Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (11 page)

When I show this amazing graph, people often ask, “What is the most recent dip there?,” and they point at 1960. If you don’t know already, this is a great opportunity for me to attack the misconception that the world is getting worse.

There’s a dip in the global life expectancy curve in 1960 because 15 to 40 million people—nobody knows the exact number—starved to death that year in China, in what was probably the world’s largest ever man-made famine.

The Chinese harvest in 1960 was smaller than planned because of a bad season combined with poor governmental advice about how to grow crops more effectively. The local governments didn’t want to show bad results, so they took all the food and sent it to the central government. There was no food left. One year later the shocked inspectors were delivering eyewitness reports of cannibalism and dead bodies along roads. The government denied that its central planning had failed, and the catastrophe was kept secret by the Chinese government for 36 years. It wasn’t described in English to the outside world until 1996. (Think about it. Could any government keep the death of 15 million people a global secret today?)

Even if the Chinese government had told the world about this tragedy, the UN World Food Programme—which today distributes food to wherever it is most needed in the world—couldn’t have helped. It wasn’t created until 1961.

The misconception that the world is getting worse is very difficult to maintain when we put the present in its historical context. We shouldn’t diminish the tragedies of the droughts and famines happening right now. But knowledge of the tragedies of the past should help everyone realize how the world has become both much more transparent and much better at getting help to where it’s needed.

I Was Born in Egypt

My home country of Sweden is today on Level 4 and one of the richest and healthiest countries in the world. (Saying that a country is on Level 4 means that the average person in that country is on Level 4. It doesn’t mean that everyone in Sweden is on Level 4. Remember, averages disguise spreads.) But it hasn’t always been so.

Now I’m going to show you my favorite graph. There’s a color version of it on the inside front cover of this book. I call it the World Health Chart and it is like a world map for health and wealth. As with the bubble graph you saw in the previous chapter, each country is represented by a bubble, with the size of the bubble showing the size of the country’s population. As before poorer countries are on the left and richer countries are on the right; healthier countries are higher up, and sicker countries are lower down.

Notice that there are not two groups. The world is not divided into two. There are countries on all levels, all the way from the sick and poor in the bottom left corner to the rich and healthy in the top right corner, where Sweden is. And most countries are in the middle.

Now this next bit is exciting.

The trail of little bubbles shows Sweden’s health and wealth for every year since 1800. What tremendous progress! I have highlighted some countries that correspond, in 2017, to important years from Sweden’s past.

1948 was a very important year. The Second World War was over, Sweden topped the medals table at the Winter Olympics, and I was born. The Sweden I was born into in 1948 was where Egypt is on the health-wealth map today. That is to say, it was right in the middle of Level 3. Life conditions in 1950s Sweden were similar to those in Egypt or other countries on Level 3 today. There were still open sewage ditches and it wasn’t uncommon for children to drown in bodies of water close to home. On Level 3, parents work hard, away from their children, and the government has not yet enforced regulations to protect water with fences.

Sweden kept improving during my lifetime. During the 1950s and 1960s it progressed all the way from Egypt today to Malaysia today. By 1975, the year Anna and Ola were born, Sweden, like Malaysia today, was just about to enter Level 4.

Let’s go backward now. When my mother was born, in 1921, Sweden was like Zambia is now. That’s Level 2.

My grandmother was the Lesothian member of our family. When she was born in 1891, Sweden was like Lesotho is today. That’s the country with the shortest life expectancy in the world today, right on the border between Level 1 and 2, almost in extreme poverty. My grandmother hand-washed all the laundry for her family of nine all her adult life. But as she grew older, she witnessed the miracle of development as both she and Sweden reached Level 3. By the end of her life she had an indoor cold-water tap and a latrine bucket in the basement: luxury compared to her childhood, when there had been no running water. All four of my grandparents could spell and count, but none of them was literate enough to read for pleasure. They couldn’t read children’s books to me, nor could they write a letter. None of them had had more than four years of school. Sweden in my grandparents’ generation had the same level of literacy that India, also on Level 2, has achieved today.

My great-grandmother was born in 1863, when Sweden’s average income level was like today’s Afghanistan, right on Level 1, with a majority of the population living in extreme poverty. Great-grandmother didn’t forget to tell her daughter, my grandmother, how cold the mud floor used to be in the winter. But today people in Afghanistan and other countries on Level 1 live much longer lives than Swedes did back in 1863. This is because basic modernizations have reached most people and improved their lives drastically. They have plastic bags to store and transport food. They have plastic buckets to carry water and soap to kill germs. Most of their children are vaccinated. On average they live 30 years longer than Swedes did in 1800, when Sweden was on Level 1. That is how much life even on Level 1 has improved.

Your own country has been improving like crazy too. I can say this with confidence even though I don’t know where you live, because every country in the world has improved its life expectancy over the last 200 years. In fact almost every country has improved by almost every measure.

32 More Improvements

Is the world in your head still getting worse? Then get ready for a challenging data encounter. I have 32 more improvements to show you.

For each one, I could tell a similar story to those I have told about extreme poverty and life expectancy. For many of them I could show you that people are consistently more negative than the data says they should be. (And where I can’t, it’s because we haven’t asked these questions yet.)

But I can’t fit all these explanations into this book, so here are just the charts. Let’s start with 16 terrible things that are on their way out, or have even already disappeared. And then, let’s look at 16 wonderful things that have gotten better.

It is hard to see any of this global progress by looking out your window. It is taking place beyond the horizon. But there are some clues you can tune into, if you pay close attention. Listen carefully. Can you hear a child practicing the guitar or the piano? That child has not drowned, and is instead experiencing the joy and freedom of making music.

The goal of higher income is not just bigger piles of money. The goal of longer lives is not just extra time. The ultimate goal is to have the freedom to do what we want. Me, I love the circus, and playing computer games with my grandchildren, and zapping through TV channels. Culture and freedom, the goals of development, can be hard to measure, but guitars per capita is a good proxy. And boy, has that improved. With beautiful statistics like these, how can anyone say the world is getting worse?

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