TED Conversations

Hans Rosling

Director, Gapminder Foundation


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Why do so many think that population growth is an important issue for the environment? Don't they know the facts of demographics?

We face many environmental challenges, but the foremost is the risk for a severe climate change due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

I meet so many that think population growth is a major problem in regard to climate change. But the number of children born per year in the world has stopped growing since 1990. The total number of children below 15 years of age in the world are now relatively stable around 2 billion. The populations with an increasing amount of children born are fully compensated by other populations with a decreasing number of children born. A final increase of 2 billion people is expected until the world population peaks at about 9 billion in 2050. But the increase with 2 billion is comprised by already existing persons growing up to become adults, and old people like me (+60 years). So when I hear people saying that population growth has to be stopped before reaching 9 billion, I get really scared, because the only way to achieve that is by killing.

So the addition of another 2 billion in number constitutes a final increase of less than 30%, and it is inevitable. Beyond 2050 the world population may start to decrease if women across the world will have, on average, less than 2 children. But that decrease will be slow.

So the fact is that we have to plan for a common life on Earth with 7-9 billion fellow human beings, and the environmental challenge must be met by a more effective use of energy and a much more green production of energy.

The only thing that can change this is if the last 1-2 poorest billion do not get access to school, electricity, basic health services and family planning. Only if the horror of poverty remains will we become more than 9 billion.

So my question is: Are these facts known? If not, why?

It is important because placing emphasis on population diverts attention from what has to be done to limit the climate crisis.

  • Feb 16 2011: Whether population growth continues or not is moot. The current population is unsustainable! Estimates to have a decent lifestyle for all indicate a need for between 5-10 earths of material. Reducing population is a major need to achieve a sustainable global economy, both financially and environmentally! By the time 2050 rolls around and your "maybe" seeing population reduction the damage will have been done and perpetuated! To try to take this out of the equation of climate crisis will inevitably doom any effort as it is a major player! Now if you are saying that population pressures can be effectively dealt with by increasing education, access to medical care, improved lifestyle I would agree to some extent. However it will take a concerted global effort to get rid of extremist populations, such as christian and muslim fundamentalists, that promote women as being here solely for the bearing of children and like in the former Afghanistan actively seek to exclude half the population from an education.

    It is a part of the problem that can be addressed effectively but it is such a huge part of the problem that not having an emphasis on it will promote the climate crisis. Indeed education is perhaps the most effective population growth counter. It would be easily done that education on other aspects, such as resource stripping, water conservation, loss of diversity, energy efficiency etc could be incorporated into the education process and help address those issues as well.
    • Feb 16 2011: The reason we don't have enough resources is:
      1. Lifestyles in the developed world are extremely wasteful.
      2. Lifestyles in the developed world exceed what's needed to live and be happy.

      If our existing habits were modified to be more efficient and if we stopped buying so much crap we don't even need, there's no reason it couldn't be scaled to 9 billion people.

      "it will take a concerted global effort to get rid of extremist populations"
      Absolutely, let's get rid of all the intolerant people.
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        Mar 13 2011: I would like to point out here, that we have also been relying on the same resources for a number of generations, and have known for a long time that they were not sustainable i.e. oil, trees, fresh water. So, there is also an aspect of the inability to see our errors in not only the consumption of resources, but also the lack of variety of types of resources we choose to consume...
    • Feb 16 2011: How do you, Max Kennedy, propose to get rid of extremist populations? Please, notice that "extremist" Iran has managed a wonderful feat of family planning. Perhaps someone would call Fidel Castro an "extremist", but you can check that Cuba's population is not even replacing itself -which is amazing for a 3rd world country.

      I do agree with Seán Hayes that our lifestyles are wasteful and our consumption habits exceed what's needed to be happy; however, if we were really to consume only what we need, what would most of us do for a living?
      • Feb 16 2011: "if we were really to consume only what we need, what would most of us do for a living?"

        My opinion...
        Step 1. Clarify that in some instances what we need to be happy is very different from what we need to not be sad
        Step 2. Change the culture so that we don't value wealth and the expression of wealth so highly
        Step 3. Reduce hours worked per individual
        Step 4. Increase gross number of hours spent socialising, thinking, learning, creating, exercising, and researching
        • Feb 17 2011: Couldn't agree more with you, Jonathon. Only step 2 is mighty difficult to achieve.

          Somehow, the urge to consume seems a lot easier to awaken that contentment. Admittedly, the economy does spend a lot of money in advertising trying to persuade us to part with our hard earned cash... Perhaps if the same effort was put into persuading us to live more healthful lives something could be achieved.

          Could I please interest you, and everyone here, on the work of Antonio Abreu whose remit is spreading the love of music to all children in Venezuela. I recently saw a documentary about his "sistema" and the kids really seemed enthused, all they wanted to do was to play their instruments and share music with their friends. President Chavez, perhaps not the most popular leader in the western media, has been the biggest patron of Abreu's work but the guy himself will work with anyone, left, right and centre.

          I think Abreu is on TED
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      Feb 16 2011: Hi Max, your comments reminded me of a 2050 Future Energy talk I attended some years ago and many people had similar concerns. What is difficult to actually understand is the "acceleration of ephemeralization (doing more with less)" because so much of it is invisible and the most people are kept very busy just earning a living and don't actually see the accelerating change.

      The development of solar powered electric cars for instance is happening very fast, much faster than I expected and yet I agree with you that vast environmental damage is occurring so there is a big job to be done. One of my mentors always said "Spend 10% of your time on the problem and 90% on the solution", and I feel that we are still spending way too much time on the problem, and need to focus much more on the solutions.
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    Feb 14 2011: At the risk of sounding cynical, one of the reasons why population growth attracts more attention is because it shifts the discourse away from more substantive issues of 'access to and ownership of assets by the poor' and distribution of resources.
    As Mark as had pointed out, investing in women - through education and health care - can lead to substantive reductions in family size but despite evidence to this effect the preference for male children and the patriarchal mind-set that is pervasive, inhibits adequate investment in women. We need to invest in young people and particularly young women - given the demographic transition in many countries - and we need to ensure property rights and access to commons for the poor.
  • Feb 22 2011: There is so much "information" available, much with little possiblity of confirmation. Studies are comissioned by vested interests to prove what they want proven. Those with financial resources have the ablity to influence popular opinion with any propaganda they want.

    For every apparently substantive "fact" offered, a counter fact is posited that seems just as reasonable. Within the threads of these very comments is much opinion and contradictory or obscure information. Amidst all of the noise and confusion, how does the average person make sense of it all? How can the "masses", who drive our conventional wisdom and common endeavor, make informed, socially responsible choices? How can they not be overwhelmed and paralyzed by indecision and fear?

    Debate is critical, but how do we translate all of the debate into real world solutions?
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    Feb 15 2011: I'm confused by Hans' statement, "But the increase with 2 billion is comprised by already existing persons growing up to become adults, and old people like me (+60 years)." How can the projected population increase be comprised by already existing persons?

    While I agree with Hans to a degree, there remains an important link between population growth and climate change. In particular, WHERE will that population growth occur? 50% of green house gases can be attributed to three things (in almost equal parts): transportation, deforestation, and building energy consumption. Unfortunately, the building-design community’s vision of sustainability is myopically focused on increasing the energy efficiency and reducing the embodied carbon of individual buildings. So-called “green” buildings are simply not sustainable if, for example:

    - their occupants drive long distances every day
    - the energy they consume is carbon-intensive
    - their technology is too complicated to use or too difficult to maintain
    - their impact stops at the property line
    - they deny the use of pre-existing infrastructure or building fabric
    - they are conceived in isolation from larger, systemic environmental change

    “Green” buildings alone are not enough to divert our perilous course. A broader vision of sustainability is imperative to meet the challenge. We must decide if we are willing to change our behavior: to migrate toward more populated, more diverse, more sustainable cities. Ultimately, urbanity itself is the embodiment of sustainability.

    So, to the extent the addtional 2 billion contribute to horizontal acceleration of development, they are a significant, negative factor.
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    Feb 14 2011: I don't think anyone is scared of the numbers themselves, we're more afraid of the consumption and general "per capita havoc" on the environment.

    In the developed world, I believe the statistics claim that 7 earths would be needed to support our lifestyles. The worry is about the extention of this lifestyle, to a total of 9 billion individuals. Though I believe that they have as much right to these luxuries as we do, we don't yet know how we are going to sustainably supply a 9 billion person world with meat, cars and air conditioning.

    I also question the idea that we may see a decrease in population in the future, since life expectancies will likely begin to increase dramatically. Just ask Ray Kurzweil.
  • Feb 22 2011: There are over 7 billion people on the plant now... one hiccup in food production, even before CO2 changes climate, for ANY reason and we are all in trouble. As long as the stores have supplies no one will feel it but when that runs out.. I agree with Alice Tromm in as much as the numbers are huge and fairly recent in human history, we have never before faced this and we should be dealing with it now! It will create more deadly, immediate pressure, faster than warming.
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      Mar 5 2011: Great point Leslie.

      I think the issue is the other way around. The environment is an issue for our population and its growth. Leslie has pointed this out well as does some recent environmental or natural disasters. Floods in AU, earthquakes in NZ, drought in China, volcano in Iceland, severe winter in EU, highest recorded summer temperatures in the northern hemisphere and the list goes on. Each of these interrupt food production locally which put more pressure on global food production.

      The environment and our population are very connected and the more reactive and unpredictable the environment becomes, the more at risk our population is.
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    Feb 21 2011: Hans, what you seem to overlook is LOCAL ecological carrying capacity. Over-population is a local issue on a global scale. Global population numbers are meaningless because not all ecosystems support population equally. If you recall Thomas Malthus's theory of how "every species will reproduce until it exceeds the limits of its food supply," every ecosystem can only support a limited population size. Industrialization (intensive agriculture and infrastructure) allows humanity to expand an ecosystem's local carrying capacity, but since it depends upon unsustainable energy sources, a sharp drop in population is inevitable. Climate change further exacerbates the issue by degrading the load capacity of each ecosystem. We need data that evaluates the carrying capacities of each ecosystem including their likely medium and long-term rates of degradation. Ideally each ecosystem should maintain a population margin below full capacity to give their people higher standards of living.

    It's true that violence might occur, especially in an ecological collapse scenario. Easter Island gives a stark illustration. We know that we need to realign our economic and political systems to reflect ecological reality. The smaller the time-frame in which this realignment occurs, the worse will be the violence. Over the long-term we need to achieve economic and ecological sustainability by having populations constrain their size to local carrying capacities (or projected 25-50 year level), constrain food trade in terms of nutrition parity (grains for grains, meat for meat, and fruit for fruit), and only permit parity-based immigration (prevents moral hazards and the externalization of population-related ecological impacts). If we bolster this long-term strategy with gradual short-term increases and public education, it'll have a lower probability for violence.

    Policies need to be aligned with reality or nature will mercilessly do it for us.
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    Feb 16 2011: Global demographics can get pretty complicated. I recently curated a link suite on an aggregator I edit that riffed off of Ted Fishman's new book, "A Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation" (overview post: bit.ly/eHkpWS) Clearly, it isn't only a matter of numbers, but of skews as well.

    However, there is a related question I have wanted to ask you for some time, so will seize the moment... Your wonderful data visualizations show an optimistic trend for global public health. However, although the lot of the human species overall has improved over the last few hundred years, we are in the midst of what has been termed the "Sixth Great Extinction." Thousands of other species have either gone extinct or are on the edge either as a direct or indirect result of human action, including population growth (background: www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jul/28/species-extinction-hotspots-australia)

    Both ethically and from a "one health" perspective, this is an extraordinarily troubling development, one that greening up the energy supply and slowing global warming doesn't begin to address. Focusing on the human-centric public health component, the loss of a these species, both plant and animal, means a loss of bio-filters that keep pathogens in check. Even without extinction, habitat loss can have direct human health consequences (see deforestation & malaria: bit.ly/aPMRuB)

    I would be really interested in seeing data visualizations on public health that looked at the larger fabric / context. I suspect it would reveal significant vulnerabilities. At what cost have the improved metrics of human health come? And given big picture trends, are we at risk for a dramatic reversal?

    Thank you...
    • Feb 17 2011: Janet - that's a good point. Maybe it's hard to shed this sense of impending doom because so many living species do face genuine doom.
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      Feb 18 2011: Janet, but what could have been made different during the last 40 years. The number of births have come down, only in the last billion, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa are we still waiting for the 2 child family to become norm, That is already norm in 80% of world population. From now on the growth will mainly be the already adults growing older.
      And if all of Africa follow in the global trend we can see human population start decreasing from 2050 but that will not be so fast we will most probably be at least 7 billions by the end of 2100. And most of the big threats to biodiversity and climate will happen before 2100. And yes active and successful poverty alleviation and family planing can make us peak at 1/2 billion less . I can not understand what else can be done to reduce the number of humans, except th unthinkable, a mega holocaust! I do not here any realistic suggestion from those concerned by human numbers.
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        Feb 18 2011: Hans, thank you for your response. I think we may be talking past each other though. I am focused not so much on what could have been different over the last 40 years, but more on the implications for human health over the next 40. Although your data visualizations are very compelling, the focus is on a set number of public health metrics. I am suggesting that those be placed within larger contexts to analyze vulnerabilities.

        Much has been written about the emergence and re-emergence of dozens of zoonotic infectious diseases over the last 30 years . These illnesses not only have potentially significant direct impact on human health, but indirect impact vis a vis livestock. Meanwhile, plant crops are facing a resurgence of traditional scourges, including wheat rust, the original Green Revolution's public enemy #1.. GMO crops are starting to experience resistant "superweeds." Deforestation, urbanization and increased trade/travel have all worked in favor of spreading pathogens far, wide and fast. Now, two new studies suggest a link between wacky weather and man-mediated climate change (by no means definitive but part of a growing chorus: ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2011/02/17/new-studies-show-that-climate-change-is-the-culprit-in-extreme-rain/). Recent weather—floods & droughts—whether or not climate-related, have taken such a toll on commodity crops that we're seeing food cost price hikes in the neighborhood of 30%.

        So what does all this mean going forward for global public health?

        Beyond the appalling truth that one species can cause the extinction of so many others—we're right up there with meteors in the extinction-event derby—what do all these trends mean in terms of human health /population growth?

        Some new data visualizations, please...

        thank you...
        • Feb 18 2011: I agree with Janet, loss in biodiversity, land degradation and encroachment have increased the number of emerging infectious diseases (75% of which are zoonotic). Further, the impact of livestock and crop production increases the risk of food insecurity as well as decrease in individual economic development.

          As far as the demographics go, I would be interested in more focus on regional data, instead of overall global rates. Are the areas where population (i.e. births) increasing, also areas of limited/degraded land, decreased animal/crop production, poor nutrition, etc. What are the public health infrastructures like in these areas? Many of these regions are also hotspots for emerging diseases. In other words, the total global population density might not be the issue; instead, it might be more enlightening to look at regions of population growth and whether they also suffer other factors (e.g. food shortages, decreased production, poor public health infrastructure, education, etc.) that would make them significant to the global community.
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        Feb 18 2011: H'mmm, I can't "reply" to Craig's comment directly, but wanted to include a link to a map he flagged to my attention that was published in "Nature" a couple of years ago, charting emerging disease hot spots. The focus is on the twin plagues of infectious diseases and drug resistance. www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/2033

        It is intriguing to think how this sort of data might be woven into public health data to create predictive models.
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    Feb 15 2011: Thank you Hans for this reality check. The recent Time cover story about population makes some equally balanced comments about population. Yes it is still growing, but the reality is that in every developed country, without the need for any government-mandated population control mechanisms, the birth rate has dropped very close to or below the replacement rate of approximately 2.1 children per couple. What we need more than population control is development and education -- they are the most effective forms of population growth imaginable! And development will eventually solve the carbon problem too as developed societies move towards renewable non-polluting energy and sustainable built environments. The answer to every global-scale problem is to help lift the rest of the world out of poverty and into educated, developed society as quickly as possible.

    Also I like your last comment about placing emphasis on population diverting attention away from the climate crisis. I completely agree. And, even more so, the climate crisis -- which today is almost 100% about CO2 -- is diverting attention away from extremely important environmental issues like non-CO2 pollution. The Great Pacific Plastic Patch. Endocrine disruptors in the water systems giving rise to frogs being born with ambiguous genitalia (with humans to follow). Children burning insulation off of wires in China to harvest the copper. Pollutants seeping from electronic junk in landfills. Huge epidemics of bowel and colon cancer in China from polluted water sources. Hundreds (thousands?) of species going extinct per day. We don't hear much about these environmental issues anymore because everybody is so focused on CO2. And I suspect there will come a time that we'll regret losing a decade or two of sleep over CO2 while we were diverted from what may turn out to be much bigger problems.
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      Feb 17 2011: "And development will eventually solve the carbon problem too as developed societies move towards renewable non-polluting energy and sustainable built environments."

      What is your definition of "development"? Because if "development" means "widespread infrastucture and modernization", from where do we extract the raw materials necessary to develop the entire world?

      Communities living in poverty, whether in developed countries or not, have drastically lower carbon emission and waste product than the affluent ruling-class. A self-sustaining agrarian community produces far less waste and far fewer emissions than Chicago, for instance. "[lifting] the rest of the world out of poverty and into educated, developed society as quickly as possible" just sounds way too white-man's-burden for me to get behind. I'm all for education so long as it's both factual and self-administered as opposed to an ignorant colonial force missionizing "truth", which comes to mean "worldview".

      I'm certainly not arguing that we return to isolated farming communities, but I also don't believe large-scale development is the be-all, end-all solution to basically anything. My apologies if I drastically misunderstood your argument, and I very much agree with the ideas in the second portion, though I'm just saying that don't polluted water sources come from areas with access to things like fossil fuels and synthetic materials?

      I suppose I'm trying to understand your angle here. Feel free to key me into the parts that I'm sure I'm missing.
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        Feb 18 2011: Do not worry max, brown man is carrying the burden now. >Not to mention brown women. They study harder and Asia is in many ways more serious than US and West Europe when it comes to acting upon climate change. But EU respond by putting import tariffs on Chinese solar panels!!
        White man is not crying even his own burden. He is asking Bangladesh to carry it for him. I just listen to a talk by the Minister of Environment of Bangladesh, I was so impressed by his wisdom.
        • Feb 18 2011: It is interesting that in spite of my being a reasonably well informed citizen (BBC, Channel 4, and the broadsheed papers) I haven't come accross any of those two items: The EU putting import tariffs on Chinese solar panels nor the Bangladeshi Minister of Environment speech on the iniquities of the world system. Things will not change until a critical mass of people are aware of what goes on and until the elites feel watched by the people. The media elites are the gatekeepers preventing information from flowing freely. It is very discouraging!
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          Feb 19 2011: Hans, I'd love to hear the Bangladeshi Minister of Environment's speech -- is it online somewhere that you're aware of?
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      Feb 17 2011: Agree with you one hundred percent that bringing basic education and water / land management skills to underdeveloped countries will help stabilize populations faster than government mandates. Additionally, thanks for bringing up the other environmental issues that need to be addressed. All the talk of clean energy and such has been a thin veil used by too many corporations that literally trash our lands and seas.
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        Feb 18 2011: Remember that most of the world population already reach 2 child families as a norm we are talking about the last billion that has to follow in the next decades, and they are with exception of the war torn low income countries. Vietnam, Iran and Brasil have 2 child families. Iran has less children per women than Sweden.
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    Mar 13 2011: Dear Hans!Your talks have been a great and useful boon to me! I live in Canada and I am a statistical anomaly in that I have an education and 5 children. With all the misguided talk of world population explosion even my own children are embarassed by the fact that I had five kids (and in my defense that included a set of twins!). I guess it is just not cool to have a Mom (and Dad) who is so 'socially irresponsible'. They are all adults now and other than refer them to your talks- I just have to tell them that as I am not willing to cull the herd- they just have to get on with life! This is a bit tongue in cheek but I do thank you for the moral support and visual aids to make my points to my kids (and others) who sometimes asked me if I knew what caused pregnancy.
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    Feb 23 2011: It's simple: I prefer a great world with few children instead of a miserable world with many children.
  • Feb 17 2011: Don't get me wrong, excessive consumption is a tremendous part of the problem. McMansions, the disposable society etc contribute tremendously to the rape and pillage of the world. The reduction in lifestyle to manage with 1 earth would require giving up, conservatively, 4/5 of our current way of life in the west and more likely 9/10. The rest of the world is doing it's best to catch up thus recruiting more and more consumers. It is unrealistic to believe that addressing the "wasteful lifestyle" of the west will be either possible or effective on it's own. We also need to have less consumers! With respect to the extremist populations the only real way to get rid of them is through education of the peoples in those societies, not accepting products from those societies which unfortunately will make life worse for the common person but will lead eventually to internal revolution and to promote positive change that improves the equality of all the citizens within such a society (simplistic but there's only so much space here). So long as repressive regimes are supported in the name of "stability" and their product bought to the enrichment of the ruling elite we assist in the perpetuation of extremist thinking and increasing populations, the relatively few exceptions to this prove the rule in general. Alex, we can't count on some unseen deus ex machina solution to save us. Yes there is progress but the huge numbers of people as well as deliberate obfuscation by problem deniers and vested interests, such as the Republicans and oil companies, will ensure the solutions come neither fast enough nor achieve sufficient penetration to prevent global collapse. Hans states emphasizing population diverts attention whereas my assertion is that as a tremendous part of the problem, look at the deforestation of Haiti by the poor, not addressing population will cause any other solutions to fail. Population controls need to be part of the solution!
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      Feb 18 2011: Yes but problem is something you can do something about. he fact that Netherlands is small and the Atlantic is big is not a problem for agricultural production.
      And even if you start very actively and gradually become successful in promoting people to have only one child per couple the effect will be so slow on the numbers of humans so that it will be of almost negligible effect on the energy consumption.
      Or how would you go about decreasing a world population that is presently set for an increase with 2 more billion before´a decrease may take place.
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        Feb 18 2011: But what will the effect on energy consumption be of raising all those Sub-Saharan Africaners (etc.) to having a good level of existence??

        If the reduction in population through attrition is going to be slow, the net effect is going to be a continuing spiral up in energy consumption by the world which contributes to global climate change and the eventual destruction of the planet (yeah, I know, doom and gloom). The point here is that population has a direct impact on global climate change in the following two ways:

        1. Increase in population causes increase in resource use which has effects on climate.
        2. Increase in resource use by population also effect climate.

        Either we begin looking into "Soylent Green" or we have to find means of resource usage that has *no* effect on climate.
  • Feb 16 2011: I was aware of the trend of the figures Hans mentions, and I think he may be right in his way of thinking. The only thing that worries me (and I don't have figures to throw out here unfortunately), is that the world population has been able to reach 7 billion only by using a lot of finite fossil resources (e.g. ground water, minerals,oil, gas, coal, etc.). Sustaining the current population would deplete some of these reserves by 2050 or soon after. Any kind of population increase would only speed up the process, unless humanity manages in the same time span to decrease not only its energy use, but also resource consumption by considerable amounts. Given some market mechanisms currently in place, and the time generally needed for public opinion to change, chances are slim that we will be able to live up to that, even with the current population.
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      Feb 18 2011: But Marten, what do you mean by any kind of population increase? The population growth we expect in the next 40 years are adults and old people that are already born. They will replace an earlier generation that was smaller, but the number of children born per year has already stopped growing since 20 years back.
      So how would you avoid the final increase with 2 billion more. I can only see to options forcing 1 child policy upon young couples, which take Mao Tse Tung powers, or killing people that takes Hitler powers and I want none of this in the future world. We should see to that all have access to family planning, as an estimate 30 million of the children born each year are estimated to be unplanned. But 30 million per year is 300 millions per decade and about a billion until 2050 so indeed with Utopian success in family planing we can avoid one of the two extra billions.But what more can we do. Already are 40 millions abortions done per year. And had that not been the case during the last generation we would have been one more billion now. So the worlds women are already doing more abortions than they are giving births to unplanned children.
      • Feb 20 2011: Family planning is indeed what I had in mind as a more plausible alternative to Hitler or Tse Tung practices. I really think that, taking into account the rising living standards in currently small-footprint countries, it would be worth the effort of reducing projected population increase by half, with contraception, women empowerment, abortion,family planning and policy measures such as decreased child allowance from the 3rd child onwards...
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      • Feb 21 2011: Quite rightl Quite right! Instinctively we all get it, that's why fat cats can be derided for everybody's delight and why so many people are fuming regarding Irene Khan, the ex-secretary general of Amnesty international, getting £500.000 payout. We all know that our life standard is built on the misery of the Third World, Irene Khan certainly knows it...
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    Feb 16 2011: It is amazing how easily the meme of the "Malthusian Catastrophe" spreads ... I wonder what instinctive fears it is touching that makes people believe it, almost religiously, so very quickly. In any case, it seem to take an inordinate amount of time and work to dislodge it !!
  • Feb 16 2011: Thank you for raising this issue so succinctly. I absolutely support and agree with most of what's being said here. I don't believe it's just a matter of inefficiency and poor planning though. In fact, there are many who have a vested interest in perpetuating the idea of population explosion, because that assertion puts it back on the people (bad, randy people, reproducing like a bunch of rabbits to the point where we can't feed ourselves) and detracts from the larger issue of the politics of poverty. Obviously, we have the resources to feed our populace and probably will in the future, but unfortunately poverty is profitable. (http://www.cbc.ca/money/story/2010/12/16/f-commodities-outlook.html).
    But we all have a part to play. After hearing the above story on the radio, I realized I no longer wanted my retirement savings to go toward funding the deliberate starving of millions, and potentially billions, of people. I'm taking my money out of my mutual fund-based RRSPs and putting them into an ethical vehicle that will probably make me a lot less money over time, but at least I'll be able to sleep nights after I retire.
  • Mar 14 2011: Over the years WHO keeps increasing daily protein guidelines despit a lack of evidence as to the morbidity and mortality associated with various levels of dietary protein for those 60 plus in the population.

    Increased healthy lifespan, reduced HD, Cancer, Diabetis, AZ, PD, seem like a much better trade off than unsupported speculation about small incresed Muscle loss that may or may not be a morbidity or mortality factor. It may even help with aging! Why slavishly foolow unsupported claims about diet and protein? Where is the data? Please!!

    In the matter of slavish imitation, man is the monkey's superior all the time. The average man is destitute of independence of opinion. He is not interested in contriving a opinion of his own, by study and reflection, but is only anxious to find out what his neighbor's opinion is and slavishly adopt it.
    - Mark Twain's Autobiography
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    Mar 13 2011: Allow me to quickly add that, in making changes like the ones presented below, it is not unreasonable to infer that the overall quality of life for many people, in terms of true health and happiness, will increase

    If people were able to focus less on the things they could 'get' in certain societies, which helps fuel our destructive use of the earths precious and finite resources, it is probably true that the overall happiness and well-being of those people will increase.

    On that same token, by educating people in developing areas of the world, especially women, it is affording them a freedom/independence that they may have never known before. This again, can reasonably result in an increase in the overall happiness, health and well-being of such people. Let it also be noted, that I do not believe it to be 'our' job as a western culture to force upon other groups ideologies that we prescribe to, but more the sharing of facts about health and science, to the best of our (continually growing) knowledge.

    Sorry to go all psychology on this discussion, it just needed to be pointed out ;)
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    Mar 12 2011: I believe that at this point the fact that we have a major problem regarding population and environmental sustainability is known. However, the facts often aren't conveyed in a manner that reaches out to the general population in an effective way. Not only are exact statistics often not shared enough, those statistics are not shared in a way that will touch people instead of computers. To make a real difference the facts need to be shown in a way that is not overwhelming and will demonstrate how the issue at hand pertains to individuals, not just the world as a whole. For this reason, the work of Gapminder Foundation is so important. If the correct statistics can get out in the correct manner more often, then change will be made more rapidly.
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    Feb 25 2011: I think that we may be lulled into thinking that the rate is going to even out and the exponential growth will come to a halt. However, I think we may be forgetting to consider the incredible advances in life span that are being brought about by the human genome research. While birth rates may be slowing, if we increase life span by only 5-10 years, it will have a significant effect on population. If some of the indicators in research are true, life span may increase considerably more than 5-10 years in the next 10-20 years. It seems that our population trajectory is a lot like Moore's Law discussed by Ray Kurzweil where the curve is propagated by different technologies such that when one driver for the curve slows down, a new technology starts driving it right back to exponential....

    If this is in fact the case... and population is destined to continue on this trajectory, we will have some very difficult decisions to make about quality of life, resources, choice, human life, and human rights.
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    Feb 24 2011: Nice to have the human population discussion front and center.

    It seems to me the dynamics of not just of the explosion of the human populations in modern times is mind boggling, but also the dynamics of the explosion of the cultural evolution and how that has effected how we have thrived in numbers and improved the standard of living around the world. All this has resulted in an extended and more delicate reliance on man made or designed products, ideas and the exploitation and alteration of natural resources for our benefit. The question in my mind is whether the quality of life is bound for extensive unpleasant outcomes.

    Not just the world and countries, but large modern mega city of hundreds of thousands and even millions of residences relies on incredibly sophisticated political, economic, social, biological, etc., systems to function and operate as planned. Am I the only one that senses how things could really degrade if cooperation turns more toward survival in these densely populated urban areas?

    The assurance that aspects of the world population trends give reason for optimism because it is peaking out misses the central issue in my mind. I don't dispute these trends just the assumption of the stability of the current and projected general human population situation.

    Cause and effect can spoil models and often do. When it comes to such matters there is often a lag affect between the things that can and do bring about correction(s). We have plenty of warnings in a variety of areas that suggest that it's only possible to claim so far so good.

    I am not a doomsayer, but one who thinks the miserably index for vast numbers of people could go up - way up!
    • Feb 25 2011: Certainly, I don't think anyone is optimistic enough to think all the billions at the bottom of the food chain can develop in the American way... or in the European way for that matter. Expectations of material wealth will have to be curved.

      I am particularly interested in your misgivings about cities... In fact, I should think that it is easier to provide services for people when they congregate in high density population centers: schools, hospitals, public transport, libraries, housing, sanitation... If anything I think that cities are part of the solution not the problem.
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    Feb 22 2011: In short, because Mr.Rosling is but one man.

    This makes me wonder if the Gapminder Foundation has considered a more political role for its genius display of data. How would political debates look like if every claim made by a statesman were to be accompanied by Mr. Rosling with a pointing stick, a graph, and an allusion to his beloved Sweden? :)

    Rhetoric is dangerous because it can be both beautiful and entirely fallacious at the same time. I wish foundations such as these were incorporated into a larger system of completely objective fact-checking, easily available to the masses if not forcibly thrust upon them. Now that would make for some first class debating.
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    E G 10+

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    Feb 20 2011: I think the problem of population growth will solve by itself, with as many people will populate the planet as many poor will be , and the poverty like any time in history will produce wars , genocides , diseases , this is just an example .............and perhaps are many others.
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      Feb 20 2011: Sad, but true.

      I have a better alternative. Let women decide if they want a child or not.
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        Feb 21 2011: it's an alternative but it's up to women , and I don't trust them very much in respect of that.
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        Mar 11 2011: Do you see children as the responsibility of women only? As far as I know a man has to be involved in some way to create a child...
  • Feb 20 2011: I don't think that they are generally known -- no. Because, who in a global role is speaking to this issue? Al Gore I believe tried and as far as I can see, has sunk away because the world did not stand-up and change in a day. Change takes multiple repeating of the message. We do not grasp ideas from one movie or even 5 encounters with the same information. It takes repeating and sharing the message over and over again leveraging every medium we can get our hands on. How are you sharing your expertise? You may need a new loud speaker! :-)
  • Feb 17 2011: In addition to Helen Williams' interesting statement about how the press likes ideas that sell. I think, the reason for this false perception about population growth may also be linked to psychological factors and not merely to the facts.

    Given history and how much the population has grown recently, it is very easy to project into a simplistic view of crowded worlds and pollution problems related to it. It is a lot harder, to picture a change (such as the change in trend you have mentioned) or imagine how many other changes will happen over such a period. (Linear falacy?)

    I think it was a NY Times Op Ed, which started with a description of the pollution related to horses in NYC and how people thought this would doom the city. They could not imagine that cars would solve that problem. It is easy to extrapolate simplistically into a superficial (but apparently logical) linear scenario. It is harder to forecast what will really happen. (Persistence Fallacy?)

    Sociology also contributes. If you need to protect your name, it'll be easier to repeat the simple linear extrapolation than to risk being wrong with accurate analysis or principled forecast. People will easily forget a mistake 'everyone could have done' years later but ridicule free thinkers in the now and then (not all obviously). (Reputation Fallacy?)

    People may know the facts but faced with a choice between trusting a non-linear economic forecast and a simplistic model...

    In summary: psychology and sociology seem to me to contribute to the current perception, just as I might have believed in 'us' and 'them' if I had not been baffled by a Prof. Rosling in a well-known TED Talk.

    It is not enough to educate about just the facts. The previously mentioned fallacies (all named right now by me and on the spur of the moment) must all be addressed with understandable examples.
    • Feb 17 2011: Very good your pointing out of the mechanisms whereby we come to hold certain beliefs.

      Obviously, not even The Guardian could make readers believe anything, it needs to be seemingly logical (here is where your fallacies come in useful). I have a problem, though, with the idea that journalists that write agonisinging with much wriggling of hands about population growth are unaware of what Laurie Vosters (a contributor below) calls the politics of poverty: starvation wages of adults which need the wages of children to supplement them, low prices of commodities produced by the 3rd world... I know it sounds conspiratorial, but I think that the most likely reason why we don't get good information about population growth is because it is in some people's interest that there are lots of poor people to exploit.
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    Feb 17 2011: I have five siblings. I have a child and another brother has two children. My four other siblings are all leaning toward not having children (all are now above thirty). Someone pointed out that the replacement rate would be 2.1 children per couple. In my family we have counting partners Nine adults and three children. So the "breeding" adults would actually need to have to have about 4.5 children just to break even per a couple. I realize this is probably below the global average. Does any one know any numbers by country about replacement rates. I am guessing that countries like the US and germany which I have heard have negative population growth before immigration have a much higher replacement rate per child bearing parents. I just point this out because I have heard several people in my life say either that they didn't have children because of over population or disparage others for having multiple children. One women I know had four children between the late sixties and early eighties. She was told that she was being selfish at one point. She laughed it off. If the replacement rate is this high here and now, and after 2050 the global situation is similar the question is what is the right population for the earth, or more correctly what is the right definition for good population size. No one can stop seven billion from happening. But after the global max at what point in the decrease will people panic and start talking about incentivizing childbirth. Will a world that has only known seven billion feel that 'only' six or four is a crisis. Never too early to hope that is their worry.
    • Feb 17 2011: I don't know about the replacement rates per country. However, perhaps your family is atypical and most people do reproduce. It is the same in my family where some 8 cousins over 40 years of age have produced only 2 offspring (just as well if you consider the carbon footprint of the average sprog in Western Europe) but most people that I come accross socially do have children, mostly 1 or 2 and occasionaly 3.
      On the issue of what is the optimal population, recently I read an interview with Eric Hobsbawm where he was pondering on the plummeting of the fertility rate in Eastern Europe on the grounds that the system is predicated on population growth.... You need a certain proportion of people working to pay for the goods and services they themselves need and also the people who don't work, children and old folks. Also one must bear in mind that a world in which the labour force were scarce, the price of labour would rise. As far as I know whenever that has happened governments have increased immigration or companies have taken their factories to countries where labour is cheap. Obviously, a small population is desirable if you want well paid labour, but if you want to make a lot of profit out it, the more the merrier... So, I guess that the optimal population depends on what type of world you want.
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      Feb 18 2011: Replacement level depend on life expectancy. If people live about 80 years it is 2.1 children per women. If life is shorter on average replacement levels is higher. Gatherers in rain-forest with life expectancies of 20-30 years have a replacement level of almost 6 children per women.
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    Feb 17 2011: Hans, this is a poignant issue to highlight. Coming over from a conversation Nic Marks started, I think about the connections between his ideas and yours. If the issue truly is how we use resources, and his happy planet index accounts for this, then it seems we have the development of a solution. Using the happy planet index as our measurement system, this would incentive innovation in renewable energy systems and hopefully cradle to cradle ideas and products. All this paired with a shift in human consciousness to be orientated towards the greater good rather than insulated self-interest, could be major ingredients in the solution soup for climate change.
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      Feb 18 2011: Agree, it is those consuming most and having lots of resources. I note that money is cheap (i.e. interest is low) so lets put these and other resources to find out how to live a good life with less energy use and with a much more green energy. If that is started right now, the billions after billions that will be buying washing machines during the next 50 years will not increase the burden on the environment and climate. Today we are not even measuring CO2 emission with the same speed that we measure GDP/capita.. It takes 3-4 years to get comparable data for countries. the world has not yet turned serious about climate, that is why I find population discussion a diversion of what should be done.
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    Feb 16 2011: Yes Hans I agree and thank you for the clarity of your explanation ... R Buckminster Fuller in "Critical Path" covers the population growth concern in detail showing how as our standard of living increases our population growth decreases.

    My wife and I met playing Fuller's "World Game" in 1999, a very accurate simulation of life on planet earth. At the end of he day's activity two charts were discussed, the first was the total estimated annual cost to provide a high standard of living for everyone on earth and it was $270billion a year. The next chart totaled $720billion and was the total amount spent the previous year on weapons and wars around the world.

    The vast majority of people on earth still do not know that we have the option for us to all live together at a very high standard of living ... in fact Fuller said, "At a billionaires lifestyle", and the accelerating change in technology is providing this wealth.

    I thought, given that Einstein was even amazed by Fuller that he was a good mentor to follow and we've now created a 'movement' we call Your Healthy Planet.com and it is based on a context of abundance, the true context of life on earth today. We invite everyone who is interested in joining us on this journey to visit http://yourhealthyplanet.com and come on-board.
  • Feb 16 2011: This is a trick question, no?

    Total resources used (or greenhouse gasses generated etc) = individual consumption X population

    We have huge efforts involved in reducing individual consumption (as well we should) and it's something we actually have some control over, but any change in population is going to have an equally important affect on the environment.

    This isn't to say that we should start culling people. If anything, recognizing that population growth is important should lead to an increased focus on talking poverty, education and family planning in the developing world. Not as a substitute for reducing personal consumption, but in conjunction with it. If we really are already using 5 earth's worth of resources, we need to put the brakes on hard wherever we can find them.
  • Feb 16 2011: 100 years ago scientist made bold predictions about the world and where it would go based on what they knew at the time. They were mostly wrong. Most of the comments on tis blog assume a level of knowledge that far surpasses what we actually have. We don't know what causes climate change, we just learned why lead acid batteries work, we don't understand how the brain works, we are only beginning to understand materials and even our knowledge of biology is being radically challenged by breakthroughs in research. The one thing we could definitely say is we seem to have lost none of the arrogance of the past. So to the dire predictions of those the 'know' I say, people that 'knew' believed the earth was flat, that the planets orbited the Earth and that certain people were inferior. Admitting that we don't know would be a better start to a better tomorrow.