You probably haven’t heard of Hans Rosling. That’s because he’s trying to cheer you up.
The retired Swedish professor calls himself an “edutainer”, a necessarily pandering label in our vigorously anti-intellectual age. If he introduced himself more accurately as someone who does interesting things with statistics about humanity, he — see, you’ve glazed over already. So “edutainer” it is.
Rosling’s visual representations of our progress as a species are the sort of things that used to make TED talks quietly engrossing. When he speaks, people chuckle and raise their eyebrows. As promised on the bill, they are educated and entertained.
But Rosling is more than a genteel diversion.
These are hyperbolic times so I’m hesitant to exaggerate too much, but, increasingly, Rosling looks like a lifeboat: small and dry (sometimes very dry, those wry Swedes), bobbing brightly on a sea of heaving despair.
In graph after graph and tweet after tweet, Rosling’s message is clear: most things are getting better. Our crawl out of the muck continues. Sometimes there are setbacks, but they don’t mean we have reversed our climb or started subsiding back into barbarism and despair.
Most things are getting better.
And yet you probably haven’t heard of Rosling, or Max Roser, or any of the other statisticians quietly chipping away at our vastly misanthropic assumptions.
It’s all there, for free, online: consolation, information, perspective, all a few clicks away. And yet it is Naomi Klein and John Pilger and George Monbiot whose grim ruminations are celebrated as “on point” reflections of the world. It is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, with its almost pathological bleakness, that is hailed as an accurate vision of how things will soon be.
The reason for this rush away from hope towards misery is plain and a little depressing and, like all things, rooted in our beautifully self-destructive psyches.
Simply put, we don’t want to hear good news. We think we do, and we claim we do, but we don’t. And that’s because good news doesn’t make us angry. Bad news makes us angry. And anger feels so damned good.
Again, the official line is that we don’t like feeling angry and we want to kick the habit. Get off Facebook. Mute Twitter. Stop shouting at other drivers. Count to ten. But those are an addict’s self-deluding lies.
We crave anger because the world is confusing and loud and being angry makes you feel like there’s a plan; that you’re taking charge, if only of your emotions for the next ten minutes. And that feeling is addictive.
I’ve seen the addicts because I’ve been a dealer.
When I’ve written a thing full of spite and judgment they’ve come sidling up to me, murmuring praise. And then they’ve asked for more. More anger. More spite. A bigger hit. “You should write a thing about Zuma where …” “The problem with affirmative action is …”
Sometimes I’ve refused, and they’ve turned away bitterly and told me that I’ve “gone soft”, “become a libtard”, and they’ve gone to find harder, more dangerous stuff in darker corners of the internet.
If you’re properly addicted to anger, good news feels lame. No matter how good it is, it just can’t compete with the deep-exhaling, eyes-rolling-back dark ecstasy of a report that makes you instantly, deliciously, angry.
I’m not going to tell you that everything is going to be peachy. That’s not what the likes of Rosling and Roser and Stephen Pinker are saying. But I am going to remind you that doom-mongers also have to pay mortgages.
I’m also going to ask you to try a little experiment I did this week.
The idea came from relationship- and sex writer Dorothy Black. I was making some gloomy, hugely generalised pronouncement on geopolitics in 2017 when she asked me why I was winding myself up over bad things that might not happen. Wasn’t it more useful — or at least healthier — to think about the good things that would definitely happen?
My immediate response was Scrooge-like. What good things would definitely happen? Well, she said, the good things that happen every day, somewhere in the world.
And so we started listing them. Not dreams or wishes but the actual blessings, great and small, which occur all the time, lighting up the world like fireflies, here, then there. Statistically verifiable joy.
Which is how I know that in 2017, every day, millions of humans are going to fall in love for the first time; truly, madly and deeply.
Millions will find a treasure they’d lost; remember something lovely they’d forgotten; begin an adventure.
Every day of 2017, millions of people will hear words they’ve longed for: “You’re hired”. “I love you”. “Mamma”.
And I know that over the next few weeks, many millions will find the deep, consoling pleasure that comes from switching off the internet and rediscovering the world as it truly is.
First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail