Hans Rosling’s posthumous book Factfulness proves Louis Armstrong and Paul McCartney were right: it’s a wonderful world and getting better all the time, writes reformed pessimist Richard Conrad.
The world is a much better place today than most of us realise and continues to improve every day. That’s a key message most readers will take away from Factfulness—a remarkable work written by an inspiring man whose life, sadly, was cut short by pancreatic cancer.
The author, Swedish-born doctor, professor, statistician and world health authority Hans Rosling, died in February 2017, leaving completion of Factfulness and its publication earlier this year in the capable hands of his son Ola and his daughter-in-law (Ola’s wife) Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Thanks to Factfulness we know his death at the age of 68 was four years shy of the average life expectancy across the world today of 72, and—as he reports on pages 53 to 56—a huge improvement on the typical life expectancy of 31 years in 1800.
Rosling explains that average doesn’t mean most people circa-1800 lived to around 30, which he also says was the average human life expectancy throughout known history. Rather, about half died when they were children while most of the rest died aged 50 to 70.
‘Factfulness’ is Rosling’s own neologism, which he defines as “the stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts”.
Most chapters of Factfulness focus on the varied reasons why we don’t see the state of the world clearly, but for many readers— including this one—the fascinating stuff is simply learning about and fully appreciating the incredible improvements to human life on Earth over the last 200 years, even more impressively over the last 50 years, and—best of all—over the last couple of decades. Then taking the next logical step of adjusting one’s world views and ideologies to fit the facts.
For those on the left with the modus operandi of manufacturing discontent by always focusing on negatives and pretending the world is getting worse, constant improvement to the human condition is a most inconvenient truth. The evidence is also clear that far from being a means for improving the human condition, leftist ideologies repeatedly have been the cause of unimaginable human suffering, oppression and preventable catastrophes.
Meanwhile, the correlation between freedom, democracy and significantly higher average per capita incomes is indisputable, according to The Human Freedom Index 2017.
Co-published by the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, The HFI 2017’s executive summary states the highest levels of freedom are in Western Europe, Northern Europe, Canada and the United States. The lowest levels are in the Middle East and North Africa, Eastern Europe (Moldova, Russia and Ukraine), South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
The indicators used to measure personal and economic freedom for collating the index are: rule of law; security and safety; freedom of movement; freedom of religion; freedom of association, assembly, and civil society; free expression and information; legal system and property rights; access to sound money; and freedom to trade internationally. The HFI 2017 summary states:
Countries in the top quartile of freedom enjoy a significantly higher average per capita income ($38,871) than those in other quartiles; the average per capita income in the least-free quartile is $10,346. The HFI also finds a strong relationship between human freedom and democracy.
Rosling says “I strongly believe that liberal democracy is the best way to run a country”, but warns against claiming democracy is a necessity for economic growth and health improvements. Instead, he writes, “it’s better to argue for democracy as a goal in itself.”
A graph Rosling provides plotting extreme poverty shows the share of humanity living on less than $2 a day plummeted from 85 per cent of the world’s population in 1800, to 50 per cent in 1966, then to 36 per cent in 1990, and by 2017 has fallen to just nine per cent. Rosling writes:
Today almost everybody has escaped hell. The original source of all human suffering is about to be eradicated. We should plan a party! A big party! Instead, we are gloomy. On our (…) TVs we still see people in extreme poverty and it seems that nothing has changed. Billions of people have escaped misery and become consumers and producers for the world market … without (us) noticing.
Rosling’s encouraging message has been echoed by philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, who have enthusiastically championed Rosling’s work. In a video endorsement of Factfulness, Bill Gates states:
This is one of the most educational books I’ve ever read. It covers a space that is not easy to go learn about. The world would be better if literally millions of people read the book. I give it my highest recommendation.
Later, delivering his Goalkeepers event presentation in September, Bill Gates said the extreme poverty line dropping down to nine per cent means:
… since 1990 1.2 billion people have overcome extreme poverty. As the economist Max Roser said, the newspapers could have run a headline, Number of People in Extreme Poverty Fell By 137,000 Since Yesterday, every single day for 25 years, and been right. Real news!
Right now readers of this article may have mentally lumped those unfortunates living in extreme poverty into the developing countries, as opposed to developed countries such as Australia. Rosling argues for us to expunge that dichotomy from our minds. In its place, Rosling recommends allocating the world’s seven billion-plus people into four tiers of living conditions:
- About one billion people live on level one, extreme poverty. They survive on less than $2 a day, walk barefoot, cook food over an open fire, spend most of each day travelling to fetch water, and sleep on a dirt floor.
- About three billion people live on level two. With $2 to $8 a day, they can buy shoes and maybe a bike, send kids to school, cook on a gas stove, and sleep on mattresses.
- About two billion people live on level three. With $8 to $32 a day, they live in a home with running water and a fridge, get around on a motorbike, and some kids start (and even finish) high school.
- About one billion people live on level four. That’s us. We spend more than $32 a day, have at least a high school education, can afford a car, and take vacations.
Bill Gates has adopted Rosling’s four-level framework to communicate their foundation’s global development work, explaining:
Why does it matter? It’s hard to pick up on progress if you divide the world into rich countries and poor countries. When those are the only two options, you’re more likely to think anyone who doesn’t have a certain quality of life is “poor.” Hans compares this instinct to standing on top of a skyscraper and looking down at a city. All of the other buildings will look short to you whether they’re 10 stories or 50 stories high. It’s the same with income. Life is significantly better for those on level 2 than level 1, but it’s hard to see that from level 4 unless you know to look for it.
Rosling emphasises it’s simply wrong to talk about there being a ‘gap’ between the rich and the poor, as most people in the world are somewhere in the middle.
From the comfort of our level-four eyrie, let’s look at some more of the big-picture facts Rosling presents to give us a clearer picture of the much-improved world in which we live today. Two spoiler alerts: they’re distilled from the answers to a quiz Rosling liked to set his audiences, and they’re good news.
IT’S ALL GOOD
In low-income countries around the world, about 60 per cent of girls finish primary school. Worldwide, men aged 30 have averaged 10 years in school and women aged 30 spent 9 years in school. The majority of the world’s population live in middle-income countries.
In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost halved. The number of deaths per year from natural disasters more than halved over the last hundred years. About 80 per cent of the world’s one-year-old children have been vaccinated against some disease. About 80 per cent of the world’s population has some access to electricity. All up, these statistics— yes, impeccable sources, annotated, expanded upon in a lengthy notes section, and listed in a comprehensive sources appendix—point to an unprecedented and ongoing upward tick in human progress.
There’s plenty more good news. A spread of graphs titled Bad Things Decreasing shows: legal slavery (or forced labour) has dropped from 193 countries in 1800 to three in 2017, oil spills from tanker ships is way down from 636,000 tons in 1979 to 6,000 tons in 2016, children dying before their fifth birthday has dropped from 44 per cent in 1800 to four per cent in 2016, and the percentage of hungry (undernourished) people in the world is down from 28 per cent in 1970 to 11 per cent in 2015. Also down: new HIV infections, plane crash deaths, child labour, and smallpox.
Next, there’s Good Things Increasing: new movies and new music, countries with equal rights for women and men to vote, harvest yields of cereals per hectare, the share of humanity living in democracies, literacy, child cancer survival, girls in school, access to electricity, access to mobile phones, access to water from protected sources, internet access and immunisation.
Rosling points out that even things that seem terrible can be good news. For instance, UNICEF reported the shocking fact that 4.2 million babies died in 2016—almost all from easily preventable diseases. But compare this figure with 14.4 million dead babies in 1950, and we see the incredible progress being made to prevent child mortality.
But what about climate change, naysayers say. Glad you asked. Rosling backs predictions for global warming, but in one of his many heart-warming anecdotes recounts resolutely refusing to assist Al Gore peddle his alarmism.
The two men met backstage at a TED conference in LA in 2009. Gore wanted Rosling’s company, Gapminder, to create graphs illustrating a climate change worst-case future impact scenario. Gore told Rosling: “We need to create fear!” Rosling told Gore: “No!” He wrote why:
I don’t like fear … Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. And I don’t like exaggeration. Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data … the future is always uncertain to some degree.
Rosling spells out his disapproval of climate change activists who “blame everything on the climate, to make it the single cause of all other global problems”:
They grab at the immediate shocking concerns of the day—the war in Syria, ISIS, Ebola, HIV, shark attacks, almost anything you can imagine— to increase the feeling of urgency about the long-term problem … in many cases they are farfetched, unproven hypotheses.
CUBA: POOREST OF THE HEALTHY
From Gore to Fidel Castro, Rosling sure dealt with his share of charlatans.
In 1993 he met Castro several times while investigating a terrible health crisis in Cuba. Rosling also met “many skilled, highly educated, and dedicated professionals at the Ministry of Health doing their best within an inflexible and oppressive system”.
I went to Cuba with great curiosity but no romantic ideas whatsoever, and I didn’t develop any while I was there. I could tell you countless stories of the nonsense I saw in Cuba: the local moonshine, a toxic fluorescent concoction brewed inside TV tubes using water, sugar, and babies’ poopy diapers to provide the yeast required for fermentation; the hotels that hadn’t planned for any guests and so had no food, a problem we solved by driving to an old people’s home and eating their leftovers from the standard adult food rations.
Rosling worked out the ‘epidemic’ was actually the result of nutritional deficiencies caused by the Cuban government’s failure to provide enough of the right food for its people.
Rosling returned to Cuba a year later to give a presentation including a health and wealth chart, which Cuba’s health minister declared showed “We Cubans are the healthiest of the poor”. A Cuban health worker then quietly told Rosling: “We are not the healthiest of the poor, we are the poorest of the healthy.” Rosling agreed, writing: “Why be pleased with being the healthiest of the poor? Don’t the Cuban people deserve to be as rich, and as free, as those in other healthy states?”
Cuba’s health crisis was small potatoes compared to another caused by incompetent communist central planning. In 1960, anywhere from 15 to 45 million people— most likely more than World War I’s total death toll— starved to death in the People’s Republic of China, in large part as a direct consequence of the policies of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. Rosling writes this was probably the world’s largest ever man-made famine—a catastrophe kept secret by the Chinese government for more than 36 years. Rosling explains this could never happen now: no government could possibly keep the death of 15 million people a global secret.
Rosling’s mission was to fight ignorance and spread a fact-based world view, which he argues is more useful for navigating life and “is more comfortable”:
We can see the world is not as bad as it seems—and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.
As Louis Armstrong sang, “Yes I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
Richard Conrad is an experienced freelance journalist and editor who lives with his wife and children near Osaka in Japan, where the life expectancy is 84 years.