BBC Radio 4:Rt Rev Graham James - 10/02/17

You are listening to a programmes from BBC Radio 4.

Good morning. Hans Rosling died this week. He may not have been a household name in Britain, but was honoured in his native Sweden and once listed amongst the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. A health professor by background, he was a big picture man who used statistics in highly entertaining and visual presentations. Hans Rosling believed that over the past 200 years the world had become a much better place, and it kept getting better. He showed how, as the world’s population grew, most people were healthier, wealthier, better educated and lived much longer.

Fifty years ago the average world fertility rate – the number of babies born per woman – was five. Now it is 2?, and falling, a change unprecedented in human history. Rosling claimed that by 2050 the world population would stabilise. I remember watching him present this material, and telling us also that the two billion people in extreme poverty in 1980 had now halved in number. Given so much gloomy news, Hans Rosling’s hopeful analysis offered a strikingly different perspective. But was he simply a modern day Dr Pangloss?

Pangloss was Candide’s tutor in Voltaire’s classic novel. He believed he lived in the best of all possible worlds. Even when imprisoned and nearly hanged, Pangloss maintained it was all happening for the best. He claimed every tragedy and suffering was part of a great design. He even refuses to save a friend from drowning since it was surely a means to a greater good.

Voltaire brilliantly exposes the moral inertia of such facile optimism. Nothing could be further from Hans Rosling’s hopeful view of the world. He thought we needed not just scientific advances but also moral courage and compassion for the world to become a better place. It didn’t happen automatically. And he believed what we do individually really mattered.

In the gospels when Jesus was faced by a leper asking to be healed, it’s said he was “moved with pity”, and broke all the rules of his time by touching him. He didn’t tell the leper his suffering was all part of a wider plan for the greater good. Nor did he simply lament the existence of this tragic disease. He put the needs of the person first, showed compassion by restoring him and made his life a better one.

The danger of big picture thinking is sometimes that it can make us feel like a tiny and inconsequential player in the great sweep of history. Hans Rosling never suffered that delusion. He gave people hope. We will miss him.