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A long view of world population

by Stuart Candy on December 5th, 02007

The job of the long view is to penetrate illusion. […] How can we see the insidious transformations of our own day? Slow science is part of it, applied history is part of it, and every year there are more sophisticated tools of macroscopic vision. One video going the rounds of the conferences shows the accelerating growth of human population on a world map; the sudden overwhelm in the last seconds makes audiences gasp in shock.

~Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now, 02000, p. 146

Despite some pretty clunky animation, by present standards, this 01990 version of the World Population video packs the visceral punch, the acceleration shock of a compressed long view.

A few notes:
(a) This version is from a TV broadcast and is bookended by talking heads; you can skip to the main event which runs 0:45 through 3:35.
(b) It’s produced by Population Connection, an advocacy organisation formerly called Zero Population Growth. In aid of driving home the point, it (perhaps unnecessarily) includes projected figures in the same breath as historical ones, which muddies things somewhat. A bit more about the video can be found on p. 18 of this pdf report.
(c) A more recent version, updated 02000 — but longer and no more compelling — can be found here. The main segment there runs from 1:40 through 6:00.

But what do we get out of this type of video visualisation? Gleick’s remarks on the ubiquitous curve of exponential increase may point us in the right direction…

You have seen [this] graph. You have seen it more than once. It depicts the long-threatened population explosion, or some kind of population explosion, plotted over a few centuries, or millennia, or any time scale at all. It represents the growth in computer ownership over the last two decades. The number of commercial Internet hosts rising over a mere four years. Software patents granted from 1971 to the present. Chest-pain emergency departments in the 1990s. Millions of instructions per second carried out by a matchbook-sized computer. Potential sexual partners. Mustards. Published words. Four-minute milers. Everything, it seems, that grows out of the interaction between human beings. The amount of stuff we do, divided by the amount of time available. […] If a graph can be a cliché, the graph for exponential growth has become a cliché.

~James Gleick, Faster, 02000, pp. 275-6

So, the main offer of a video such as this, is seems to me, lies not in its details so much as its broad approach to making the familiar strange — our unprecedented 6.5 billion population, for instance. In short, it makes the cliché of accelerating change shocking again.

Thus do we recover the long view.

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