It’s an approach advocated by the late Hans Rosling, in his 2017 book Factfulness, written with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Yes, things are bad - but they’re getting better. If we reject despair, if we have hope that we can overcome the great challenges that face us as a species, we can get to work to fix things.
Without hope, we react with denial or resignation. If there’s no hope, why bother? Why not, as the saying goes, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?”
“Think about the world,” Rosling wrote. “War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees.”
British writer Matt Ridley, recently wrote a piece in his Rational Optimist blog and elsewhere entitled “We’ve just had the best decade in human history. Seriously.” While readers might be forgiven for spitting out their coffee in disbelief, he goes on to back it up with statistics. For example, he points out that in his lifetime, (Ridley was born in 1958) the number of the world’s people living in extreme poverty had dropped from 60 per cent to 10 per cent today.
We so often focus on the negatives, and there are many. Climate change, plastic pollution, species extinctions, energy, food security, anti-science rhetoric, the rise of populism, and the weaponization of information to threaten democracy. How can we possibly have hope in the face of all this?
“The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better,” Ridley writes. “Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.”
While we struggle to rise and overcome the great challenges that face us, let’s pause to recognize and savour our successes. We have conquered diseases that once killed and crippled millions. We put a hole in our planet’s ozone layer, but we came together and fixed it. In the mid-20th century, war killed tens of millions, levelled cities and shattered economies. We have not yet conquered war, but seen in the light of these conflagrations, we have at least made progress.
“Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving,” Rosling wrote. “Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview."
As the new year begins, let us step forward with hope, based on facts, encouraged by knowledge of our past successes. Yes, the challenges are enormous. But we’ve faced enormous challenges before. We’ve got this.
I'm a science writer based in Saskatoon, Canada. While I write on a wide range of topics, I most often find myself exploring life and environmental sciences as well as the social science aspects of science communications. Examples include agricultural biotechnology, food and water security, and public response to innovations in genetic engineering and energy production.