All the animals in the world are dying, or something like that. I cannot remember the rate of extinction or of species decline although I have read about them several times. I am not so likely to recall the 16.8% increase in the wild population of pandas over the decade 2006-16 as I am likely to remember the story of a female panda whose keepers call her Yuan Yuan, who is now eleven, and was briefly fertile for a period last year. After spending some time with a male panda, Yuan Yuan began to show signs of pregnancy: she lost her appetite as though nauseous, she moved more slowly and the ultrasounds showed that her uterus was thickening.
The keepers moved her into a new and luxurious care unit, with air conditioning and a richer diet of bamboo, fruit and buns. But then something strange happened to Yuan Yuan: her uterus began to thin again. She seemed to have a healthy appetite for buns. The keepers realised that she was not, and had never been, pregnant, but she had known about the change in conditions that were likely to follow pregnancy, and the knowledge must have triggered hormone changes that made her body act pregnantly – so that it could acquire bamboo, buns and air con. (Women who find Yuan Yuan’s story inspiring could try wearing a ‘Baby on Board’ badge to get a seat on public transport.) But Yuan Yuan is just an animal in a zoo, she means little or nothing in the real world, she cannot make the claims a statistic can.
The suffering of x is ‘just a statistic’. The pain of y is ‘just a statistic’. What is a statistic and why is it not significant? Please think of Yuan Yuan again. She is alone in her air-conditioned unit eating a browning pear. Now the door opens. A male panda comes in. He walks to Yuan Yuan and sits with her. Now there is a panda cub between the Yuan Yuan and the male. The new pandas sit with Yuan Yuan and share her fruit. How many pandas are there?
Now please think of Yuan Yuan’s cage again, but the cage is much bigger – it goes all the way to the horizon. There are 1596 pandas in the cage and 268 come in through the door. How many pandas are there?
Did you scan your mind’s eye over 1864 pandas and count the number of faces, or did you add the number 268 to 1596 and translate it back into pandas? Unless you have a very unusual mind, you will have pictured a crowd of pandas joined by another, smaller crowd, but it is unlikely that these crowds contained precisely 1864 pandas divided into one group of 268 and one group of 1596. Did one of them have a muddy coat and another plod slowly with a world-weary look in its eyes? Were two of the young males fighting? The numbers are too much for your mind to bear – it can cope easily with three pandas, and even give them different sizes and shapes. But 1864 pandas as individuals – it is too much.1864 pandas is not much when you think of all the living things in the world.
The unthinkable. Between us we have seen the end of the world billions of times over and personally, I can’t remember how it was supposed to play out in the hypothetical scenarios described in scientific papers – I can’t even remember how it played out in the disaster movies I have seen, which I found much easier to take in. All I can remember are bits and pieces, broken off from the larger story. For example, I have seen a film about the end of the world in which there is a scene set in the New York Public Library in which climate refugees burn books to keep warm, and eat the contents of the vending machines. The memory reminds me what books are good for (many things) but it only has limited use in helping me to understand what is going on. I don’t understand it and the numbers make me glaze over.