800 million people do not have access to clean drinking water.
2.5 billion people do not have access to any sanitation facilities.
The River Rhine transports 10 tons of microplastics to the North Sea every year.
Countless climate refugees are forced to flee their homes.
Every 10 seconds, someone is killed by poor water quality.
The list of such statistics seems endless.
In spring 2015, I took my family to see the World Expo in Milan. We explored the numerous pavilions, and I felt encouraged to see displays of many approaches to solving the problems such statistics reveal. The event actually showed visitors how 10 billion people could live in peace, enjoy education, and have sufficient water and food supplies at their disposal.
Reality caught up with me as soon as I returned from Milan. The solutions the Expo had suggested very quickly seemed deluded and even offensive towards those in desperate need of them. Offensive towards those, who need them now, who are fighting for their lives every day. What an insult to show ways to feed ten billion people when in fact, to this day, we are unable to even quench everyone’s thirst. Especially when we not only have the expertise but also the means to do so. Why are we still not able to use those means for the good of all?
We scroll and click our endless ways through the internet; we skim through our daily newspapers, barely taking in the flood of startling figures and bad news about climatic disasters, famines, and refugees in distress and peril. Newspapers become waste paper rather quickly. And very often, we fail to be genuinely concerned by the figures and headlines they state even before they do. Why is that?
In “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry talks about the deep connection grown-ups feel to figures: “Grown-ups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask you about the important things. They never say, “What's his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead, they demand, “How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn?” Only then do they feel they know him. If you say to the grown-ups, “I've seen a lovely house made of pink brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,” they are unable to picture such a house. You must say, “I saw a house that come a hundred thousand francs.” Then they cry out, “How pretty!”
We all know the numbers of those in need of water, we know the figures assessing environmental pollution, the numbers of climate refugees. We are being provided with new studies and scientific papers on climate change on a daily basis. Yet, nothing changes. How come?
Figures are entities with neither identity nor soul. They may manage to capture our attention, but just briefly. Within a day or two, they will invariably be eclipsed by new, more current figures, new figures on famines in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and northern Nigeria will arrive. Terrifying figures. Yet, we somehow perceive the hundreds of thousands who are facing starvation as figures and records. As statistics, like those we read in sports reports.
Figures never speak of the fates they stand for; they are abstract information. We have to be able to attach individual lives, faces, personal stories to them. Stories that touch our heart, that stay with us and spark passion, charity, and empathy.
Africa’s current plights are solvable; the world can support the fight against them. We can help provide water and livelihoods. We have to stop discussing figures and start to act as emphatic human beings. What are we, if we don’t?
My family lives in Davos, close to Europe’s springs. Our system of education, too, teaches mainly figures and statistics. But education should be inspiring. It should enable us to understand others, to comprehend their fate. Education is the tool to teach us how to attach faces and individual stories to the figures we read. People are the same all over the world. Our dreams, our desires, and our needs are the same. We are many things. We are much more than abstract figures, in any case.