One of the leading and most accessible sources of information on the issues of environmental, economic and social trends, Worldwatch Institue’s mission is to “delivers the insights and ideas that empower decision makers to create an environmentally sustainable society that meets human needs.” As said, its works focus on discovering and identifying the current state of the global environment and economy, while striving to achieve the transition to an environmentally sustainable world and socially just society.

Founded in 1974, Worldwatch was the first independent research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues, as well as one of the top ten sustainable development research organizations by Globescan Survey of Sustainability Experts. The institute has international partners in 25 countries; its publishing works include 3 types of research: Vital signs, State of the World reports and Worldwatch Magazine. Their reports have been translated in dozens of languages and used as textbooks in many college courses, influencing generations of eco-activists.

With all that being said, however, not everyone shares Worldwatch’s assessments. According to Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine, Worldwatch consistent accentuation of the negatives do not necessarily help better the situation. Apparently, Bailey is only one of many people that have criticized that Worldwatch’s “cant’ bear good news” reports only predict nothing but a gloomy future for mankind. Even though Worldwatch does offer useful data, it ignores so many promising and positive aspects of the present.

For example, the continuous expansion of the world economy (from $6.4 trillion in 1950 to $43.2 trillion in 2000), or the drastic increase in global per capita income. Another positive aspect that Worldwatch ignores is the increasing length of human life: Global average life expectancy, currently 67.2 years, is expected to rise to 73 years by 2025 according to World Health Organization. The fact that food and commodities get cheaper is a good sign for the poor; yet, Worldwatch is always “able to find a dark cloud around any silver lining”, saying that lower prices will also make consumers utilize materials less efficiently and more sparingly, and the increase in consumption will consequently lead to more negative environmental results. Is Worldwatch suggesting that the poor should just pay more for food? It appears that Worldwatch guiding principle seems to be: “Don’t pay too too much attention to inconvenient facts, don’t mention previous mistakes, and don’t stop making predictions of doom and gloom just because they haven’t been right in the past”.

So the question is, should Worldwatch continue to shout at the top of its lungs that the world must reinvent the way it is treating the planets right now or suffer catastrophic consequences? Is Worldwatch really misdiagnosing the Earth, or are we being too optimistic about the current state of the world? I personally believe there is nothing wrong with not keeping expectation too high. It might be better to prepare for the worst than being too optimistic because in that sense, people will strive harder to accomplish. Still, I think that in order to work out a solution to a global issue, we need to start from identifying both strengths and weaknesses. It will help better if, instead of only making gloomy predictions, Worldwatch could provide more realistic facts and stats to let people know what’s actually going on out there. After all, Worldwatch has been pretty much singing the same pessimistic tune for the last few decades, so maybe it’s time to acknowledge that we might be not as bad as we think.

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6 responses »

  1. Sarah says:

    I vaguely remember hearing about Worldwatch in the news on various occasions. Each time I think it was mentioned it was always in relation to something negative, kind of “the world is going to end” statement about how bad things were. Although I think telling the truth is important, I think both sides of a situation need to be presented. As much as it is good to hear the truth nobody wants to hear from “negative Nancy” all the time. Like we were taught in high school feedback should be given with two positives surrounding a negative. I think the same could apply here. Although people should not be babied with the facts it is important to give people hope for the future instead of just being doom and gloom all the time.

    • Cheryl says:

      I totally agree that giving facts is important, and it’s even more important to provide both sides of the situation. In this case, I think Worldwatch certainly does not tell lies, but the problem is that they only give negative half of the truth and completely ignore the other positive half. This will sound like a stereotype, but I think most environmentalists just tend to be pessimistic like that. It’s boring to hear the same tune all the time, and some people might even stop believing it. Still, we have to acknowledge that at the end of the day, it’s for good cause, and environmentalists are doing so because they want the global community to be more afraid of the threats and in turn, more willing to act upon saving the earth

  2. Jordi says:

    How would you suggest a think tank study the questions of how “well off” we are globally and how that relates to environmental quality? I am assuming you think this is important, so I am curious how we can get at what is known and not worry too much about optimism or pessimism as labels.

    Reason, by the way, is as consistently right-leaning as WWI is left-leaning.

    • Cheryl says:

      I actually didnt know Reason is that right-leaning. No wonder Bailey was so outright attacking Worldwatch’s researches. But I do think he had a point though, to a certain extent. Environmentalists have done so many good things, but I believe some environmentalists sometimes tend to exaggerate the current state of the environment because first, they want people to act on the issues immediately, and second, they are sort of banking on the ignorance of many people. I personally think most average people will not bother to even check whether the data are correct or not, and they will tend to believe whatever is on TV is true. In fact I’ve read some articles about several environmentalists apologizing for exaggerated claims on some issues with genetically modified crops and nuclear power.
      Back to your question, I think it’ll be quite a challenge to develop a think tank that has an objective outlook. Maybe it’ll be helpful to have a think tank that leans more towards researching and providing as many facts as possible, instead of gathering only the necessary facts in order to make judgments and speculations. I don’t think we necessarily have to address how well-off we are, but similar to what Sarah says, it’s about providing the right information as well as both sides of the equation.

  3. Claire McCardell says:

    I was initially surprised to learn about Worldwatch’s criticism for being too pessimistic–how could an organization created to conduct high-quality research be criticized for presenting biased findings? However, it seems like most think tanks are created to ultimately advocate for a certain policy/solution, and the research findings are intended to help support that conclusion. Worldwatch’s mission statement is “to develop and disseminate solid data and innovative strategies to achieve a sustainable society”, which in itself implies that changes need to be made in the way we’re currently doing things. If the think tank’s outlook was overtly positive, it would be hard to defend its solutions and strategies for global changes. However, I do agree with Cheryl to some extent that it’s better to be conservative in our global outlook and prepare for the worst instead of expecting the best.

  4. […] Criticism of a Think Tank: Cheryl – Worldwatch: Gloomy or Realistic? & Connie – 200+ Projects and […]

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