Every so often something comes along that dramatically alters our perception of the world. These are social memes that are utterly simplistic but yet incredibly profound. And once you've seen them you cannot un-see them; they are forever etched onto your mind.

Jack Schmidt created one of those images.

Schmidt had a rare moment with nothing else to do on December 7, 1972, as he floated about in zero gravity with his Hasselblad camera in his hand.

On a lark, he turned to face the retreating Earth as Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon, was leaving Earth's orbit for its 250,000-mile journey. The image he saw through the viewfinder was serendipitous: he quickly framed the shot and took the picture, one of thousands taken during the Apollo space program.

Yet it is that image that has inspired generations and is arguably the most widely distributed photograph in the history of humankind: the blue marble.

The image of the world floating in its singular beauty against a backdrop of infinite blackness forever changed the way we perceive ourselves. Seeing in literal terms that we are so small, so connected to each other, and yet so very alone in the cosmos--that was the moment when the idea of globalization became real.

Images have power: they become symbols for ideas, simplifying the complex for all to understand. Change needs a billboard to broadcast its message, a meme that acts as a container for its many parts.

The Simple But Startling Facts

Gates discovered such an image in the works of the late Hans Rosling, author of  Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, which gates has called one of the most educational books he's ever read.

Rather than describe the world in terms of developed and developing nations, Rosling used an incredibly simple and powerful image.

Imagine that the world is divided into four groups, Level 1- 4 as shown below. Each silhouette of a person represents one billion people. As you move through each level from 1-4 the daily base income quadruples from $2 to $8 to $32 to Above $32.

To make the illustration even more memorable Rosling uses a variety of daily items to show how each of the four levels lives. For example: Level 1 has no transportation; Level 2 uses bicycles; Level 3 has limited access to automobiles; and Level 4 has abundant access to all types of transportation.

Here's my rendering of what Rosling's four levels look like. (You can also see Gates talk about Rosling's work in this video.)

So, what does all of this mean?

Well, if you're anything like me your first reaction is one of horror at how oblivious those of us in the most fortunate little microcosm of Level 4 are to how the rest of the world lives. And yet, relative to where we were less than 200 years ago, the facts are startlingly positive!

In my book Revealing The Invisible I point out that, we probably need to be reminded that in 1850, 93 percent of the one billion inhabitants of our planet lived in extreme poverty. Today less than 10 percent of seven billion humans live below the line for extreme poverty. Amazingly, that means that there are about four hundred million fewer people living in extreme poverty today! As difficult as it may be to accept, given how drawn we are to the media deluge of bad news, things are getting dramatically better.

We are transitioning the world's population out of Level 1 and Level 2 countries and into the economic mainstream at over one million people per week! That's one billion people in the last two decades with projections that we will increase that to two billion over the next two decades.

The question we need to answer is, "How will we feed, clothe, house, transport, care for, and otherwise support these people while also fueling a burgeoning new global economy?"

One thing is certain, we can't simply scale what we have in place today to support tomorrow. It's not only current approaches to mass production, agriculture, and transportation that won't scale, but essential human services as well. According to the world economic forum, it would take three hundred  years to bridge the supply-demand gap for doctors in the world at the rate we are educating and licensing new doctors today.

The bottom line is that we have a long way to go and some serious disruption ahead as we move from the industrial into the post-industrial age. Yet it is also an immense opportunity to create an economic and social system that provides every human being with the ability to engage in a global economy.

For the first time in history we have the ability to make that vision a reality.

Doing that means that we need to fundamentally change how we see the world, to recognize the challenges as clearly as we do the potential. Rosling's image is an indelible landmark in the journey, because once you've seen the world in this way you simply cannot un-see it. 

Published on: Jul 18, 2018
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