Combating Despair with Facts

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The other day I was in a coffee shop working on my laptop and I overheard an interesting conversation happening next to me. A woman in her 30s was having coffee and talking with two older adults, who I assume are her parents.

The woman’s talking about politics and about how terrible this administration is and right away the dynamics of this relationship are clear. The dad is conservative and practical while mom prefers to keep the peace and tries to see both sides of every argument. I see myself in the woman because despite seeming to be a fully-functional adult, she has obviously turned into a 16 year-old in front of her parents again and is angry both at the injustice she is speaking of and of the fact that she’s regressing. (I have BEEN THERE.) Anyway, the woman is making some perfectly reasonable statements about her views on politics, and her dad is firmly disagreeing with her — respectfully so, but there’s no doubt that his message is ultimately you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is making her more and more angry and she is fighting to control her temper and like so many political discussions these days, all of the sudden she begins to lose her shit, and she reverts to hyperbole and exaggeration. At one point she very clearly says that the UN has just released a study that said the world is “basically not going to exist in 15 years”. (I know the report she was referring to, and it was full of rather dire predictions. But not THAT dire. The UN says we have 12 years before climate change effects are irreversible.  Basically, we’re still all going to die but we have a little more than 12 years.)

At that particular moment, I wanted to lean over and sell the whole table on a great book I just read: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling. Rosling sadly passed away before the publication of the book, but he was a global health professor and the founder of an organization called Gapminder Foundation. Factfulness is an inspiring and fact-based look at the state of the world today. Rosling starts off with a 13-question multiple choice quiz that he has given to audiences around the world for the past few years, asking about things like the number of people in the world who live in poverty, how many girls get educations, and about access to electricity. If you’re anything like me, you will probably get most of these questions wrong. (You can take the quiz yourself without even buying the book.)

This quiz is the foundation and outline of the entire book. His point ultimately is that when you look at the hard data, and a long-enough time horizon, the world is undoubtedly getting better. The biggest take-away: “Just 20 years ago, 29 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Now that number is 9 percent.” That is a mind-blowingly good piece of information. We’ve more than halved extreme poverty in just 20 years. And his data is non-controversial, primarily coming from the World Bank, the UN, and other boring and responsible sources. The book is well-written and concise and accessible. I loved it. (So did my boss.) Rosling actually knows what he’s talking about, too. He spent many years in the field as a doctor trying to save lives in areas experiencing massive suffering, and he founded the Swedish chapter of Doctors Without Borders.

Anyway, I didn’t lean over and talk to that table about this book, even though I wanted to. I wanted to tell them that the world is actually getting better. That it’s not likely to end in our lifetimes. But I felt too much for that woman, and I didn’t want to exacerbate an already tense family situation. But perhaps a crazy and nosy person would have diffused the situation. DAMMIT, I should have done it!

PS: Want to see something else really cool? The Gapminder Foundation created this amazing visual tool at Dollar Street. It’s an enormous database of photographs of the everyday objects of people’s lives around the globe. You can easily look at what people’s toothbrushes (or phones, or toilets, or hands) look like by geography and income level. I could play with it for hours. It’s FASCINATING.

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