Factfulness by Hans Rosling was recommended by friends Catherine and Dana at a summertime brunch. They urged the book as an antidote to our discussion about the dystopian world situation. The book reveals itself by its subtitle: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. The late international public health expert deconstructs data to prove the world is making progress on a variety of metrics: fewer people living in extreme poverty, increased life expectancy, higher level of education achieved by girls, fewer deaths from disease and natural disasters, higher vaccination rates, lower numbers of endangered species and more.
Rosling explores the reasons we are prone to overestimating how bad things are: from media coverage to our tendency to generalize, to over-reliance on average numbers, to fear, to single-issue prisms for viewing events and more. Being rational and basing decisions on facts are more important than ever, though Rosling’s anecdotes become repetitious, and he sometimes seems to fall into the same analytical traps he decries. Still, it’s an interesting book with an important fundamental message. The many notes I wrote in the margins of its 255 pages attest to how provocative Rosling is. The book invites nuanced thinking and will surely fuel lively conversations after a reading. Sadly, Rosling died in 2017, the year before this best-seller was published. I’d love to have heard his evaluation of more recent data concerning world health, political, economic and social trends and the levels of ignorance, misinformation and disinformation in the public dialogue today. Would he still believe that things are much better than we think?
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is a portrait of the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl horrors of the 1930’s. Recommended by my friend Michael, it proved to be a superbly researched history. The author drew heavily from the diaries of and interviews with survivors of the environmental destruction, economic meltdown, agricultural mistakes and resulting human tragedies. These were the darkest days of the Depression, richly recreated, based in facts.
Egan reveals how the unique climate challenges and land management follies were rooted in some of the exuberance of the go-go twenties. The tragedies were exacerbated by the over-expansion of land acquisition, mortgaging of property to purchase heavy equipment, imprudent financial practices to get in on the profits of the previous good times. Too much debt was accrued, leading to devastating losses when things went sour. It’s about courageous individuals and foolish ones, people’s stubbornness and blindness, their unspeakable suffering and the dashing of their hopes.
The cattlemen ravaged the Indian lands, the farmers destroyed the grasslands for the ranchers, and Mother Nature had her way – years-long drought, repeated crop failures, bankruptcies, sickness and death, individual losses and the disappearance of whole communities. There are implicit warnings here for climate deniers and all who are slow to respond to warnings of looming disaster. The messages are clearly laid out. Will we learn from them?
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