It’s hard for me to adequately convey how amazing this book is, and the extent to which I think every privileged person in the “Western world” (a fraught term, I know, and one that’s even fraught-er after reading this) ought to read the book.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered a free copy to every US graduate at any level in 2018. So that’s one measure of how important a book it is.
“Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think” is the subtitle and an excellent summary of the entire book. If you think you know the world and don’t need your mindset readjusted, go here: http://forms.gapminder.org/s3/test-2018 . Then come back. I’ll wait.
Did you do really poorly? If you stayed on the site and looked around, you’ll know that so do the vast majority of people who take the test. In fact, humans tend to do worse than random, which is a most ridiculous idea regarding facts about the world.
Some of the most important things I got out of this book:
- The idea of data being therapy. Hans would have said he’s not an optimist – he’s not “looking on the bright side”. He looks at data. He’s not making assumptions about the world, he’s looking at what the world is actually like. And things are not as bad as we apparently think they are.
- Which leads me to “bad and better”. Of course things in the world are not perfect; he’s not suggesting they are, nor is he suggesting that things like war in Syria ought to be ignored. However, on a global scale, things are better today than they were in the past – and better than you think they are. His metaphor for this idea is the premature baby doing well in ICU: after a few days, are things better? Yes. Are things still dicey? Yes. Two things at the same time: bad and better. This, for me, is immensely reassuring as a phrase – I can be concerned about Syria, or Yemen, or whatever else, and still know that for most people around the world, things are better than they used to be.
- How to think about statistics. It’s all well and good to give me today’s stats… but how do they compare to last year, and last decade? This is a question I don’t ask often enough and ought to do more of.
- Populations statistics don’t necessarily move in straight lines.
- A comparison of where “developing” countries (a phrase that Hans loathes, for reasons outlined in the book) are today compared with “developed” countries (same caveat) in the past – how much faster, for instance, the fifty countries of sub-Saharan Africa have reduced their child mortality rates than Sweden ever did (p171; he often uses Sweden as an exemplar).
Of course, I am coming at this as a long-time Hans devotee (although some people in my circle are even bigger fans…). The Magic Washing Machine was a revolutionary way for me to think about wealth and time and work. In Qatar, he discussed the connection between religion and babies… and the fact that there isn’t one: it’s about girls’ education. And then there’s his brilliant 200 countries in 200 years, which makes even my data-dubious heart glow. And then there’s the fact that Hans died in 2017, while the book was nearing completion. I cried while I read the introduction, because in my head it was Hans’ lovely Swedish accent reading it and I knew he was gone and honestly that just felt heartbreaking.
Even if you don’t usually read non-fiction, I think you would do well to read this. If you are in business, or have some sort of connection to policy-making in government or an NGO or banking, you should read this. If you know someone in those areas, this would make a most ideal gift for any reason whatsoever. This book should become ubiquitous on shelves, and it should be ubiquitous when we talk about how to keep improving the world.