Current Affairs - May 13, 2021

Rosling’s manifesto is best described as intellectual self-care for the global business elite. While he may have noble intentions, his “fact-based worldview” turns out to be mostly a guide for how Fortune 500 CEOs can increase their profits and feel good about it. Meanwhile, the only real option for readers without seats in a corporate boardroom is to use rosy statistics “as therapy.” Factfulness transforms the project of crafting an equitable global society into an internal quest for stress-reduction and self-improvement. Taking Rosling’s advice would mean that we drop any demands for radical change and take shelter in the hands of benevolent oligarchs, where the future looks glorious (for them).

...This is a common refrain in Rosling’s writing. Elsewhere in Factfulness, he refers to “5 billion potential consumers” in Asia and Africa. When discussing reductions in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as people living on less than $1.90 per day, Rosling writes that billions “have escaped misery and become consumers and producers for the world market.” (His claim that people have “escaped misery” seems exaggerated at best. People living on, say, $4.00 a day aren’t considered “extremely poor” but only because the World Bank’s standard is pitifully low. Many still live in harsh, precarious circumstances: According to Rosling’s own analysis, “a single major illness in the family” could throw them back into destitution.)

Rosling also advised companies about how best to capitalize on these emerging markets. In a scene from his memoir, How I Learned to Understand the World, he tells a major appliance manufacturer that it should pivot to producing affordable washing machines to sell in Asian countries: 

Once you do, you can access billions of customers. This isn’t about ‘corporate social responsibility’; it’s about your future profits! Unless you get on with redesigning your product, you will lose the leading position in the marketplace.

Unsurprisingly, rich people loved this stuff. Before his death, Rosling was a sought-after speaker among the world’s financial and corporate elite; he even attended the World Economic Forum’s annual retreat in Davos, a playground for obscenely wealthy transnational capitalists. He discusses these speaking gigs quite openly in Factfulness:

I traveled the world with … elegant teaching tools [to upgrade people’s knowledge]. They took me to TED talks in Monterey, Berlin, and Cannes, to the boardrooms of multinational corporations like Coca-Cola and IKEA, to global banks and hedge funds, to the US State Department.

The worst results [on surveys] come from an annual gathering of global finance managers at the headquarters of one of the world’s ten largest banks. I have visited three of them. I can’t tell you which one this was, because I signed a piece of paper.

Not long ago I was invited to the five-star Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh to present to a gathering of capital managers and their wealthiest clients. As I set up my equipment in the magnificent high-ceilinged ballroom, I couldn’t help feeling a bit small, and I asked myself why a wealthy financial institution would want its clients to hear from a Swedish professor of public health.

It’s unfortunate that Rosling’s books don’t really grapple with the answer to that question because his consulting doesn’t mesh well with his stated desire to make the world better. He informs readers that “we cannot relax” while terrible things exist and includes a list of examples, including “crazy dictators,” “plane crashes,” and “endangered species.” But he never acknowledges how destructive the pursuit of profit can be to human flourishing.

Coca-Cola, whose board members he advised, has notoriously rapacious water-use practices. A bottling plant in the Mexican state of Chiapas consumes vast quantities of local groundwater even as the wells in nearby communities dry up. At the same time, rates of diabetes in the area have skyrocketed. Locals blame the company’s soft drinks, and the New York Times reported in 2018 that Coke “can be easier to find than bottled water and is almost as cheap.” Meanwhile, major U.S. banks and their board members continue to invest heavily in fossil fuel companies and other organizations that intentionally obstruct climate action.

That Rosling chooses to ignore the unsavory sides of global finance and economic development is telling. In his view, getting consumer goods to more people, faster, is the best way to enrich their lives. He is a strong advocate for expanding the availability of household appliances, and he’s adamant that we shouldn’t expect “the 5 billion people in the world who still wash their clothes by hand” to forego washing machines. Of course, there’s no good reason why a public institution couldn’t design, build, and distribute an affordable washing machine. But Rosling, who speaks highly of international bodies like the U.N., decides to bet instead on the supposed efficiency of the free market.

In fact, Rosling’s advocacy for free-market solutions to global poverty goes beyond even what his audience will say openly. The rhetoric of responsibility is currently in vogue at Davos, which has a history of rebranding capitalism as a force for social good, as author and activist Naomi Klein points out. In the current political climate, where corporations are rapidly adopting the slogans of social justice as a public relations strategy, Rosling’s disparagement of “corporate social responsibility” sounds downright crude. ...
Read full review at Current Affairs