This post was originally produced for Forbes.
To many of us, the world feels like it is spiraling out of control, that enormous problems like climate change, poverty and global health are inherent, miserable parts of the human condition that are bound to overwhelm us.
Poverty seems intransigent. In the wealthiest cities of the world, you will find homeless populations camping in public parks, living under bridges and viaducts, often interacting with people outside their circles only to ask for money. More than 2.5 billion people have no access to a toilet. About ten percent of the world’s population will not have access to enough food today and doesn’t know where, when or if they will.
Global health statistics are also staggering. About 400,000 people will die of malaria this year, despite the disease having been eradicated from the developed world for decades. HIV/AIDS continues to spread and nearly 1 million people died last year from it. It gets worse. Tuberculosis also killed 1.6 million people. (About 300,000 people who died last year had both AIDS and tuberculosis.)
Climate change is an enormous problem. Despite clear evidence of the problem going back to the 1970s, we have failed to curb our consumption of fossil fuels. Scientists fear that it is too late to limit global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius, suggesting that potentially cataclysmic impacts could be coming.
When we look at the situation before us, it is easy to believe that the future is bleak. With a growing global population, it feels like there is no possibility of this ending well.
There is a possibility. In fact, I believe there is a great likelihood that things will work out well.
Let’s look at this another way.
Poverty only seems intransigent. When I was born, more than half of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, that population has roughly halved in absolute terms from about 1.5 billion to about 700 million and from more than 50% to representing fewer than 10% of the world’s population. That doesn’t just happen. It is the result of the work of governments, large NGOs, globalization, small faith-based charities, social entrepreneurs, impact investors and even consumers choosing to buy products from coffee to cars that improve the economic lot of people living below the poverty line. Ending extreme poverty by 2030 in accordance with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is achievable.
As we consider global health concerns, we need also to remember that no one on the planet has had smallpox in a generation. Only 22 people in the entire world were paralyzed by polio last year and it could be eradicated entirely soon. What we’ve learned from eradicating smallpox and polio is being applied to fighting malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Here again, social entrepreneurs are playing a role in getting solutions implemented around the world, some using innovative approaches with nonprofits and others using for-profit models to scale solutions quickly.
Climate change remains a huge threat, but there is reason to hope. In 2016, the world produced less carbon than the year before despite a growing global economy. That is a big deal. We may not have turned the corner, but we have turned a corner. At this moment, wind energy is the cheapest source of power on the planet. This wasn’t true until recently. Utility-scale solar can, in some places, produce power at lower cost than operating an existing coal-fired power plant. The entrepreneurs I talk to are working to lower the cost of renewables at every stage of the process, from making solar panels 30% cheaper and more efficient to reducing the cost of installing them. The economics of energy are shifting quickly in favor of fuel-free power. Paired with the electrification of transportation, meaningful progress is possible.
Please don’t read this as meaning that we can all sit back and relax, relying on others to solve the enormous challenges we face as a human family. That simply isn’t true. We must all contribute our own efforts to the process. Some actions that are required will be painful, but many will not be.
Solutions require that we build successful, purpose-driven enterprises that don’t extract value from low-income countries or communities but instead create value and opportunity.
We must fund organizations that educate children, including girls who are too often excluded, so that every single child has an opportunity to grow and prosper.
As consumers we should demand that the companies we support with our purchases are behaving responsibly toward the planet, their employees, contractors, customers and the communities where they operate–and don’t just operate for the benefit of senior management and shareholders.
As investors, we should purge our portfolios of investments in companies that harm the planet or extract value from vulnerable populations. Then we need to fill our portfolios with investments in companies that are improving global health and prosperity while actively protecting the environment.
There is more we must do but sleep well tonight knowing our solutions are greater than our problems. Then get up in the morning—no, get up every morning—and take action for good.