First broadcast in the UK on Thursday, ‘Dont’ Panic –The Truth About Population’ was the re-assuring title of an absolutely fascinating programme presented by Hans Rosling, a globally-renowned medical doctor and public health statistician. Amongst other things, Hans Rosling is Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
Here is how the BBC summarises the programme on their BBC iPlayer website:
Using state-of-the-art 3D graphics and the timing of a stand-up comedian, world-famous statistician Professor Hans Rosling presents a spectacular portrait of our rapidly changing world. With seven billion people already on our planet, we often look to the future with dread, but Rosling’s message is surprisingly upbeat. Almost unnoticed, we have actually begun to conquer the problems of rapid population growth and extreme poverty.
Across the world, even in countries like Bangladesh, families of just two children are now the norm – meaning that within a few generations, the population explosion will be over. A smaller proportion of people now live in extreme poverty than ever before in human history and the United Nations has set a target of eradicating it altogether within a few decades. In this as-live studio event, Rosling presents a statistical tour-de-force, including his ‘ignorance survey’, which demonstrates how British university graduates would be outperformed by chimpanzees in a test of knowledge about developing countries.
From the outset, Rosling is indeed very funny, engaging and, yes, convincing on many fronts. He presents compelling data to indicate that the ‘population bomb’ has already exploded; and suggests that there remains a great deal of under-used agricultural land in many poor countries around the World. However, even so, as well as acknowledging that he is not an expert on climate change, he admits that future energy consumption is the biggest problem we face.
The state-of the-art, computerised graphics (projected onto an invisible glass screen) are indeed a very effective way of making complicated historical data – and predictions about the future – seem remarkably simple. Although I think there are one or two occasions where Rosling overstates his case, in general he presents a wealth of information that suggests that our problems are not only solvable; in many cases they have already been solved.
Nevertheless, as he himself acknowledges in the opening sequence of the programme, given the relentless growth in human resource consumption (even if not population) and what he calls “unpredictable climate change”, humanity now faces “undeniably huge challenges”. That being the case, you may well ask, how and why is he so positive? Well the easy answer would be, watch the programme and you will find out.
However, for those of you without the time or ability to watch the programme, which will only be available in the UK on BBC iPlayer for the next few days - and may not stay posted on YouTube for very long – I will try to summarise its content below.
Rosling’s presentation of 12 thousand years of data (mostly just the last 200 years) is interspersed with fascinating video footage of life for very poor people in Mozambique, etc) but, even so, he manages to be almost unremittingly positive. Along the way, he highlights numerous misconceptions that British people have regarding the extent to which progress has been made on a range of international problems. Although I suspect that this is because our media tend only to report bad news, I also think that it is a little too early to declare victory. We may be winning battles, but the war that humanity is waging against Nature is a very long way from being over. However, I am getting ahead of myself… As promised, here are the main points of his presentation, which, as stated above begins with the ending of the last Ice Age (about 12,000 years ago).
Global human population in 10,000 BC is estimated to have been about 10 million. By 1800 AD it had only grown to 1 billion. Industrial revolution (mechanisation of agriculture, improved healthcare, etc.) causes doubling to 2 billion by 1920s and 3 billion by 1950s. By the 1990s it had doubled again but is now slowing (currently 7 billion).
Whereas the global population has doubled in the last 50 years, most growth has been in Asia. In Bangladesh, for example, the population has tripled from 50 to 150 million in this time. However, as in developed countries, the number of children women have (i.e. family size or ‘fertility’) reduces with improved education and healthcare. Since Independence in 1972, Bangladeshi fertility has reduced from 7 to 2.2. Globally, in the last 50 years, average fertility has reduced from 5 to 2.5.
Life expectancy is more complicated. The differences between rich and poor countries were much greater in 1963 than they are now. Life expectancy in poor countries has generally improved from 35 to 50 years. We clearly live in a much less divided World (compared to 50 years ago). However, it is simply not true to say – as Rosling does – that “we no longer live in a divided World.” Such a remark is simply incompatible with the data presented in the programme; and is little more than a rhetorical victory for positive thinking over reality.
Having said that, the demographic transition (towards low birth and low death rates) does appear to be progressing well in most countries. This is why, in the absence of other complicating factors, global human population is expected to peak at about 11 billion by the end of this Century.
Education and Healthcare
As noted above, family size reduces once women gain improved access to education and healthcare. Apart from anything else, people choose to have smaller families once they realise that their children are more likely to survive into adulthood.
Pre-1800, 4 out of 6 children died in childhood. By 1960, however, 4 out of 5 were surviving! This was the ‘population bomb’. Today, on average two adults have two children and both survive. However, global population is still growing because of the increases in life expectancy.
We have reached ‘Peak Child’, there are 2 billion children in the World today and it is expected that there will be 2 billion at the end of the Century; the increased population will be due to there being a lot more older people. The current baby boom in the UK is a Western anomaly but, not so the prediction that number of people over 80 years will double in the next 25 years.
As of 2010, the global population comprised 1 billion in the Americas, 1 billion in Europe (including Russia), 1 billion in Africa, and 4 billion in Asia. Rosling refers to this as “the World’s ‘PIN code’” (i.e. in 2010 it is ’1114′). Using this shorthand, Rosling suggests that the Word’s PIN code will by ’1125′ by 2050 and ’1145′ by 2100.
Meeting the demand for resources
Professor Rosling acknowledges the huge challenges this inevitable growth will create. How can we feed all these people; especially if everyone who is now poor is going to become less so?
Before tackling this question, Rosling shows how much life has improved in recent decades for many people in Mozambique (one of the World’s poorest countries). However, focusing on the poorest of the poor (subsistence farmers), he then paints a startling picture of the long road of technological development: For subsistence farmers, the first stage in a long progress of self-improvement will be saving up to buy a bicycle. It is a truly humbling experience to see how significant and revolutionary such a purchase can be.
Still living in a divided World
Of the 7 billion people alive today, the poorest 1 billion live on as little as 1 US dollar per day (1$/day) whereas the richest billion live on 100$/day (or more). In the middle, the vast majority are in the middle living on about 10$/day. For those of us who are most fortunate, everyone else seems poor. However, if you are among the poorest people in the World, the difference between 1$/day and 10$/day is very significant indeed.
Rosling’s favourite illustration is that of improving average national incomes and life expectancies over the last 200 years. It is true that this shows that all nations are now better off than they used to be. However, in his characteristically positive way, Rosling focuses on the fact that things are improving fastest for the poorest (rather than on the historical growth of inequality).
Having said that, Rosling does provide compelling evidence to suggest that the UN’s new target – to eliminate extreme poverty within 20 years – may well be achievable: The ‘only’ things that can get in our way are resource depletion and climate change.
Fossil Fuel Consumption
Rosling admits he is not an expert on how bad the change could get nor how we should minimise it. However, his presentation of fossil fuel use is very striking:
- Today 50% is consumed by the richest billion of population; 25% by the 2nd billion; 12.5% by the 3rd billion.
- This leaves more than half the global population consuming little more than 10%.
- Given the time it will take for people to drag themselves out of extreme poverty, the problem we face is the growth in demand by those who are already no longer in poverty (extreme or otherwise).
Thus, Rosling suggests that the remaining growth in global population (i.e. from 7 to 11 billion) is not the main problem we face. However, – and this is where Rosling’s presentation finally becomes quite challenging: He suggests that those living in richest countries cannot tell others what to do; and that it is entirely legitimate for those who are less fortunate to demand that we moderate our excessive consumption (of both resources and energy).
- The problems of extreme poverty and population growth (may well) have been solved.
- Climate change is still a massive problem (which we must therefore try to solve).
- Excessive per-capita resource consumption in rich countries must now be reduced.
All the data used in the presentation is available at: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/dontpanic