The status quo is better than we think

Analysis: Anna Rosling Ronnlund wants you to rethink what you know about everything. Why? Because our ingrained pessimism has made us very bad at making judgments about the world around us. 

In her book, Factfulness, co-authored with her late father-in-law Hans Rosling and husband Ola Rosling (and confusingly written in just Hans’ voice) she surveys what people think about the world around them and finds them excessively pessimistic.

Take the following topical question as an example: What percentage of the world’s one-year-olds have been vaccinated against disease? 

The question was posed as a multi-choice, with the options being 20, 50, or 80 percent.  

The answer - thanks to international vaccination efforts - is 80 percent, but people only correctly picked this response 13 percent of the time.

Another 12 questions are surveyed in the book, with respondents typically erring on the side of pessimism. Factfulness is an attempt to probe why people are so bad at appraising the world around them, and argues we should all “take a breath” when examining data.

One of our worst tendencies, they argue, is to fixate so much on the gap between rich and poor that we ignore the dominant trend of increasing wealth and prosperity around the world, which has flowed on into better living standards and longer lifespans. 

Things keep getting better (with some exceptions). Photo: Gapminder

It’s part of a wider trend for Pollyanna-ish literature that includes writers like Steven Pinker and aims to prove that in spite of Trump, Brexit, and a rising income inequality that pervades the zeitgeist, things are getting better. 

Factfulness is the jaunty, Scandinavian edition in these optimists' corpus. It’s fast-paced, suffused with nifty diagrams and audience participation, like a TED talk (the Roslings have delivered several) committed to print. 

It’s no surprise either that the book has drawn praise from the likes of Barack Obama, and Bill and Melinda Gates. It’s a sort of hippocratic oath of a book, implying the status quo is better than we think, and hurried efforts to change it could be damaging. It’s comforting. Hygge for neoliberals. 

(Hygge is, Danish, not Swedish — I know). 

But wait, something's burning...

My concern is that these trend lines are good, but they’re built on rocky foundations. Declining rates of poverty are thanks to China’s economic miracle, but that’s come at massive environmental cost, which threatens to reverse gains made all over the world. 

In fact, China’s growth and prosperity story is a truncated version of our own. Looking at trendiness before the Industrial Revolution shows our current prosperity is not the result of some benevolent teleology, but mass consumption fed by fossil fuels. There’s no doubt this is a good thing, but it’s a problem.

The fact that prescription medicine can be manufactured to an exacting clinical standard from ingredients sourced all over the world and delivered to your local pharmacist at fractional cost is nothing short of a miracle. But what is not miraculous are the energy sources - primarily coal and oil - that make this possible. They’re not limitless, nor, as we’ve belatedly discovered, are they without consequence. 

The strongest correlation between personal attributes and carbon emissions is not found in whether or not someone is a vegan or chooses to fly, its whether or not they’re prosperous. There’s nothing wrong with prosperity - it keeps us warm and healthy. But prosperity is built on rocky foundations. 

The status quo might show some positive trendlines, but its very existence depends on the forces that will undermine it. It’s very difficult to have high rates of vaccination and low rates of poverty when the global supply chains that underwrite our health and food systems are undermined by high fuel costs and climate change.  

Anna is receptive to these criticisms and indeed the book casts a weary eye toward the future: it says things like climate change and a global pandemic are critical risks to the world’s future. 

Speaking to me on the eve of her trip to New Zealand for the Auckland Writers Festival, she acknowledged the looming fossil fuel crisis could pose a problem to these positive trend lines.

“Of course that could be the problem going forward and that could screw things up quite a lot,” she said. 

But she believes fossil fuels are just a part of the prosperity story, rather than the engine of the whole thing. 

“But the reason things have improved as much as they have is a combination of a lot of different things, which fossil fuels for instance is just a part."

Anna is also very focused on the unfairness underlining climate change politics. More than half of the fossil fuel burned each year is burned by the richest billion people. The second richest billion burn half of what’s left. The poorest billion people, 13 percent of the world’s population, are responsible for just 1 percent of fossil fuels burned each year. 

When things get better, they get worse. Photo: Gapminder

Can you hear the drums, Fernando? 

The book rails against the presumption then, that rapidly industrialising countries like China and India are responsible for climate change, simply by pursuing the same route to prosperity as everyone else. 

“…[w]e in the West seem to shift responsibility away from ourselves and onto others. We say that ‘they cannot live like us’. The right thing to say is ‘We cannot live like us’, the Roslings say in their book. 

She believes new technologies are a crucial part of how the world will wean itself off fossil fuels and onto clean energy, but also that the immense wealth generated by our prosperity should be used to help poor people become prosperous in a cleaner way than we did. 

And interestingly, for a book all about trends, the book is shy about making any firm predictions. “Beware of fortune tellers,” it says.

I’m sceptical of predictions too. I studied history, rather than statistics, at university. I prefer looking at things over longer time periods. Humans are notoriously bad at knowing when conditions are about to deteriorate. 

This chart, for example, is more my jam. Things were pretty peachy for Ancient Rome, until they weren’t. It would take nearly 2000 years for the city to start growing again.

Rome: an example of where things went wrong. Photo: Wikimedia

Trend lines can go backwards; faster and father than most people realise. In my experience, what’s important isn’t the trend line, but the causal relationship it imputes (which Rosling addresses in a chapter on blame games). 

But that’s why I find this book confusing. The prosperity that is its creed rests on the shakiest of foundations. The trend line we should be watching is oil consumption, which in spite of growing international posturing on climate change has only grown in the last 10 years. In fact, the only thing that’s slowed oil consumption was the Great Financial Crisis, which was good for the environment, but pretty terrible for global prosperity.

When it comes to pithy slogans, I prefer T-shirts to TED talks. My favourite, as shown by the chart above:

Shit happens. 

Anna Rosling Ronnlund will be at the Auckland Writers Festival

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