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Why we need to highlight stories of progress to build a better future

The late data visualisation master, Hans Rosling, changed how I think about the world. His TED Talks and work at Gapminder revealed centuries of human progress that I was completely unaware of. I thought everything in the world was getting worse: poverty, child mortality, life expectancy, hunger, and access to education and healthcare. He showed – through data – that the opposite was true. Hans Rosling tried to show us how the world was and often highlighted stories of progress.

In a recent interview, I was asked whether this framing was useful. Does it match with human psychology? We compare ourselves to people around us today, not our ancestors centuries ago.

It’s true. Even though I look at this historical data all the time, I compare my life to my peers around me and the lifestyles of my parents. If I’m struggling to afford a house, it’s hard to reframe this as “cheer up, if you’d be born in 1850 you might be dead by this age”.

That’s fine, and I think that’s healthy in a society that wants to move forward. We should never be satisfied with the world as it is because there are still big problems to solve. I’m glad that my ancestors in 1900 were not satisfied that their lives were a bit better than those born in 1800. They’ve made the world much better for us today.

But I don’t think that’s what Hans Rosling was arguing for. Highlighting progress isn’t meant to lull us into a state of complacency or shame us into feeling grateful for what we have today. For me, it’s to show us that dramatic change can happen with focused human action.

I try to do this in my work: balance the communication of the scale and seriousness of the problems we face, with examples of solutions that are helping to tackle them. Both are important.

Here are five reasons why it’s valuable to highlight stories of progress. Note that my work at Our World in Data is not just focused on environmental sustainability; I’ve done lots of work on health, nutrition, human rights, and many other topics. So I’ll use some examples from there too.

We tend to make more progress when we can see that what we’re doing is working.

Take the example of someone training for a marathon. Is there anything more demotivating than training for weeks or months and feeling like you’re making no progress? You can’t run any further or any faster than you could at the start. What is motivating is seeing positive results from your hard work. You might not be able to run a marathon yet, but you can run a few kilometres, then five, then ten. When you can see that what you’re doing is working, you’re more likely to sustain it, or even push further. You’ll go from one or two sessions a week to four or five.

Now, we can’t lie or pretend that progress is being made when it isn’t. That spells disaster when you’re lining up to run a marathon. If you aren’t improving, you need to know that early so you can find a better training program.

Fake progress is not what I’m arguing for. I’m advocating for an honest look at steps that have been made while admitting the challenges and gaps we still need to close.

One more example. Every month I donate a share of my income to global health charities. That money goes towards the most cost-effective ways to save lives and improve health: malarial bed neds; nutritional supplements for low-income kids; that sort of thing. For my birthday, people will often donate to the Against Malaria Foundation on my behalf because they know it’s something I’m passionate about. I only donate because I know that it’s effective and it works.

Look at the chart below, which we have in our work on Malaria on Our World in Data [note the 2020 rebound due to Covid-19]. Or the plunging death rates in particular countries. When I see these charts, I don’t think “Deaths have fallen. Job done.” That would be stupid. I think “There’s something we can do about this. What’s happening, and can I contribute?”

Far from falling into complacency, it inspired me to take more action. Paradoxically, if those charts were flat – if no progress had been made – then I’d probably spend my money on something else.

There is, perhaps, a reluctance among some charities to admit that trends are improving. The risk is that people take it less seriously, and turn away. But I’m not convinced that this is how human psychology works. When we can see real results coming through, we tend to lean in, not out.

The world now has two vaccines against malaria, which could save tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of lives every year. These new solutions make me more keen to contribute, not less. Please take my money, and deliver them quickly.

It’s the 2070s. 

The world is running on clean energy. Everyone has access to sufficient supplies. No one is choking on dirty air. They’re well-fed. There are almost no gasoline cars on the road. Deforestation has come to an end. We use tiny amounts of land to produce food. We’re not killing tens of billions of animals for meat. Wildlife is making a comeback.

To many, that seems like a naive utopia. An unachievable goal.

But try to explain the world we live in today to someone in the mid-1900s. They’d have struggled to believe it.

In 1950, around one-quarter of newborns in India, Brazil and China died before the age of 5. This is now a few percent (less than 1% in China). High child mortality rates were a constant throughout human history. Reducing them would have seemed unachievable. Until it wasn’t.

Or look at energy. Hardly anyone in the early 2000s would have bet that solar, wind, batteries, and electric cars would be cost-competitive with fossil fuels today. The few people who did think this was possible were laughed at (Ramez Naam is a good example).

In the 1960s, few people would have predicted that this is what would happen to crop yields across the world. That’s how we ended up with Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb.

The utopia that I laid out for a 2070s world seems far-fetched (and maybe it is). But it’s also true that the 2024 world we live in today would seem far-fetched to someone in the 1960s. By failing to acknowledge historical progress we set our sights too low for how things in the future could be radically different.

Every success story has lessons that others can learn from.

Why has Country A reduced child mortality much faster than Country B? How has Country X deployed wind and solar twice as fast as Country Y?

At Our World in Data, we’ve previously contributed to a project called Exemplars, which does this in global health. When you look at the data you find large differences in health outcomes across countries with similar levels of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Some countries do better than others with a higher level of GDP.

This point is important because it means that leaders can’t brush off differences by saying “we just need to wait for our country to get richer”. There are improvements they can make now based on other interventions.

Bangladesh, for example, has been incredibly successful in reducing deaths in newborns and infants. It has achieved this quicker than its neighbour – India – despite being poorer.

The point is not that India is doing poorly – it has also seen very impressive drops in child mortality. Nor is it that Bangladesh’s job is done: we know that other countries have even lower child mortality rates, so it can go much further too.

It’s just that Bangladesh seems to be doing something different; something that other countries – poorer ones – might be able to emulate.

Should we not highlight and learn from these success stories, just because child deaths are not yet zero? That seems like a shame; a damaging mindset that will ultimately cost lives.

This builds on the previous point.

The easiest position for a leader to be in is for a problem to seem unsolvable. No one expects it of them.

If no one has built a low-carbon electricity grid before, then they’ll argue that it can’t be done. If no country managed to strip sulphur dioxide – which causes acid rain – out of its coal plumes then it’s an unsolvable problem. If no city has built itself around bikes and public transport rather than cars, then it’s a non-starter.

If we want to put pressure on leaders – whether they’re in government or business – to deliver then we need to dismantle their excuses. Those excuses are often built on the lie that they’re walking uncharted territory.

Now, on some issues, front-runners are paving a completely new path (see Point 2). But after the first few countries have done it, the paving is already there.

If we don’t shout about the fact that these barriers have been taken down – which means acknowledging that we’ve made some progress – then leaders can keep pretending that it hasn’t, or can’t be, done.

We often have a rosy view of the past. This is particularly strong within environmentalism.

There are obvious – and rational – reasons for this. The rapid rise in CO2 emissions, deforestation, and biodiversity loss has been relatively recent.

The solution that many people envisage, then, is to roll back the clock. To go back to ‘older’ ways of living that had a lower impact. But this won’t solve the problem. First, because we should be cognizant of what that past meant for human suffering and wellbeing. Do we want to roll back to a world where rates of hunger were extremely high, despite most of us working in agriculture? A world where famine would often kill tens of millions?

Second, because the ways of living that worked for small populations of humans do not work for 8 billion people. And in returning to some of those lifestyles, we could increase environmental impacts. You can’t feed billions with low-density farming like our ancestors had. It would lead to even greater amounts of deforestation and habitat loss. George Monbiot has a great essay – The Cruel Fantasies of Well-Fed People – where he makes this case strongly.

If we want to build a sustainable future for billions we need forward-looking solutions. Yes, there are lessons and knowledge from the past that we can incorporate. But we need a clear-eyed view of what past conditions – both environmental and social – looked like, so we can properly assess what role they can play in a brighter future. We can only do that by looking at long-term trends. Simply comparing ourselves to our neighbours today won’t cut it.

I agree with critics that only talking about progress risks complacency.

If we only talk about the number of solar panels that are being installed, people could get the impression that we’re on track to tackle climate change. Context matters. We should be talking about rates of progress on solar and wind, but placing it in the bigger picture of how other energy sources are changing too. Is this enough to keep up with growing electricity demand? Is it replacing fossil fuels? That’s how we build a clearer picture of where we are, and where we’re going.

Navigating this balance of communicating problems and solutions is hard. Both are important.

In an interview last year I was asked whether Our World in Data was the place where people go “so they can sleep well at night”. I pushed back on this: “I don’t sleep well knowing that 5 million children die every year, most from preventable causes.” While you will find many promising trends on our site, you will also be exposed to harsh realities and problems that most people turn a blind eye to. We try to shine a spotlight on the world’s largest problems, while also showing how we might be able to solve them.

I guess my feeling is that most dialogue is too tilted towards “problem, problem, problem” which leaves people feeling helpless. I want to shift it a bit more in the other direction. Not so far that it’s just “solutions, solutions, solutions”, but something more akin to “problem, solution, solution”.



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