Next month will mark five years since the death of an influential doctor and public speaker, Hans Rosling.
Dr. Rosling had a fascinating life, but he might best be known for a series of TED Talks in which he used engaging data visualizations to showcase trends in global development. The statistics he popularized challenged the narrative that the world was doomed and buckling under the weight of its exploding population. He had seen, with his own eyes, how life could improve for the rural poor in Mozambique when he helped find the cause of a disease that was paralyzing children there. And he came to be perceived as a sort of evangelist for the idea of progress.
But as Dr. Rosling’s reputation grew, so did the criticism that his work presented too rosy a selection of the facts. That he was sought out by the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other wealthy elites factored into a perception that he was merely assuaging the consciences of the powerful. Debates over whether he was a Pollyannaish optimist stalked him even after his death, when the posthumous publication of his book “Factfulness” drew him and his critics back into public discourse.
The tussle over Dr. Rosling’s worldview is one small reflection of a broad, popular ambivalence about the notion of progress. And I get it. Our job on the Headway team is exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress. But at this particular moment in the life of our species — as the planet gets steadily hotter and more polluted, extreme weather events wreak havoc on our lives, a lethal pandemic ripples in waves around the world, conflicts explode over land and water rights, a resurgence of authoritarianism stalks established democracies, and many of our fellow species confront the threat of mass extinction — that lens is, to put it mildly, suspect.
Dr. Rosling’s work came to mind as I read through reflections on a series we made, called Hindsight. In December, we asked the people of 2021 to review past goals and projections about extreme poverty, the spread of H.I.V., carbon emissions and other big challenges and to take a guess at how the future had actually played out. The people of 2021 were not, it turns out, great at Hindsight. Most got one correct answer of out of a possible five.
We asked our readers what had surprised them about the outcomes of Hindsight, and what those outcomes revealed. Many of the thousand-plus responses we received told us the quiz had a Hans Rosling-like effect, causing readers to question whether they had been too pessimistic about the world.
This sentiment from a respondent in Houston struck a common chord: “Progress has left many behind and the work will always be incomplete, but looking at past predictions and where we are today, I have hope for our future, naïvely or not.”
A respondent from Las Vegas wrote, “It made me realize that progress can be daunting, however it can be achieved.”
Another, from Sofia, Bulgaria, resolved: “Appreciate the progress made every step of the way. Highlight it.”
For Dr. Rosling, pessimism and optimism were both irrational responses to reality. “People often call me an optimist, because I show them the enormous progress they didn’t know about,” he wrote in “Factfulness.” “I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naive. I’m a very serious ‘possibilist.’ That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.”
When we reported on the outcomes of past forecasts, we weren’t looking for positive trends or surprising accomplishments, just lessons from the past about our capacity to envision and shape the future. The lessons we found were complicated. On one hand, they suggested that when humankind mobilizes toward a goal, we can reach it. But they also demonstrated that meeting a goal is not necessarily the same thing as addressing the challenge that spawned it. What we realized was that progress is impossible to detect — much less make — without fixing our attention toward a future milestone and carefully measuring our movement toward or away from it. We had to focus on the possible.
Many respondents noted that keeping an eye on the movement of major global issues is difficult in light of the many daily emergencies clamoring for our attention in our communities.
“Any forward progress, however great, seems overshadowed by the impending doom of every other thing that we deal with,” a New Hampshire respondent noted.
Learning From Hindsight
What’s in store. The Hindsight series looks at past efforts to improve our world to learn how society can best achieve progress in the face of accelerating dangers. Here’s some key examples that can help us forge our path forward:
Another, from Madison, Wis., wrote, “A lot of large-scale progress is not visible to us on an individual level.”
And it doesn’t help, many wrote, that the day-to-day news is so much more attention-grabbing than the glacial, halting movement on large challenges.
“Progress occurs so slowly that new becomes normal before we understand the change as progress,” observed a writer from Guadalajara, Mexico.
Another, from Broomfield, Colo., wrote, “Slow, incremental progress is boring.”
In the spirit of possibilism, we’d like to ask your help with another small experiment. Let’s turn for a moment from decades-long global challenges to ask what’s possible in our communities in the space of a year. At the end of this letter, we’ll ask you to write to your future self about what might change in your community this year. We’ll ask you about your hopes and fears for how the near future will play out. And in a year, we’ll follow up with the 2023 version of you to ask what happened and what Future You took from it.
We conclude this round of Hindsight by dwelling in the realm of possibilities. We reserved two more forecasts that we’re sharing with you now, each slightly different from the previous five. In one, we follow the divergent fortunes of two renewable-energy industries in the United States — wind and solar — over five decades, and their prospects looking ahead. In the other, we look at the past and future of one of our largest megacities and what they suggest about our rapidly urbanizing world.
Thanks to everyone who joined us on this journey to the recent past. The next time you hear from us, we’ll take you to a place in the present that will play an outsize role in our collective future.
Headway is an initiative from The New York Times exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress.
The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square.
Funders have no control over the selection, focus of stories or the editing process and do not review stories before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.