all regions and human development groups have made substantial progress. Disparities, inequalities and country laggards exist, no doubt, but improvement is global.

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When it comes to ecology and the environment, however, select positive stories mask broader trends that are worrisome and in need of immediate correction. If Sir David Attenborough’s recent climate change warning of impending “collapse of civilisations” seems dramatic, read the executive summary of the 2018 Climate Science Special Report, produced by the US Global Change Research Program.

Beneath overarching climate concerns are other discrete and massive challenges. Natural habitats around the world are being destroyed apace; nearly a fifth of the Amazon rainforest is now gone. Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, while nearly 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are a call to action from all countries to promote prosperity while also protecting the planet. Signatories have endorsed strategies meant to support economic growth and a range of social and community needs, while also tackling climate change and environmental protection. Business leaders need to get fully on board with these goals and align investment decisions with these broad global objectives. More than ever, social, environmental and economic goals need to be mutually supportive.

The poor, the sick, the hungry and the uneducated cannot be producers or consumers of goods and services. Diminishing or vanished natural environments and resources cannot adequately support populations and their economic needs.  

Some business efforts are encouraging. Many companies are ‘greening’ their supply chains and embedding social and environmental goals within their corporate missions. Systemic changes are also in the pipeline: the Network for Greening the Financial System, a group of 18 central banks, is examining environment-related risks and mobilising mainstream finance to support the transition toward a sustainable economy.

More must be done, however – and quickly.