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Shocking Stats: A Review of “50 Facts That Should Change the World 2.0”

Jessica Williams Jan 13

50 Facts That Should Change the World 2.0
by Jessica Williams
Disinfo, 2007

The second edition of 50 Facts That Should Change the World is filled with statistics many people would like to ignore. We learn that cars kill two people every minute and that global warming kills 150,000 every year. Some of the facts describe global inequality – one in five of the world’s people live on less than $1 a day – while others relate to Western excess, including the eye-opening revelation that Americans discard 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. All together, they form a portrait of a world wildly out of balance.

Each fact is followed by a short essay by BBC journalist Jessica Williams. These essays are impeccably researched and provide history and context to the issue being discussed. Occasionally, Williams delves into the human stories beneath the statistics, and it is at these times that the essays are most effective. After learning that there are 44 million child laborers in India, we are introduced to ten-year-old former carpet weaver Vinod, who describes how his bosses treated his wounds: “My employer used to fill the wound with matchstick powder and burn. My flesh and skin used to burn.” Trying to imagine the 44 million individual stories of Indian child laborers is a frightening exercise.

Williams also draws attention to individual actions that can help bring about change. Unfortunately, her solutions sometimes seem frustratingly moderate, especially in the face of the radical facts she presents. After describing how Starbucks leaves its coffee farmers dependent on food aid but is planning to open a new store in the United Kingdom every two weeks for the next decade, Williams is eager to point out she is not calling for a boycott: “I don’t want to suggest you never visit Starbucks: from time to time I go there too. It’s an almost inevitable force in modern life. But when you do go there, make sure you go for the fair trade coffee.” There are no bricks through corporate windows here, just a gentle nudge towards an ethical consumerism.

In the chapter on global warming, Williams gives an excellent overview of the damage that climate change is already causing, but she then offers some familiar prescriptions: choose energy efficient light bulbs, turn off electrical appliances when not in use, fly less, write to politicians etc. These are all important actions, of course, but are they really going to stop our greenhouse gas driven culture? It’s a shame that 50 Facts does not offer anything more radical than the usual painless “solutions.”

In keeping with her moderate approach, Williams is also reluctant to connect the dots between the facts she describes. Williams states in the introduction that many of the facts revolve around inequality, but she does not offer a framework that would link the disparate statistics. Though this is partly a result of the “list approach” to global affairs, it leaves the reader wanting more. While Williams frequently criticizes individual corporations, the word “capitalism” is never mentioned. This is a telling omission in a book whose many distressing facts often originate in the relentless drive for economic liberalization.

But perhaps this critique is a little unfair. After all, Williams does not pretend to offer an in-depth analysis of the inequities of the global economy and there are plenty of books that already do this – a notable recent example is Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. 50 Facts may appeal to readers who are only just opening their eyes to the scale of global inequality. For these readers, Williams offers concise overviews of some of the challenges we face. For seasoned activists, though, Williams’ solutions will seem too anemic. And they will also know that the battle for real change begins when we start seeing the connections between the terrible facts that confront us.