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World in the Balance
Alex Steffen, 16 Apr 04

Ally Ted Wolf recommends the PBS series World in the Balance, a Nova investigation into global population trends.

I haven't seen it yet, but their site includes all sorts of interesting stuff, ranging from maps (of population growth, habitat impacts, climate change...), comparative studies of population campaigns, and photos from the book Material World.

Most striking of all, to me, however, were the maps of human numbers through time.

We've all read the statistics that people born since 1960 (or 1950, or 1970, depending on whose numbers you believe) outnumber all the people ever born since humans first walked upright, but seeing that reality mapped brings home the challenges facing us in a whole new way.

(Maps here are 0 C.E., 1000 C.E., 1927 C.E., 1960 C.E., 1999 C.E., 2030 C.E.)

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Uh, actually that "more people are alive now than have ever lived" meme's something of a bugbear.
Cecil Adams quickly
states the facts at hand, while Carl Haub from Population Reference Bureau
makes a more leisurely, more thorough case, and a math approach
may clarify things further, if you like that kind of thing. Basically, though, you find that about 100 billion people have ever lived, more or less, so we -- us, the presently living -- account for 6 percent or so of the total.

Posted by: Carl Caputo on 16 Apr 04

Rats. I must not have formatted those URLs properly or something. Is there a secret?

Posted by: Carl Caputo on 16 Apr 04

Thanks, Carl. Did some further checking and, even allowing for possibly mistaken estimates in these numbers (the UN's 1993 year 8,000 BCE # is 5x what some others estimate), the larger point certainly stands. The living do not outnumber the dead.

We alive appear to be somewhere between 4 - 20% of total historical population (depending on one's assumptions and whose numbers you believe), is the upshot. (Still a large percentage, but nowhere near >50%!) The "more people alive" thing appears to be a generate of bad 70s futurism, and still be kicking around...

Thanks for letting me know about that. Saved me a future embarrassment, somewhere down the road!

Posted by: alex on 17 Apr 04

The "World in the Balance" Website is indeed informative. The two programs, broadcast this week on PBS, are worth viewing.

The first one hour program, "The People Paradox," brings the population debate up to date with several new and significant wrinkles. In India, it's a continuing cultural bias against girl babies, even in a rapidly modernizing and highly skilled society, that has enormous social, demographic, and health implications. In Japan, it's a plummeting drop in fertility that has come with the (welcome) social and economic empowerment of women, that threatens to create an overhang of elders who cannot be properly cared for. In Kenya, it is the tragic consequence of AIDS mortality cutting out the productive middle of the demographic pyramid while the base of youth entering their reproductive years is so large that the tsunami of poverty and premature mortality appears unstoppable.

The power of the program is not only in its explanation of these trends, but, like all television, in its ability to put human faces on them so they are not abstractions, but shared challenges.

The second program, "China Revs Up," spells out the environmental consequences of the fastest growing national economy the world has ever experienced: China since Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalization in 1979. Hint: Chinese consumers like SUVs, too, and can even buy them. Second Hint: the implications do not end at China's borders.

Watch these shows. Respond to them. They are prime World Changing material.

Posted by: Ted Wolf on 23 Apr 04



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