Rob Lyons in Spiked:
Hans Rosling, the Swedish doctor and statistician who died on Tuesday, has rightly been the subject of glowing obituaries ever since.
…Rosling pointed out the great strides that have been made in the past 200 years. In the early 19th century, almost everyone – apart from the very richest people on the planet – was poor and unhealthy. They had few possessions, no education and were destined to die young by modern standards. Living past 40 would be unusual. But thanks to the Industrial Revolution and continuing material progress, countries started to get richer and healthier, starting with the UK and the Netherlands, but soon spreading across Europe and America. As former colonies achieved independence in the decades after the Second World War, they too started to become richer. Life expectancy has shot up in developing countries and they are, for the most part, converging with the living standards and longevity of the richest developed countries. Of course, there are still plenty of places where this needs to go a lot further – particularly poor countries that are blighted by war – but the trend is clear: things are getting better. Moreover, Rosling was clear that it is industrialisation that we have to thank for all that. His entertaining TED talk about washing machines is a case in point. His eco-worrier students would proudly proclaim that they had forsworn the motor car for the sake of the planet. But as Rosling pointed out, every one of them still needed a washing machine. He recounted the moment in his childhood when his parents finally bought an automatic washing machine, an event so momentous that it demanded a family gathering. Just a couple of generations ago, his grandmother would have washed clothes by boiling water on a fire and scrubbing each garment by hand – still the greatest chore for billions of women around the world.
All that labour is saved thanks to electricity, running water and the liberation that is the washing machine. And the washing machine is in turn the product of a whole host of other industries from steel mills to chemical refineries. And what comes out of washing machines, he asked? Books. When women are freed from hours of laundry, they have time to read books to their children, offering another kind of liberation: education. The most pressing question we face, therefore, is how everyone on the planet can enjoy the freedom that comes from washing machines and other labour-saving devices.