Previous research has shown that no country currently meets the basic needs of its residents at a level of resource use that could be sustainably extended to all people globally. Using the doughnut-shaped ‘safe and just space’ framework, we analyse the historical dynamics of 11 social indicators and 6 biophysical indicators across more than 140 countries from 1992 to 2015. We find that countries tend to transgress biophysical boundaries faster than they achieve social thresholds. The number of countries overshooting biophysical boundaries increased over the period from 32–55% to 50–66%, depending on the indicator. At the same time, the number of countries achieving social thresholds increased for five social indicators (in particular life expectancy and educational enrolment), decreased for two indicators (social support and equality) and showed little change for the remaining four indicators. We also calculate ‘business-as-usual’ projections to 2050, which suggest deep transformations are needed to safeguard human and planetary health. Current trends will only deepen the ecological crisis while failing to eliminate social shortfalls.