A few days ago David Brooks, in his New York Times column, suggested that all his readers watch a video prepared by Hans Rosling, a Swedish expert in public health. It’s entitled 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes: the joy of stats.
Perhaps you’ve seen it! If so, use this opportunity to enjoy it again. If you’ve not, it’s really worth a look. Readers of this blog will be interested for several reasons.
Topic. This video (and a companion recommended below) touch on the core questions: what kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action? And what kind of world is possible if we act effectively? Rosling shows that over the past two hundred years, the world as a whole has moved from “poor and sick” toward “rich and healthy.”
What a positive trend! And compellingly demonstrated. As we look at the continuing gap between the developed and developing world, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of how far we’ve come. Our myopia gives rise to pessimism. Rosling, a self-styled “possibilist,” seems to suggest that things can get even better.
The second video is a bit longer. It runs for something like ten minutes, and goes a little deeper into the growth of global population, and accompanying trends in wealth and in (material) aspirations. The visualization isn’t quite so high-tech, but it’s similarly persuasive. And Rosling does a marvelous job of arguing that the major pathway for population stabilization is improved public health for children. As he says, “child survival is the new green.”
What’s behind the statistics? For blog readers, the video should also raise some questions: Are we not only richer and healthier, but also better positioned to tackle current and coming real-world challenges? Had Rosling included a display of trends in education, we would find them to be qualitatively similar. On the whole, we’re more capable today to cope with problems of increasing urgency and complexity. And, as argued a week ago, our world challenge is not so much population level, but the fraction of that population positioned by virtue of education and free time to tend to the provision of water, food, and health care for rest of us; to protect the environment, biodiversity, and habitat; to cope with natural hazards, etc. But is the growth of our problem-solving skill keeping up with the accelerating pace at which these global challenges are becoming bigger, more complex, and more urgent? Or are we reaching limits? Can we maintain our rate of progress, or will we peak out? The world could use a lot more analysis and thought on these subjects. So, if you’re working these issues, don’t let up! And, if you’re not, please get to it!
Visual communication. Finally, watching these videos teaches, by example, the power of visual communication, when artfully done. Gina Eosco of our Policy Program staff does research on communication generally, and visual communication of environmental warnings in particular. She’s consistently stressed the importance of visual communication to the rest of us. These videos drive her point home. Watch these, and you’ll discover that the information content will stick to your ribs!
And while we’re on this point…Margaret Lemone, who is this year’s President of the American Meteorological Society, has selected communication as the theme for the upcoming AMS Annual Meeting, to be held in Seattle, January 23-27. A great choice – important to our field and timely. The meeting will offer a number of sessions, running the gamut from telecommunication of data, to new social networking capabilities such as Facebook and Twitter, to risk communication, climate-change messaging, and more. In addition, Gina has worked with her fellow members of the National Communication Association to develop a joint workshop at Seattle that will run from Saturday, January 22, through Sunday, January 23. Some 20 experts from NCA are coming in for the sessions. They’ll be sticking around and interacting with AMS attendees for the rest of the week.
You can find more background on Rosling and his work in an interesting article recently published in The Economist.
 This argument, of course, is not new. For example, long-time AMS members may recall that (then Senator) Al Gore, speaking to an AMS Annual Meeting in January of 1991, pointed out the key to population control was giving women three things: access to birth control; education; and the assurance that their children would survive to adulthood. The argument goes back even further (Al Gore no more invented this than he invented the internet), but you get the idea.