In the span of the 20th century, the world’s population grew from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion. Today, our globe is home to over 7.1 billion people and increases by 220,000 per day. Some are concerned that this growth is unsustainable and will further disease, hunger and the destruction of environmental resources. But in a new BBC programme, Don’t Panic: The Truth about Population, Hans Rosling wants to reassure us about the world’s surging population.
Rosling, a statistician by training, is now a professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. But he is better known for his energetic TED talks with over six million views and for founding Gapminder, a non-profit that shares tools for the interactive use of development statistics. Rosling often uses these tools in his talks, showing countries as colorful bubbles bobbing up and down as he speeds through the decades exclaiming, “vroom! There goes China! And now, here comes Brazil!” A masterful story-teller, Rosling is a passionate Swede who became a web-sensation by dusting off seemingly dull statistics and captivating his audience with the help of props such as ladders, washing machines, Legos, toilet paper, or model airplanes.
In Don’t Panic, Hans Rosling marvels that in his lifetime alone, the world population has grown by more than 4 billion. In the hour-long programme, filmed in front of a live studio audience, Rosling takes on ambitious questions about the global population: What does the future look like? What are the challenges that we face? Should we be concerned? To answer this, he begins by busting common myths about the global population using 3D infographics that are projected as gigantic holograms. Fears about global overpopulation, according to Rosling, are driven by an outdated mindset that there is a dichotomy between the West (societies that are healthy, rich, educated, with small families) and the “Rest” (societies that are sickly, poor, uneducated, with big families). A typical university-educated Brit thinks the average number of children per family in Bangladesh is more than four, that only 40% of the world is literate and that the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has stayed about the same for the last 30 years.
Instead, the truth, paints a more optimistic picture since living conditions for people all over the world have improved immensely in the last 30 years. Today, families in Bangladesh have about 2.5 children, more than 80% of people in the world are literate, and the proportion of those living in extreme poverty has been cut in half. Population growth is actually slowing, according to Rosling, as health care improves worldwide which has reduced child mortality rates. Rosling tells us that improving child survival rates is the key since it stops population growth rather than fueling it. As it turns out, when babies are healthier and parents are wealthier, families stay smaller. Today, even poorer countries are following the same patterns of wealthier countries, by living longer and living in smaller families. Rising inequality within these countries means that extremely poor families, otherwise known as the “bottom billion” living on less than $1 a day, are still having more children. Rosling urges that to avoid global overpopulation the conditions of the world’s poorest have to be improved.
Although the programme does not provide new information, Rosling’s affable nature makes it enjoyable to watch. But this does not mean he is necessarily successful in assuaging fears about population growth. Demographic projections are inherently an inexact science relying on the assumption that tomorrow will follow today’s trend. Future population policies, wars, or medical breakthroughs can bring about demographic shifts, which not even Rosling can anticipate. In the 20th century, for instance, both the Baby Boom after WWII and the subsequent rapid fertility decline came as a surprise to demographers. But even if population growth does slow, the absolute population size will still be large enough to concern environmentalists about carbon emissions and the population’s disproportionate distribution in Africa and Asia will concern ethnocentrists in the “Old Western World” about demographic marginalization. But despite any uncertainty, Rosling urges everyone to stay calm. His advice is “Britain didn’t win WWII by panicking. Let´s be bold, determined and stick to the best of values.”