UNDP 2021/2022 Human Development Report. Uncertain times, unsettled lives: Shaping our future in a transforming world

This report comprehensively considers human development at a time of a new ‘uncertainty complex’ created by layers of uncertainties interacting.

Three volatile cross currents in the uncharted waters never before experienced in human history are:  

  • The dangerous planetary change of the Anthropocene.
  • The pursuit of sweeping societal transformations on par with the Industrial Revolution.
  • The vagaries and vacillations of polarized societies. (p3)

Environmental threats are contributing to uncertainty and insecurity.


" Climate change, biodiversity loss and many other environmental challenges—from air pollution to plastics use—are receiving individual attention. But the way these and other planetary pressures are interlinked—and the speed, scale and scope of the unprecedented planetary changes unfolding as a result—has motivated a new framing of this current context as the Anthropocene—the age of humans, where humans’ impact on the planet is so stark that it is driving dangerous planetary change—which has been formally proposed as a new geological epoch.

The threats to human lives in the Anthropocene are fundamentally unequal, as they will more quickly and intensely affect people and countries that have contributed less in relative and absolute terms to planetary pressures and benefited less from the changes that drive planetary pressures. As the 2020 Human Development Report argued, large and often growing inequalities and power imbalances are a defining feature of the Anthropocene, underpinning the destabilizing dynamics that divert policy attention and may delay action to ease planetary pressures. But given that the threats emanating from dangerous planetary change are driven mainly by humans, the Anthropocene context is creating a responsibility for humanity to act.

If humans have the power to change the planet in harmful and unequalizing ways, they have the obligation to act towards pursuing a safer and more just world. The responsibility to act falls more heavily on those who account for more of the planetary pressures and have more power to change course. People are not inherently destroyers of nature; they have also shaped ecosystems in mutually beneficial ways. So the Anthropocene provides us with not only the responsibility but also the opportunity to pursue human development while easing planetary pressures. p34,35

The report explores how human development is impacted by these uncertainties and the importance of human development in meeting the challenges of complex uncertainties.

“Rigidities in their many dimensions—in ideas, in networks, in narratives—act as a vise on human creativity; they constrain the generation of new ideas in response to a changing world. Agency and freedoms are antidotes. Policies, institutions and cultural change that promote them tend to be fostered by cultivating four motivating principles: flexibility, solidarity, creativity and inclusion (see also chapter 6). These principles, which can reinforce one another, will go a long way in making policies and institutions more fit for purpose.” P17

“The challenges in the Anthropocene and in sweeping societal transformations are huge, even daunting, all the more so for countries and communities struggling with the most dramatic and unjust deprivations. Insecurity and polarization make things worse. Amid so much uncertainty, the truth is that we are not going to get it right, maybe not even most of the time. In this turbulent new era we can set the direction but cannot guarantee the outcome. The good news is that we have more tools than ever to help us navigate and course correct. But no amount of technological wizardry is a substitute for good leadership, collective action or trust. If we can start fixing the human side of the planetary ledger—and this Report tries to highlight how—then the future, however uncertain, will be more promise than peril, just as it should be." p21

Navigating needed societal transformation will require shifts in world view and mindsets, for example:

“…our collective challenge provides an opportunity to adopt the kind of long-term intergenerational thinking that grounds Indigenous (and many other) philosophies—which Tim Mulgan refers to as “multigenerationalism.” According to this view, the best way to find meaning in the world today is to embark on projects spanning several generations that come to fruition only long after the present generation is gone.” p71


PART I: Uncertain times, unsettled lives


  • A new uncertainty complex
  • A world of worry in uncertain times
  • Rising insecurity amid unprecedented material prosperity—for some
  • Uncertainty driven by dangerous planetary change in the Anthropocene
  • Uncertainty emerges from complex transitions to ease planetary pressures
  • Uncertainty propelled by polarization: Delaying action, adding conflict
  • And now for something completely different: Novel and layered drivers of uncertainty


  • Unsettled minds in uncertain times: Mental distress— an obstacle to human development
  • How mental distress constrains human development
  • Unsettled minds amid multidimensional uncertainties
  • Human development in uncertain times


  • Harnessing human development to navigate uncertain times
  • Enhancing human development in uncertain times: The end, but also the means, to navigate uncertainty
  • Widening the vista of human behaviour
  • Behavioural and institutional change: Mobilizing human development towards a hopeful future

PART II   Shaping our future in a transforming world


  • What’s standing in the way of our acting together?
  • Uncertain times, divided societies
  • Polarization harms public deliberation in uncertain times
  • Breaking the hold of uncertainty on collective action


  • Advancing human development in uncertain times
  • Technological innovation opens new possibilities
  • The Covid-19 pandemic: A window into a new reality


  • Charting paths to transformation: Navigating uncertainty to expand human development
  • A framework to embrace uncertainty
  • Investment, insurance and innovation towards continually expanding human development
  • Drawing from cultural change
  • Where we go from here is our choice

Why would you recommend it to other people?

This comprehensive report presents evidence linking human development - at individual, societal national and global levels - with the existential threat of environmental challenges. It challenges societies to reduce inequity and violence, and to increase security, trust and inclusiveness to build human capacity for responding creatively to crises in uncertain times.


UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). 2022. Human Development Report 2021-22: Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World. New York. Retrieved from: https://hdr.undp.org/content/human-development-report-2021-22