by Betsy Teutsch, for the Shuttle
Hans Rosling, famous for cool data visualization videos and TED talks, is the author of my new favorite book, “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World — and Why Things are Better Than You Think.” Racing to complete it before he died in 2017, he announces flat out: Our world view is simply wrong. It’s outdated, based on false impressions rather than contemporary fact and over-focused on calamity, and it ignores the astounding human progress of the last 50 years.
Rosling urges us to reboot our thinking, and makes it fun. Just as a car recall involves a fix, “When the facts about the world that you were taught in schools and universities become out of date, you should get a letter too: ‘Sorry, what we taught you is no longer true. Please return your brain for a free upgrade.’”
Rosling was a global public-health physician, and his first lessons were how ill-equipped he was to make judgments about situations in countries far from his native Sweden. The people were just as smart, but lived in cultures with different assumptions and systems. Presuming we know better, as do many people from the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) demographic, distorts our decision-making. To be wiser global citizens, we need revised mental maps of the world.
Terms like “Third World” and “developing countries” reflect old mind sets. Rosling divides the world into four income levels, reflecting the vast disparity both within a country and between countries. Remarkably, by his accounting, six out of seven people in today’s world have escaped extreme poverty and more do so every day, accessing sanitation, electricity, clean water and education.
Level One: Very poor, 1 billion
Level Two: Poor, 3 billion
Level Three: Lower middle, 2 billion
Level Four: Rich, 1 billion
Last winter, my husband and I traveled to Peru to see Machu Picchu. We were surprised how few Americans we saw there, especially compared to the huge crowds of Asians on group tours. Reading “Factfulness” before an international trip would have provided a simple explanation.
Rosling presents a simple rubric for understanding global population. Of the 7 billion people outlined above, one billion live in North and South America. Another billion live in Africa. The third billion live in Europe. The remaining 4 billion? They all live in Asia.
The Pacific Rim has, in two generations, moved many hundreds of millions of people from deprivation to relative security — educated folks with disposable income. They are now happily exploring the world, visiting World Heritage Sites just like American tourists do. This is a wonderful, but relatively new, reality. It’s a new world, indeed.
Bill Gates thinks “Factfulness” is so important that he underwrote free pdfs for all 2018 American college graduates. Anyone interested in downloading an excerpt can do so at the Gates blog.
Watch Hans Rosling’s TED talks and learn even more. For the express version, catch his “200 Years in 4 Minutes” on YouTube.