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TCFP42: Possibilism

Hans Rosling wrote “Factfulness”, a book I thoroughly recommend you read. He knew that the world being portrayed to us was neither accurate nor based on the facts. His hope for humanity was that we could go from numbers, to information and then to understanding. As opposed to reacting to the latest rantings from politicians and campaigners.

Hans was asked if he was an optimist, he replied along the lines of “No, but I am a serious possibilist”, what a great turn of phrase.

Similar books have been written including Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist”, Johan Norberg’s “Progress” and Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”. I’ve read each of them recently, all are excellent and worth reading if you find yourself feeling glum about our future.

The statistical evidence (aka the facts) is clear – humanity’s lot has improved, and continues to improve, at an extraordinary rate. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty more work to do, there is, but life is nowhere near as bad as we are being led to believe.

For example, in the time it takes to read this missive (3 minutes?), 270 fewer people will live in extreme poverty, by this time tomorrow, on average, there will be 130,000 fewer, that’s about the population of Norwich. In the next year the number is about 47,000,000 fewer, or the population of Spain (ranked 30th in the world by population size).

Why don’t we hear about this? Well, I posit that it’s because of who dominates our air waves – politicians and campaigners.

The politicians are completely short-termist and only interested in whatever helps get them re-elected. There are simply no votes in highlighting amazing long-term progress that they had nothing to do with.

And then there’s the unelected doom-mongers. “Campaigners” that need donations to get them to all those conferences (never in Slough, are they?) retain all those staff and, if they’re lucky, save the odd tiger here and there.

[As an aside read Matt Ridley’s blog “A counsel of despair about the loss of biodiversity is the wrong approach”, turns out extinction peaked around 1900 and that prosperity leads to improving wildlife numbers, reforestation etc.]

But with all the wailing and gnashing of teeth we’re surrounded by, how was any sort of progress ever achieved?

The possibilists. The people that would just not give up, that were so sure it was “possible”. That took to heart the scientific credo “If it’s not impossible, it’s inevitable”. The men and women who quietly worked on and worked out the solutions we probably didn’t know we needed.

For example, I’d guess most of us we’re happy that Thomas Edison kept going, sure as he was that the electric bulb was possible? He was all but deaf and had only a few months’ formal education to his name. Didn’t stop him though did it?

And what about Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution”, who believed it was possible to feed the world and is credited with saving 1 billion people from starvation? Politicians and environmental campaigners actively tried to stop him, the shameful reprobates.

Or Bill Gates and Paul Allen who believed in a computer in every home and went about making it possible. All the information imaginable is now available to so many billions of people in an instant. Imagine what that’s going to do to turbo charge innovation, invention and solutions once today’s youth gets themselves informed, thinking, talking and doing.

Compare that to the encyclopedia and library visits you might have grown up with. And, I don’t know about you, but I’d give up my car and TV before I gave up my laptop and ‘phone. And, incidentally, both seem pretty likely to happen in the next 10 years.

And looking forward what might Jeff Bezos and his people, be thinking might be possible? And spending money on to see if it can become reality? There’s probably been more journalistic lines dedicated to his divorce though.

We should be doing all we can to encourage rather than stymie the possibilists. Yet we continue to dedicate precious time, attention and resources to the factually challenged fog horns, short-termists and ego maniacs so beloved by the media, social or otherwise.

Don’t we owe it to ourselves to, in our own small ways, to back those who believe anything is possible? Rather than give life and air to these other numpties?

How else will tomorrow be better than today?


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