Monday Over Coffee: "A Duty to Hope"

Published January 8, 2024 by Greg Funderburk

It’s easy to entertain, even embrace the notion that things are bad in the world and only getting worse. Good news, on the other hand, must sometimes be sought out. This is where the Gapminder Foundation comes in. Gapminder is a non-profit organization, which—having recognized what they call a “terrible market failure” related to the imbalance between bad and good news in our lives—has created an antidote to the human tendency of thinking things are always getting worse in the world.

Started in 2005 in Stockholm by a professor named Hans Rosling with his son, Ola, and daughter-in-law, Anna, Gapminder endeavors to provide reliable data in an accessible form—data that goes a long way to clear up many common misconceptions we hold about the state of our world. The project took off in 2006 when Hans gave a hugely popular TED talk called “The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen,”1 then wrote a bestselling book entitled Factfulness

Though Hans died in 2018, the organization under the leadership of Ola and Anna grew and remains a superb source of easy-to-absorb information that compellingly illustrates all the good that’s occurred in human history over the last few centuries, the last number of decades, and even in the last twelve months. To this end, Gapminder recently published its “100 Positive News Stories of 2023” setting out some of the far-reaching good that occurred just last year.2

A sampling: In 2023, a new malaria vaccine was approved, leading to a precipitous drop in cases and deaths, especially in India. A new cervical cancer drug was developed, the trials for which showed a 35% decline in deaths for those on the treatment. The year 2023 saw the world’s first complete eye transplant as well as a case in which a paralyzed man learned to walk again after receiving special implants in his brain. There were improvements in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Effective weight-loss drugs came to market, decreasing many of the health problems linked to obesity, and the first vaccine against RSV, a common but dangerous respiratory illness was made available, as well. 

In 2023, for the first time, government records reflect that for every dollar invested in fossil fuels, a dollar and eighty cents was invested in clean energy. Electric vehicle battery prices fell as innovations in EV battery recycling emerged. Significant advancements in the field of fusion research took place, making the dream of developing a limitless supply of clean energy a real possibility in the decades ahead. And finally, the discovery of microbes capable of digesting plastics at low temperatures, scientists say, should prove a valuable tool in future waste management efforts.

At the same time these good things emerged, many bad things were on decline. Amazon rainforest deforestation slowed significantly. New treaties went into effect reducing pollution and protecting more of the world’s oceans. Recent assessments also revealed that the damaged ozone layer around our planet was found to be healing faster than first thought.

The Gapminder folks also remind us that as each of these advancements occur, they accelerate others made in the past as we continue to reduce human suffering at scale. In 1970, for instance, almost a quarter of human beings in the world lacked enough food. Fifty years on, though the world’s population increased by 4 billion, the number of hungry has been reduced to 9%. In 1980, 58% of the world had clean drinking water. It’s now 91%. In 1990, only 74% of the world had access to electricity. Now it’s over 90%, with 67% now enjoying internet access.3 

Admittedly, sometimes it takes some real cognitive work to embrace an optimistic outlook about the future, but organizations like Gapminder and people like the Roslings help us to do this. They encourage us to “upgrade our worldview” with elevated knowledge and a wider understanding of both human history and ongoing trends, and we shouldn’t shy away from their project, especially I think, as believers in a loving and graceful God. Embedded deeply in both the Old Testament and New is the idea that God is doing something good in our world and that the arc we’re on isn’t downward but upward. Often it takes some real moral courage to embrace hope, but it’s our Christian duty to try. To hope—then to do our best to contribute to where our best hopes lead.

God—Help me to embrace my duty to hope. Amen.

If you’re interested in “upgrading your worldview” as Gapminder encourages, consider taking this test.