Life has always been uncertain. The world has faced wars, pandemics and massive natural hazards before. Today’s uncertainty is not necessarily any greater than in the past. If anything, given record achievements in average standards of living and incomes, with astonishing technological progress, we could be expected to be more ready than ever to meet uncertain times. Yet, we display high, and often rising, concern about the future. So, what is going on? Why are people so worried, and what worries them? If today’s world is not more uncertain than the past’s, are today’s uncertain times different? If so, how? And how do they relate to human development?
Wars and pandemics threaten human development. The Anthropocene is driving new hazards to humans and deepening inequalities among people. Coping with these dynamics and reducing planetary pressures bring to the fore new kinds of challenges and uncertainties. Astonishing technological innovation offers promise but also presents unprecedented circumstances. Seen in isolation, today’s many challenges are not new but in their interaction present a new “uncertainty complex,” unsettling people’s lives. Indeed, anxieties are high: 6 of 7 people globally report feeling insecure about many aspects of their lives.
Concern about the world and its future is high and often rising despite unprecedented average material prosperity. This chapter argues that the confluence of development challenges is happening at a speed and scale beyond what humans have experienced before, with three novel or shifting layers of uncertainty interacting with each other superimposed on pre-existing deprivations: the Anthropocene context of dangerous planetary change and its interaction with inequalities, the purposeful efforts to transform our industrial societies to a low carbon future and the intensification of political and social polarization across and within countries, facilitated by how new technologies are often being used. This chapter elaborates on these new contexts of uncertainties.
In the face of unsettled lives amid multidimensional uncertainties, mental wellbeing and psychological resilience are essential for human development. Novel anthropogenic risks, such as an increasing number of traumatizing extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and unknown viruses and variants, as well as traditional threats such as economic and food insecurity and discrimination and violence cause mental distress. Sometimes, distress turns into mental disorders, as has been the case for 1 in 8 people around the world. This constitutes an obstacle to human development, as mental distress impairs people’s ability to convert resources into achievements, develop their full potential and lead lives they have reason to value (figure 3). Children are particularly affected because toxic stress alters their brain and body development, limiting current and future opportunities.
Different levels of exposure to stressors among people can enhance and perpetuate inequalities in intergenerational cycles of mental distress and socioeconomic hardship, including violence. But it does not have to be that way. Three crucial tasks for people and policymakers can break these cycles: prevent distress, mitigate crises and build psychological resilience. For the third, access to mental healthcare, currently a privilege accessible to only about 10 percent of the world’s people — needs to be substantially expanded to achieve universal coverage.
There is both promise and peril in uncertainty; tipping the scale towards promise is up to us. Advancing human development is not only the aspiration but also the means to navigate uncertain times and effect the behavioural changes and institutional reforms that would allow us to shape a more hopeful future. Human development is about expanding capabilities—of wellbeing as well as of freedom and agency. This chapter explores how human agency may be a catalyst of social and economic transformations.
Transformation is an opportunity to shape a world that is more just for people living today and in the future—by addressing the political, economic, social and cultural systems that lie behind planetary pressures, inequalities, poverty and insecurity. Widening the vista on how choices are made opens new possibilities for confronting the uncertain times we are living through. Behavioural change and institutional and policy reform are mutually interdependent: institutional choices and their effectiveness in shaping better outcomes are contingent on behaviours and “on varying social, economic, political and cultural circumstances.” The interaction of behaviours and institutions is shaped by public reasoning and procedures of social choice.