16 Ways the World Is Getting Remarkably Better: Visuals by Statistician Hans Rosling

It certainly may not feel like things are getting better behind the anxious veils of our COVID lockdowns. But some might say that optimism and pessimism are products of the gut, hidden somewhere in the bacterial stew we call the microbiome. “All prejudices come from the intestines,” proclaimed noted sufferer of indigestion, Friedrich Nietzsche. Maybe we can change our views by changing our diet. But it’s a little harder to change our emotions with facts. We turn up our noses at them, or find them impossible to digest.

Nietzsche did not consider himself a pessimist. Despite his stomach troubles, he “adopted a philosophy that said yes to life,” notes Reason and Meaning, “fully cognizant of the fact that life is mostly miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd.” Let’s grant that this is so. A great many of us, I think, are inclined to believe it. We are ideal consumers for dystopian Nietzsche-esque fantasies about supermen and “last men.” Still, it's worth asking: is life always and equally miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd? Is the idea of human progress no more than a modern delusion?




Physician, statistician, and onetime sword swallower Hans Rosling spent several years trying to show otherwise in television documentaries for the BBC, TED Talks, and the posthumous book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, co-written with his son and daughter-in-law, a statistician and designer, respectively. Rosling, who passed away in 2017, also worked with his two co-authors on software used to animate statistics, and in his public talks and book, he attempted to bring data to life in ways that engage gut feelings.

Take the set of graphs above, aka, “16 Bad Things Decreasing,” from Factfulness. (View a larger scan of the pages here.) Yes, you may look at a set of monochromatic trend lines and yawn. But if you attend to the details, you'll can see that each arrow plummeting downward represents some profound ill, manmade or otherwise, that has killed or maimed millions. These range from legal slavery—down from 194 countries in 1800 to 3 in 2017—to smallpox: down from 148 countries with cases in 1850 to 0 in 1979. (Perhaps our current global epidemic will warrant its own triumphant graph in a revised edition some decades in the future.) Is this not progress?

What about the steadily falling rates of world hunger, child mortality, HIV infections, numbers of nuclear warheads, deaths from disaster, and ozone depletion? Hard to argue with the numbers, though as always, we should consider the source. (Nearly all these statistics come from Rosling’s own company, Gapminder.) In the video above, Dr. Rosling explains to a TED audience how he designed a course on global health in his native Sweden. In order to make sure the material measured up to his accomplished students’ abilities, he first gave them a questionnaire to test their knowledge.

Rosling found, he jokes, “that Swedish top students know statistically significantly less about the world than a chimpanzee," who would have scored higher by chance. The problem “was not ignorance, it was preconceived ideas," which are worse. Bad ideas are driven by many -isms, but also by what Rosling calls in the book an “overdramatic” worldview. Humans are nervous by nature. “Our tendency to misinterpret facts is instinctive—an evolutionary adaptation to help us make quick decisions to avoid danger,” writes Katie Law in a review of Factfulness.

“While we still need these instincts, they can also trip us up.” Magnified by global, collective anxieties, weaponized by canny mass media, the tendency to pessimism becomes reality, but it's one that is not supported by the data. This kind of argument has become kind of a cottage industry; each presentation must be evaluated on its own merits. Presumably enlightened optimism can be just as oversimplified a view as the darkest pessimism. But Rosling insisted he wasn’t an optimist. He was just being “factful.” We probably shouldn’t get into what Nietzsche might say to that.

via Simon Kuestenmacher

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Earth Archive Will 3D-Scan the Entire World & Create an “Open-Source” Record of Our Planet

If you keep up with climate change news, you see a lot of predictions of what the world will look like twenty years from now, fifty years from now, a century from now. Some of these projections of the state of the land, the shape of continents, and the levels of the sea are more dramatic than others, and in any case they vary so much that one never knows which ones to credit. But of equal importance to foreseeing what Earth will look like in the future is not forgetting what it looks like now — or so holds the premise of the Earth Archive, a scientific effort to "scan the entire surface of the Earth before it’s too late."

This ambitious project has three goals: to "create a baseline record of the earth as it is today to more effectively mitigate the climate crisis," to "build a virtual, open-source planet accessible to all scientists so we can better understand our world," and to "preserve a record of the Earth for our grandchildren’s grandchildren so they can study & recreate our lost heritage."




All three depend on the creation of a detailed 3D model of the globe — but "globe" is the wrong word, bringing to mind as it does a sphere covered with flat images of land and sea.

Using lidar (short for Light Detection & Ranging), a technology that "involves shooting a dense grid of infrared beams from an airplane towards the ground," the Earth Archive aims to create not an image but "a dense three-dimensional cloud of points" capturing the whole planet. At the top of the post, you can see a TED Talk on the Earth Archive's origin, purpose, and potential by archaeologist and anthropology professor Chris Fisher, the project's founder and director. "Fisher had used lidar to survey the ancient Purépecha settlement of Angamuco, in Mexico’s Michoacán state," writes Atlas Obscura's Isaac Schultz. "In the course of that work, he saw human-caused changes to the landscape, and decided to broaden his scope."

Now, Fisher and Earth Archive co-director Steve Leisz want to create "a comprehensive archive of lidar scans" to "fuel an immense dataset of the Earth’s surface, in three dimensions." This comes with certain obstacles, not the least the price tag: a scan of the Amazon rainforest would take six years and cost $15 million. "The next step," writes Schultz, "could be to use some future technology that puts lidar in orbit and makes covering large areas easier." Disinclined to wait around for the development of such a technology while forests burn and coastlines erode, Fisher and Leisz are taking their first steps — and taking donations — right now. On the off chance that humans of centuries ahead develop the ability to recreate the planet as we know it today, it's the Earth Archive's data they'll rely on to do it.

via Atlas Obscura

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What the Earth Would Look Like If We Drained the Water from the Oceans

Formerly a NASA Fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Dr James O'Donoghue now works as a planetary scientist at the Japanese space agency JAXA. He also hosts a video channel on YouTube. Above, you can watch his high-res remake of a NASA animation produced back in 2008. Here's how NASA framed the original clip:

Three fifths of the Earth's surface is under the ocean, and the ocean floor is as rich in detail as the land surface with which we are familiar. This animation simulates a drop in sea level that gradually reveals this detail. As the sea level drops, the continental shelves appear immediately. They are mostly visible by a depth of 140 meters, except for the Arctic and Antarctic regions, where the shelves are deeper. The mid-ocean ridges start to appear at a depth of 2000 to 3000 meters. By 6000 meters, most of the ocean is drained except for the deep ocean trenches, the deepest of which is the Marianas Trench at a depth of 10,911 meters.

In 51 seconds, watch and see where the great draining ends...

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The Prado Museum Digitally Alters Four Masterpieces to Strikingly Illustrate the Impact of Climate Change

According to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052 should it continue to increase at its current rate.

What does this mean, exactly?

A catastrophic series of chain reactions, including but not limited to:

--Sea level rise
--Change in land and ocean ecosystems
--Increased intensity and frequency of weather extremes
--Temperature extremes on land
--Drought due to precipitation deficits
--Species loss and extinction

Look to the IPCC’s 2018 Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C for more specifics, or have a gander at these digital updates of masterpieces in Madrid’s Museo del Prado's collections.




The museum collaborated with the World Wildlife Fund, choosing four paintings to be altered in time for the recently wrapped Madrid Climate Change Conference.

Artist Julio Falagan brings extreme drought to bear on El Paso de la Laguna Estigia (Charon Crossing the Styx) by Joachim Patinir, 1520 - 1524

Marta Zafra raises the sea level on Felipe IV a Caballo (Philip the IV on Horseback) by Velázquez, circa 1635.

The Parasol that supplies the title for Francisco de Goya’s El Quitasol of 1777 becomes a tattered umbrella barely sheltering miserable, crowded refugees in the sodden, makeshift camp of Pedro Veloso’s reimagining.

And the Niños en la Playa captured relaxing on the beach in 1909 by Joaquín Sorolla now compete for space with dead fish, as observed by artist Conspiracy 110 years further along.

None of the original works are currently on display.

It would be a public service if they were, alongside their drastically retouched twins and perhaps Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, to further unnerve viewers about the sort of hell we'll soon be facing if we, too, don’t make some major alterations.

For now the works in the +1.5ºC Lo Cambia Todo (+1.5ºC Changes Everything) project are making an impact on giant billboards in Madrid, as well as online.

#LoCambiaTodo

via Colossal

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates Cape-Coddities by Roger Livingston Scaife (1920). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Behold the New York City Street Tree Map: An Interactive Map That Catalogues the 700,000 Trees Shading the Streets of New York City

It may sound odd, but one of the things I miss most about living in New York City is the ability to hop on a bus or train, or walk a few blocks from home, and end up lounging in a forest, the cacophony of traffic reduced to a dim hum, squirrels bounding around, birds twittering away above. Such urban respites are plentiful in NYC thanks to its 10,542 acres of forested land, “about half as much as the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina,” notes James Barron at The New York Times, in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country.

“Most of the city’s forest is deep in parks”—in Central Park, of course, and also Prospect Park and Riverside, and dozens of smaller oases, and the lush Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. The city’s forests are subject to the usual pressures other wooded areas face: climate change, invasive species, etc.




They are also dependent on a well-funded Parks Department and nonprofits like the Natural Areas Conservancy for the preservation and upkeep not only of the large parks but of the trees that shade city streets in all five boroughs.

Luckily, the city and nonprofit groups have been working together to plan for what the conservancy’s senior ecologist, Helen Forgione, calls “future forests,” using big data to map out the best paths for urban woodland. The NYC Parks department has been busy compiling figures, and you can find all of their tree stats at the New York City Street Tree Map, which “brings New York City’s urban forest to your fingertips. For the first time,” the Parks department writes, “you have access to information about every street tree in New York City.”

Large forested parks on the interactive map appear as flat green fields—the department has not counted each individual tree in Central Park. But the map gives us fine, granular detail when it comes to street trees, allowing users to zoom in to every intersection and click on colored dots that represent each tree, for example lining Avenue D in the East Village or Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. You can search specific locations or comb through citywide statistics for the big picture. At the time of this writing, the project has mapped 694,249 trees, much of that work undertaken by volunteers in the TreesCount! 2015 initiative.

There are many more trees yet to map, and the department’s forestry team updates the site daily. Out of 234 species identified, the most common is the London Planetree, representing 12% of the trees on the map. Other popular species include the Littleleaf Linden, Norway Maple, Pin Oak, and Ginko. Some other stats show the ecological benefits of urban trees, including the amount of energy conserved (667,590,884 kWh, or $84,279,933.06) and amount of carbon dioxide reduced (612,100 tons).

Visit the New York City Street Tree Map for the full, virtual tour of the city’s trees, and marvel—if you haven’t experienced the city’s vibrant tree life firsthand—at just how green the empire city’s streets really are.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Chill Out to 70 Hours of Oceanscape Nature Videos Filmed by BBC Earth

Those who harbor a deep-seated fear of the water may want to look for other methods of stress relief than BBC Earth’s relaxing 10-hour video loops, but everyone else is encouraged to take a dip in these stunning natural worlds, presented without commentary or background music.

All seven 10-hour playlists are salt-water based: coral reefscoastlinesdeep oceanopen ocean, frozen seasocean surfaces, and sea forests.

As in most compelling nature documentaries, non-human creatures loom large, but unlike such BBC Earth offerings as Creepiest Insect Moments or Ants Attack Termite Mounds, there’s a benign, live-and-let-live vibe to the proceedings.




Unsurprisingly, the photography is breathtaking, and the uses of these marathon-length portraits are manifold: meditation tool, sleep aid, child soother, social media decompressor, travelogue, and—less calmingly—call to action.

Science tells us that many of these life forms, and the ocean in which they dwell, are in serious danger, thanks to decades of human disregard for the environment. This is an opportunity to immerse ourselves in what we stand to lose while it’s still possible to do something about it.

If that thought seems too depressing, there’s also strong scientific evidence that nature documentaries such as these promote increased feelings of wellbeing

What are you waiting for?

Click here to travel the oceans with polar bears, jellyfish, dolphins, seahorses, brightly colored tropical fish and other creatures of the deep, compliments of BBC’s Earth’s Oceanscapes playlists.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 4 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Louise Jordan Miln’s “Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (1900). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watching Nature Documentaries Can Produce “Real Happiness,” Finds a Study from the BBC and UC-Berkeley

Hollywood science fiction films imagine future humans in worlds that are no longer green, or never were—from Soylent Green’s dying Earth to that of Interstellar. And from Soylent Green to Ad Astra, humans in the future experience plant and animal life as simulations on a screen, in hyperreal photography and video meant to pacify and comfort. Maybe we live in that world already, to some extent, with apocalyptic films and science fiction expressing a collective mourning for the extinctions brought on by climate change.

“Over the course of my lifetime—I’m 46,” writes Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee, “the planet has lost more than half of its wildlife populations, according to the World Wildlife Fund.” Surely this brute fact explains the immense popularity of high production-value nature documentaries, the antidote to apocalyptic futurism. They have become “blockbuster events,” argues Ed Yong at The Atlantic, with fandoms as fierce as any.




Viewed “from the perspective of the future,” writes Smee, nature documentaries “are great art. Maybe the greatest of our time.” But can viewing film and photographs of nature produce in us the feelings of awe and wonder that poets, artists, and philosophers have described feeling in actual nature for centuries? BBC Earth, producer of several major blockbuster nature documentary series, undertook some psychological research to find out, partnering with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.

The team examined the effects of watching the BBC’s Planet Earth II documentary series relative to other kinds of programs. “It is a deep human intuition that viewing nature and being in nature is good for the mind and body,” they write in the study, titled “Exploring the Emotional State of ‘Real Happiness.’” (Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” to describe the evolved preference for natural beauty.) Does screentime equal physical time spent outdoors? Not exactly, but nature documentaries can lower stress levels and, yes, produce feelings of "real happiness."

There have been several previous such studies. The authors cite one in which a few minutes of the original series Planet Earth “led people, compared to control participants, to feel 45.6% more awe and 31.4% more gratitude, but no shifts in feelings of negative emotions such as fear and sadness.” The Planet Earth II study may be the largest of its kind, with almost 3,500 participants in the U.S., around a thousand in the U.K., India, and Australia, each, and around 500 in both South Africa and Singapore for a total of approximately 7,500 viewers.

Participants across a range of age groups, from 16 to 55 and over, were shown short clips of a variety of TV programs, including clips from Planet Earth II. They were surveyed on an array of emotional responses before and after each viewing. The study also measured stress levels using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and used a facial mapping technology called CrowdEmotion to track physical responses. The researchers aggregated the data and controlled for population size in each country.

The findings are fascinating. Across the scale, Planet Earth II clips generated more feelings of happiness and awe, with clips from news and entertainment shows causing more fear. In most of the study’s measures, these good feelings peaked highest at the lower demographic age range of 16-24. Younger viewers showed greater positive emotional responses in facial mapping and survey data, a fact consistent with BBC ratings data showing that 16-34 year-olds make up around 41% of the audience share for Planet Earth II.

“This younger group,” note the authors, “was more likely to experience significant positive shifts in emotion.” They also started out, before viewing the clips, with significantly more environmental anxiety, scoring highly on the stress scale. 71% described themselves as “extremely worried about the state of the world’s environment and what it will mean for my future.” A smaller percentage showed the lowest level of agreement with the statement “I regularly get outside and enjoy spending time with nature.”

For nearly all of the study’s viewers, nature documentaries seemed to produce at least fleeting feelings of “real happiness.” For many, they may also be a way of countering fears of the future, and compensating in advance for a loss of the natural beauty that remains. Unfortunately, the study did not measure the number of participants who viewed Planet Earth II and other “blockbuster” nature documentaries as a call to action against environmental destruction. Maybe that's a subject for another study. Read the full Planet Earth II study results here. And if you're feeling stressed, watch thirty minutes of "Visual Soundscapes," presented by Planet Earth II, above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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