Seeing the World as it is, with Hans Rosling

Last year we said goodbye to David MacKay, a guy whose unique approach to sustainability, energy and environment has been a key influencer in the work I do today. It was with tremendous sadness that 2017 brings the loss of another inspiration of mine: Hans Rosling. While working in slightly different fields, the similarities between the two—both in life and death—are not lost on me.

Both had an overwhelming and infectious love of statistics, especially high-level, big-picture data. However, understanding statistics was never enough—the real joy came in communicating stats in a way that anyone could understand. The magic of the data was somehow lost if that feeling of enlightenment—which often accompanies the realisation of an unseen trend—wasn’t shared. While David worked on big-picture renewable energy numbers, Hans was more concerned with global development progress—poverty, inequality, education and health. I now seem to work at the fringes of both of these fields; big data at the blended seam where human development meets environmental sustainability. The influential mix of these two figures are to blame. I owe them both a lot.

The pairs’ parallels in mindset seemed to extend to death, with both losing a battle with cancer before their time. David was only 48 years old. Hans had an extra 20 years, dying at the age of 68, yet by today’s standards this still seems premature. It’s somewhat ironic that a guy who spent so much of his life showing others how far global health and life expectancy had progressed, was lost too soon. Nonetheless, as a master of health data, I’m sure Hans would argue that his case was not beyond what one would expect from statistical expectations. It makes me wonder whether the expected question of “why me?” ever crossed his mind. I suspect not.

It never ceases to amaze me how small influencers (usually oblivious to their true impact) can have such a dramatic impact on shaping the lives they touch. I stumbled upon Hans’s work at just the right time. Finishing my undergraduate degree in Environmental Geoscience, I was left feeling somewhat helpless and emotionally exhausted. I don’t think this feeling is uncommon amongst environmental students. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my degree subject—I don’t think I’ll ever lose the curiosity that led me to study the complexity of planetary systems in the first place. But it can be a hollow field to work in at times. Five years of natural science where human development was largely absent, and only featured in discussions over our devastating impact on environmental decline. The tensions between human impact and planetary systems are magnified tenfold, until it’s unavoidable to see the world any other way than: humanity versus environment. It seemed like a depressing fate: confined to a career of fighting progress on the environment’s behalf. Not only were we failing at sustainability, but social progress was stalling. Even David MacKay and his breathtaking work could offer little in the way of optimism.


If you’ve watched any of Hans Rosling’s work, you’ll understand how my perspective flipped from then on. I’ve yet to find anyone who can present such a truly fact-based vision of the world with unbounding energy, clarity and hilarity. He had a unique ability to make you feel both stupid and enlightened at the same time, yet love him even more for doing so. People often talk about a profound moment when everything seems to ‘click’ and fall into place: for me, it was seeing into the mind of Hans Rosling. It’s not until you take that important step back and look at the picture in full that you see how far the world has come. Almost any statistic upon which you would global progress—percentage of people below the poverty line; child mortality rates; life expectancy; number of children in education; energy access rates; adult literacy rates—are better than they ever have been. Next year, things will most likely be a little better than they are now. And, the next year the same will occur. That in itself, once you see it in the global datasets than Hans presents (and are free to explore at Gapminder here), is worth reflecting on.

This was a real eye-opener for me, and an inflection point to where I am today—still working in environmental sustainability but always with a view to human development. It’s no longer a case of environment or progress. It’s about ensuring and sustaining progress (because the world will continue to do so, regardless) in the most sustainable way we can.

It saddened me to hear that Hans was often jaded and doubtful of whether he had really made any true impact. In his mind, despite many years of trying to present a fact-based view of the world, so many remain ignorant to how the global development landscape really is. True, many will never have watched his videos or looked at the statistics. But for those who have, the impact can be transformative, and through this sharing of the flame, his legacy can continue to drive progress. Every one of my university students has been introduced to his work; he features in nearly all of my lectures and teachings. I’ve seen the influence first-hand. There are few greater pleasures than hearing the giggles from students as they watch Hans chase statistical bubbles across the stage; see that glint of revelation as they realise their view of the world had been wrong all along; that transformative moment when they grasp that the truth is there to see when you take a step back to see it in full. This is how we continue to build a fact-based view of the world, and a legacy that Hans deserves.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite clips of his. It also happens to be one of the most relevant to the essential blend of environmental sustainability and global development. Note: I was once probably one of the ignorant environmental students he references in this talk. Thank you, Hans, for helping me to see the bigger picture. You will be sadly missed, but never forgotten.