by Frank Götmark
This year Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnblad (below the “Rosling team”) published “Factfulness” (Note: H.R. died in February 2017.) As the book to a large extent is about global population and as Bill Gates is giving free copies of it to college graduates in the US, we need to take a look at its content. The subtitle is “Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think”. Many of us probably have thought that the mass media tend to report too much negative news. A merit of the book is that it reminds us about the improvements of human conditions that have taken place in the last century. How well does this book succeed in balancing good and bad news, and in giving a realistic picture of the world?
It begins with 13 questions about the world, and alternative answers for the reader to choose among. Then follows 11 chapters organized around various “instincts”, such as the “Gap instinct” and the “Negativity instinct”. These instincts cause misconceptions, according to the Rosling team; that the world can be divided into developed and developing countries (with a “gap”) or that “things are getting worse” (“negativity”). The 13 questions come back in the chapters, and graphs show the (high) percentage of people who chose a wrong answer in polls. The correct answers are supposed to show how much better the world is than people think. This has the effect of people becoming happier; the millions of people who have seen Hans Rosling in action also tended to become happy, by his style, voice and rhetoric.
Of the 13 questions, 11 are about population matters and people’s living conditions, and two are about environmental conditions. Thus, already from the start a strong anthropocentric outlook is obvious – the environment on which all humans depend (for food and freshwater, for instance) is largely left out. Of the environmental questions, one is for the correct answer “temperature will get warmer within 100 years”. Correct answer for the other question, about tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos, are that they are not more critically endangered today than in 1996. This is a deceptive question, as these are only three among the thousands of threatened species.
This issue is followed up in a later section, where the team write ”Humans have plundered natural resources across the planet. Natural habitats have been destroyed and many animals hunted to extinction. This is clear.” This is correct, but then follows: ”If I check the Red List or World Wildlife Fund (WWF) today, I can see how, despite declines in some local populations and some subspecies, the total wild populations of tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos have all increased over the past years.” Here the story ends. The Rosling team wants to highlight good things, but to emphasize these three species of mammals – that get extra attention and protection – is strongly misleading.
A recent study in Nature gathered information for more than 8,700 species on the Red List. ‘The big killers’, the study concluded, are overexploitation (the harvesting of species from the wild at rates that cannot be compensated for by reproduction or regrowth) and agriculture (the production of food, fodder, fibre and fuel crops; livestock farming; aquaculture; and the cultivation of trees). Climate change is also a threat, but still a minor one. Species go extinct, but this is difficult to measure, especially for many plants, fungi, and insects. An equally serious concern is that populations within species go extinct – the raw material for resistant gene pools and future speciation. A study in PNAS mapped population extinctions between 1900 and 2015 in 177 mammal species, for which good data existed. All had lost 30% or more of their geographic ranges and more than 40% of the species have experienced severe population declines (>80% range shrinkage).
Taking a more comprehensive view, it is clear that wild nature has been greatly degraded in recent decades, and the prognosis is for more of the same. People who care about preserving wild nature should not feel happy about what has happened in the past century, or what is likely to happen in the coming one. Focusing on a few happy exceptions is misleading.
The book has a heading “16 good things increasing”. One graph here is incomprehensible, labeled “Monitored species: Listed species with assessed threat status” and showing an increase from 34 in 1959 to 87,967 in 2017 (a good thing!?). Another graph shows an increase in protected areas, from 0.03% of total land area in 1900 to 15% in 2016. Again, strongly misleading.
Firstly, protected areas are mostly low-productive lands (mountains, desert, or alpine/arctic lands), and other ecosystem are under-represented. More importantly, between 1900 and 2016 huge areas of natural and semi-natural ecosystems were converted for intensive human use globally. For instance, large areas of semi-natural boreal forest in northern Sweden were converted to production stands between 1950 and 2012, through a rapidly increasing network of forest roads and clear-cutting. By 2012, a few percent had been formally protected, but overall, semi-natural forests in Sweden had greatly decreased (see short film here). This same pattern was repeated in many nations of the world, and in the world as a whole, over the past century: despite the growing formally protected area, the total area of wild natural and semi-natural land is decreasing. An extra graph in the book should have illustrated this.
Similar neglect of the fate of the environment – that we, like other species, depend upon for our future – can be found in the Rosling team’s long film “Don’t panic”. For instance, an African river is shown, and is supposed to be used only for irrigation; there is no mention other values of such large rivers (ecosystem services; including habitats for other species, fishing, and recreation).
Regarding humans it is true that extreme poverty has decreased, and longevity increased in many countries, through medical advances, education, and technology. These achievements are heavily emphasized, but must also be related to current overpopulation and our future, given that Homo sapiens already dominates all ecosystems (directly or indirectly, through e.g. climate change). The UN population forecast projects 3.8 billion more people to 2100 (medium variant, 2017 projections). More people lead to more greenhouse gases, climate change, unsustainable economic growth (hardly dealt with in the book), further increase in demand for food and freshwater, more pollution and toxins, continued decrease in wildlife populations, and so on.
“Factfulness” describes the former successful family planning program in Iran, which is good, but the Rosling Team fails to emphasize that global fertility must be reduced, for a brighter future. For a “positive fact question” on this topic, the team could have asked, “How many fewer babies per woman would be needed to get the same global population in 2100 as in 2018?” Possible answers; on average a) 1,5, b) 1, or c) 0.5 baby less per woman? Correct answer: Only 0,5 baby! This can be seen in an often presented UN graph, ‘low variant’ projection.
The Rosling Team stresses the role of education of women and men for fertility reduction; this is fine, but what is taught in classes, at different levels, in different countries? What do we really know about the content of education, with respect to sexuality and contraception? Religion is one factor in education, but the team downplays its role in determining fertility. They conclude ”Muslim women have on average 3.1 children. Christian women have 2.7. There is no major difference between the birth rates of the great world religions.” But wait, the average difference here is 0.4 baby – compare the effect of 0.5 baby above. Small numbers can make a major difference in the long term, which the team emphasizes in their “Destiny instinct” (“Slow change is still change”). Religion can boost population growth, as Eric Kaufmann has described in his book. A relevant question to add could have been, “How did the percentage of the world’s population belonging to a religion change between 1970 and 2010?” Possible answers; a) decreased from 88 to 81%, b) no change, c) increased from 81 to 88% – c) is the correct answer.
It is surprising that the Rosling team does not mention the fine work by the Population Media Center – through Internet and powerful radio and TV shows this organization helps spreading knowledge about family planning and contraception to people in poorer countries. It is one of several effective population organizations.
The book has a long list of references, though it is dominated by webpage sources and agency reports. The team states they checked their facts (a better word is “data”; more neutral, used by scientists). The best sources of knowledge are scholarly articles in the many scientific journals, but “Factfulness” lacks reference to two important articles on population (in Nature 2016 and Science 2017). There, the authors explain the unfortunate diminished role of family planning since the mid-1990’s, what this might mean for future food insecurity and the fates of endangered species, and what must be done.
The Rosling Team points out that critical thought is needed – surely, but the main message of the book still becomes “things are getting better” with respect to population growth and the environment. A strong relevant message about the need for renewed action to curb population growth and increase international aid is lacking. In contrast, an excellent article published last week in Science explains how we can slow down population growth in a warming world. That article, rather than “Factfulness”, should have been delivered free to students in the US. Less paper, less greenhouse gases, too.
More broadly, we need to ask: What makes people take action to improve the world? I assume that most well-educated persons have a quite realistic view of the world. My hypothesis (well, I’m a scientist!) is that too strong positive (biased) messages to them about the world will make fewer take action to improved conditions. Recall how negative media reports of famines have led millions of people to give money to charity organizations. If millions of people would get clear, balanced information about the negative effects of population growth, and about the ameliorating effect of family planning programs, many of them would probably economically support the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, Population Media Center or other progressive organizations. Such support is crucial to creating a better future for people and the rest of life.