‘Factfulness’ may calm you down, but won’t change our ecocidal trajectory

October 6, 2019

Here and there people have been referring to author Hans Rosling’s idea of “factfulness” as an antidote to gloomy thinking about the trajectory of the human enterprise. Rosling writes:

[T]he vast majority of the world’s population live somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated. Perhaps not on every single measure, or every single year, but step by step, year by year, the world is improving. In the past two centuries, life expectancy has more than doubled. Although the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.

“Factfulness,” it seems, relies on nothing more than drawing attention to a narrow set of facts. Yes, we have made tremendous progress for humans taken alone. The problem with such assessments is that they leave out how that progress was purchased. While Rosling does not deny climate change, profligate resource consumption or toxic pollution, he does not see that they are the pillars upon which the so-called “progress” we’ve achieved rests and not mere side-effects.

I agree with Rosling that the daily flow of news does not provide an accurate picture of our true trajectory. While the media may overplay the negative news about human well-being or at least give the wrong impression, it vastly underplays the damage that human dominance has inflicted on the biosphere. And, it reliably ignores the relationship between continual growth in consumption and population and that damage.

As I have written previously, the definition of “world” is crucial in the phrase “the world is getting better.” Most of the cheerleaders for our current system focus on humans alone who make up only a fraction of “the world.” Those cheerleaders fail to understand that the shortcomings of the current system will not be remedied by doing more of the same. The health of the biosphere will not get better with greater and greater emissions of  greenhouse gases or more deforestation or more soil erosion, all integral to the “progress” of humans under the current system if we’re going to keep adding population and raising living standards.

Rosling—like so many others who think they are offering us a corrective to the dreary outlook portrayed by the media—suffers from a devotion to the unspoken tenets of modernism. Just to review, the four I like to cite are as follows:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn’t matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

None of these are true, of course. But we could get away with pretending they are as long as we did not live in what economist Herman Daly calls a full world, that is, one in which humans affect major natural systems in ways that would imperil our existence on the planet. Now, we pretend at our peril.

Rosling died not long ago. But you can be sure that some new apologist for our ecologically ruinous system will appear, point us to the “factfulness” of rising incomes and health (for humans, of course), and leave out the fact that human population is already in overshoot and that drastic measures will have to be taken to soften the blow of that overshoot as its consequences press upon “the world”—that is, the world that includes us, the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil, and every other living organism on Earth that together make our existence possible.

Image: Silhouette of pipe-smoking man with with mottos of ositive psychology and optimism in his head (2009). Nevit Dilmen . Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Positive_psychology_optimism.svg

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called... Read more.

Tags: environment