HANNA ZIADY: Being a possibilist not impossible when we consider all the positives

by | Dec 4, 2019 | General | 0 comments


There are plenty of reasons to be negative about the world, and SA in particular, but pessimists seldom solve problems. That is the thought I want to leave you with in what will be the last column I contribute to these pages for the foreseeable future.

Our country and our world face vast challenges — from stagnant economic growth and dangerously high levels of unemployment to destabilising geopolitical uncertainty, democracies in crisis and stubbornly high levels of income inequality.

Climate change, perhaps the biggest challenge facing mankind, will require an exceptional co-ordinated global effort at a time when the world feels increasingly divided.

Yet there is also plenty to be hopeful about. For proof, we need only look at how far we have come.

The cost of renewable energy has fallen faster and further than anyone predicted, with many countries drawing increasing amounts of electricity from renewables.

Levels of extreme poverty have never been as low as they are today, the vast majority of one-year-olds are vaccinated against at least one disease and women have the right to vote in almost all countries globally (a considerable improvement on 1950).

That does not mean everything is fine and we can all sit back — after all, 1-billion people still live on about a dollar a day — but we have made exceptional progress and ongoing developments in areas such as health and technology mean we can make further progress still.

Consider that it would take just $3bn (about 3% of Bill Gates’s net worth) to quadruple the income of the world’s poorest. Of course, the problem is more complicated than basic arithmetic, but the point is that extreme poverty is solvable. China is a shining example, having lifted 850-million people out of extreme poverty between 1981 and 2013.

Or take polio. Against all odds, India managed to eradicate the disease despite the country’s high population density and poor sanitation in many areas. This was done thanks to a huge effort on the part of the government and global organisations. Data and technology also played a critical role in pinpointing areas missed by health-care workers.

What had seemed impossible — vaccinating 172-million children in trying conditions twice a year — was achieved. India had 741 cases of polio in 2009, down from 150,000 in 1980. The last case was reported in 2011, with the country declared polio free by the World Health Organisation in 2014.

Or take climate change. The cost of renewable energy has fallen faster and further than anyone predicted, with many countries drawing increasing amounts of electricity from renewables.

These are just a few examples of the extraordinary progress our world has made in addressing some of its most intractable challenges. Had we thrown up our hands in despair, none of these dire situations would have improved.

If you haven’t yet read Factfulness (Hans Rosling et al), I cannot recommend it highly enough. The book deftly lays out why the facts about how the world has changed give us plenty of reasons to be optimistic, or possibilistic.

Rosling, a Swedish physician who died in 2017, called himself a possibilist. “It means someone who neither hopes without reason nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview,” he writes. “As a possibilist, I see all this progress and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are.”

So, as I head off into the great unknown, which for now entails starting a career in a vast and highly competitive city grappling with Brexit and a general election, I will endeavour to be a possibilist. And I sincerely hope that you will too. Take your cue from Siya Kolisi and the rest of the Springboks: anything is possible. SA needs possibilists now more than ever.

• Ziady writes from London.

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