Global Ignorance

Last week I had the privilege to facilitate a portion of the DGUV International Strategy Conference on Safety and Health at Work held in Dresden. I would like to comment on some of the food for thought I got from that conference and compare that to a survey that came out today, the 29th of March in the Handelsblatt. It appears to me that we are living in a world of a surprising and very disturbing paradox. From a global perspective, the state of human well-being has never been so good as it is now AND not since the 1930s have people’s views of the future been so bleak.

At the DGUV conference in Dresden, the opening speaker was Matthias Horx of the Zukunftsinstitut. He spoke about megatrends in society that will impact safety and health in the workplace. There were many interesting pieces to his speech, but the one item that really caught my attention was when he referred to the Global Ignorance Test – a creation of Professor Hans Rosling and the Gapminder Foundation of Stockholm. The results of his Global Ignorance Test were dramatically revealed in a TED talk in which he showed that chimpanzees were able to answer his questions better than his countrymen in Sweden.

The Global Ignorance Test demonstrates how little the public really knows about what is happening on the planet. An example from the test is the following multiple choice question:

In the last 20 years the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has

  • a) Almost doubled
  • b) Remained more or less the same
  • c) Almost halved

The answer is “c” but almost nobody chooses this answer – in Sweden it was 8% who chose “c”. Other questions in the test are about numbers of years that girls go to school, levels of literacy worldwide, percentage of infants vaccinated against measles, deaths from natural disasters, deaths from war and others. In each area there has been phenomenal progress, but nobody appears to be aware of it. The chimpanzees are able to answer the questions better than humans.

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With this example in my mind, I was shocked to read a survey released by the Handelsblatt measuring on a global scale people’s level of optimism/pessimism about the future. The survey documents the opinions of citizens living in the G20 countries. The conclusion of the survey is that a large portion of humanity has lost its confidence in a better tomorrow. This is especially true in the established industrial countries. 58% of Germans and 65% of French believe that their children will be worse off than they are. All other European countries showed similar results. The pessimism is not limited to Europe – South Korea and Japan showed the same levels of pessimism. The USA was on the borderline with 49% saying that their children will be worse off. Only three countries were actually optimistic: China, India and Indonesia.

Not since the 1930s has the world been so pessimistic about the future.

It is deeply troubling to be confronted by how ignorant we are about the positive global trends of the last few decades AND how pessimistic we are about the future. What are the implications for leaders, the media, educational institutions in improving our sense of global awareness?

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