Factfulness | Hans Rosling

Published in: 2018

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According to Hans Rosling (1948-2017), the majority of people believes that 50% or more of the world’s citizens live in low-income countries. The real figure is 9%. Many have a worldview that matches what the world looked like when one’s teacher was a student. But societies and cultures are in constant motion. The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has been halved in the last twenty years.

FOUR INCOME LEVELS. Since the beginning, man has lived in extreme poverty (level 1). 200 years ago, 85% of the world’s population was still at Level 1. Thanks to the industrial revolution, world trade and property rights, things such as the washing machine was invented, freeing up time for new discoveries. The human population has gradually moved “up the ladder”. But it can take several generations for a family to get from Level 1 to Level 4 (where about a billion people are now – including large part of the West).

INCLINATION TO BINARY THINKING. Anyone who has looked down from the top of a tall building knows that it is difficult to assess height differences on buildings further down – everything looks small. People at Level 4 still see the world as twofold: rich and poor. But those at Level 1, 2 and 3 know how much better life has become, or would become, if they went from $1 a day to $4, not to mention $16. Billions of people have gone from Level 1 to Level 2 and 3 without Level 4 noticing it.

SWEDEN IN YEAR 1800. Rosling’s grandmother spent all her adult life doing all the family’s laundry by hand. Towards the end of her life, she had running cold water indoors and a latrine barrel in the basement – a luxury compared to her childhood. As Sweden became industrialized, most figures have improved, including life expectancy, child mortality and living standards. In the 19th century, Sweden had the same level of literacy that India has today (level 2). Five billion people still wash their clothes by hand, but most countries are now improving faster than Sweden has ever done. The number of people at level 3 is expected to increase from two billion today to four billion by 2040.

MEDIA BIAS. The image of a dangerous world has never spread as effectively as it does now, while the world has never been safer. In 2016, a total of 40 million passenger aircraft landed safely at their destinations. Only 10 aircraft were involved in fatal accidents. Of course, it was the latter that the media wrote about. Non-events obviously lack news value. Natural disasters (probability 0.1%), murders (0.7%), radioactive leaks (0%) and terrorism (0.05%) are also rare.

NO CLEAR RECIPE. Rosling is convinced that liberal democracy is the best form of government. But democracy does not necessarily lead to, or is even a necessary precondition for, all good things. Most countries that have made great economic and social progress are not democracies. South Korea went from Level 1 to Level 3 faster than any other country had done (without finding oil), all the time during a military dictatorship. Of the ten countries with the fastest economic growth in the last five years, nine of them have low democracy points.

POPULATION GROWTH. The population increased extremely slowly for almost 10,000 years to reach one billion in 1800. The next billion came in just 130 years. Life expectancy has improved in all countries over the last 200 years. In the 19th century, life expectancy was around 30 years throughout the world (it had been there throughout history). About half of all children born die in infancy. Most of the other half died at the age of between 50 and 70 (as always when it comes to the average, we must remember that there is a spread).

THE CONSUMER MARKET IS SHIFTING. UN experts do not expect any significant change in the size of the population in America or Europe during this century. On the other hand, they expect 3 billion more in Africa and another 1 billion people in Asia – over 80% of the world’s population will therefore live in Africa and Asia. The rich countries around the North Atlantic (11% of the world’s population) make up 60% of the level 4 consumer market. This is expected to decrease to 50% by 2027. By 2040, 60% of the world’s level 4 consumers will live outside the western world.

STATISTICAL RULES OF THUMB. In modern life, linear intuition is not always the best, here are some other examples: “S-shaped curves” reach a maximum and stay there (growth rate until you catch up with the world average). “Hump curves” can be that dental health and traffic accidents worsen when people get from Level 1 to Level 2, and then improve again at Level 4. More people can afford sugar and cars, then more people with toothpaste and safe cars. Exponential curves compounds. Extrapolation of all trend might not be wise.

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