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The Smelling Salts of Factfulness: how grateful we should be if we’re reading this

What percentage of the world do you think lives in poverty? 50%? More? Less?

Hans Rosling in his great book, Factfulness, talks about the human tendency to think in extremes. He calls this the Gap Instinct.

The classic illustration of this is his question about the level of income of the 7 billion people living on Plant Earth today. What percentage of the planet lives in low-income countries? Most people guess around 50%. The correct answer is 9%.

Back in the 1960s the world was much more unevenly divided. There was a poor “developing” world and a wealthy ‘developed’ one. The intervening years have seen a massive shift with most people on the planet now living in ‘developed’ economies. So why do we all think that the world is so much worse than it is?

The vast majority of the world live in the middle-income countries

Rosling argues that the human brain has a predilection for certain perceptual errors. The tendency to err on the side of negativity. The habit of thinking that straight lines on graphs will continue going straight. Thinking that things are divided by big gaps, with extremes at either end. None of these things are actually true. The vast majority of the world (5 billion people) live in the middle-range of wealth.

Rather than thinking of developing vs. developed, a much more accurate way of thinking of the world is to think of 4 levels. The first level is extreme poverty.

  1. $1 a day, long journeys on foot to collect water. The same starchy food every day unless it runs out. No medical care whatsoever.

  2. Level 2 is $4 a day. A gas stove. Sandals for your children. Plastic buckets and a bicycle for water. Occasional electricity. But illness is a worry and expensive.

  3. Level 3 is $16 a day. There’s running water. Working long days, 7 days a week you can afford a motorbike, a fridge. You can send your children to high school.

  4. Level 4 is $64 a day or more. Here you own a car. Your children go to higher education, you have more than 12 years education. You go on holiday. You have access to health care.

Why these facts make me shudder

So if you were to divvy up the world population in those four categories it goes like this 1-3-2-1 (where the figures represent billions of people). The vast majority of the world lives in those middle two categories. 200 hundred years ago 85% lived in the 1st category of extreme poverty.

But here’s the thing. As I was reading this I felt a shudder. First, I felt the shudder of discovering that something I assumed was completely wrong. I thought that the world was getting worse. That people were getting poorer and the vast majority of the world lived in grinding poverty. (This, Rosling would argue, is because the media skews towards the dramatic, the exceptional and the extreme). But in fact, over time, people are getting more and more access to water, health care, education and law and order.

But is having no running water and sleeping on mattress on the floor “middle income”?

Then I had a second shudder: how dare Rosling describe people who had to work a 16-hour 7 days a week to live without any certain health safety net as “middle-income”. Surely, I thought mutely in my mind, having no running water, a gas stove, plastic buckets and a mattress on the floor is the definition of poverty.

But then I had a third shudder. Rosling is just reflecting the facts of the world. That kind of life only seems like “grinding poverty” to me because I live in insane affluence.

When you live on Level 4, everyone else looks equally poor. But they’re not.

“The thing known as poverty in your country is different from ‘extreme poverty’. It’s relative poverty… When you live on Level 4 , everyone on Levels 1,2 and 3 can look equally poor, and the word ‘poor’ can lose any specific meaning.” The truth of the world is that when you’re on Level 1, the possibility of a mattress, a bicycle, and chicken is a very big deal indeed. Similarly, getting your children into high school means the world to someone on level 2. And that’s where 3 billion of my fellow Earth dwellers live.

This has had a very earthquakey effect on my thinking. I realise – very radically – the truth of the Buddhist emphasis on avidya or false-seeing. When we believe our thoughts then we don’t see the world. We see our thoughts. And there is no possibility for clear-seeing. And without clear-seeing no possibility of doing anything useful or compassionate.

I (and almost certainly you, too) live in a God realm

Sometimes get lost in a maelstrom of thinking about how huge the suffering of the world is. And I get paralyzed. Every morning I recite my Boddhisattva Vow, “Suffering beings are innumerable, I vow to save them all”, and blank out because of the scale of the work is too daunting. But somehow, Rosling’s work has made me aware of two things. One, don’t get caught up in lazy thinking and use that as an excuse for not doing anything. And two, be deeply and profoundly aware of how insanely fortunate I am.

If you’re reading this, then the fact of the matter is that you’re living in Level 4. The likelihood is, that like me, you are living at the extra-blessed extreme end of Level 4. You have a computer. And you’re using the Internet. You have the time and leisure to read blogs.

These sunny May mornings, living by the sea, with my beloved, free from illness, war, famine, injustice. I feel almost overwhelmed by my good fortune. In Buddhist terms, I feel like I live in a God realm (which has its attendant dangers of pride, indifference and zoning out). But Rosling and his work of factfulness acted like a dose of mental salts. Bringing me to my senses and appreciating my blessed good fortune. But also allowing me to see the situation of my fellow Earth-dwellers more clearly and without drama, self-judgement or pity.

I’d love to know your thoughts about factfulness. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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