I devoured Factfulness in the course of one evening. I will admit I am fond of non-fiction/geography/economics/history books. In the scale of the usual books in this category, which can be a bit of a slog, Factfulness is an amazingly quick and clear read. Believe all the hype.
The main author, Hans Rosling was a Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute and spent several years working for WHO, UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières. Along with his expertise in health care and statistics, he brings along a gift for explaining things, and a disarming ability to admit to his own mistakes and failures – a very rare talent which ought to be treasured. If you’re trying to solve a problem, you’re going to end up being wrong at least some of the time. The only way not to make mistakes is not to try at all – and that doesn’t get us anywhere.
The basic thesis is clear enough from the start – the world is not a perfect place, but it is far better than we think it is. On average people tend to underestimate basic measures of human progress: we think poverty rates have worsened in the last 50 years, we think only a select few have electricity, and that only a few girls go to school. None of these statements is true. We also tend to believe the doom-laden theories that the planet will soon succumb to overpopulation, whereas Rosling points out that as soon as countries become wealthier the birth rates drop dramatically, so, in fact, we needn’t really worry about there being too many humans living on the planet.
That is not to say that Rosling is necessarily an optimist: he says he dismisses those concerns out of hand, because there are more serious things to be worried about: a potential pandemic, climate change etc…. He simply suggests that we should spend some time evaluating what is worth worrying about so that we can address those problems directly.
Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which was published a few months earlier seems to be pointing to some of the same optimistic conclusions with regard to human progress ( when I say, ‘seems’ I mean I haven’t read Pinker’s book–only its reviews). But Pinker’s hardback title is a bit of a tome, whereas Factfulness will fit into a small handbag.
There’s a project which is linked to Factfulness called One Dollar Street which aims to give you a realistic portrayal of how people live across the world, divided by levels of income. The aim is to make us realise that we are all at a basic level, more like each other than we’d like to think –we all use toothbrushes and soap and need something to eat. Do go have a browse, even if you don’t have the time to look at the book itself.