A long view of world population

Posted on Wednesday, December 5th, 02007 by Stuart Candy
link Categories: Long Shorts   chat 0 Comments

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.

  • Ville

    That’s mostly the long view backwards. Remember the brilliant 2004 talk by Philip Longman about the depopulation problems ahead: http://blog.longnow.org/2004/08/17/philip-longman-the-depopulation-problem/

  • Monte Reitz

    I also remember on more than one occasion the topic of depopulation being addressed at a LongNow seminar. Isn’t the population tipping point thought to amass around 2020-2050?

  • The entire Zero Population Growth concept presents a dilemma because it looks on people as a liability rather than an asset. to society.The talk about the future of a lack of contributors to the American social security system is the direct result of the “depopulation” of younger working-age citizens from American society,…about 30 million of them,…by abortion since the 70’s. Had they lived, the overall “national age” of the U.S. population would be about 15 years younger than it is.

    Western Europe faces the same dilemma,…declining population growth among working-age people who contribute to the economic growth and stabilization of society, and their own future as they become retirees. Meanwhile, in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arab world, population is growing at a faster rate than their current societies can absorb, resulting in mass physical, social and economic displacement for both the “home” countries of these peoples, and the “host” countries trying to cope with the influx of “economic refugees.”

    Looking at the failed “ism’s” of the past,… Fascism, Nazism, Communism,…it’s easy to see the mass enslavement and exterminations practised by their leadership resulted in a historical lesson not to repeat using these types of “governments” for solutions.

    The late 20th-early 21st century experience with kleptocracies,…both the “sophisticated” kind on Wall Street and world markets and the more basic, brutal types in sub-Saharan Africa,….also offer no reasonable solutions. No, greed is NOT good.

    Taliban-style theocracies, while appealing to the easily-led, hyper-macho and disenfranchised, lack
    the societal staying-power needed to bring stability, sufficiency and success to an ailing planet.

    No,…the solution lies in a new, long-term paradigm that recognizes the REAL “wealth of nations” lies not in factories or mines or agriculture or information, but in effectively capitalizing on the greatest resource of every country in the world,…its’ people.

    India and China have started to recognise this,…that their people are the engine, the producers, the product and the customer-consumers of their own societies and the world. At certain points, China has even looked beyond its’ borders for labor and raw materials in other less-developed regions of the world,…Cambodia and Sudan come to mind….

    And, as all boats rise on an incoming tide, the general well-being of their people has risen a bit as well.

    The Global Guild for Human Survival, an NGO in its’ formative stages, is in the process of issuing for 2009 a list of the “economic values of human life” for each of about 200 nations around the world. Based on almost two decades of research, the organisation tallies the lifetime economic earnings impact of an infant born today who would live to roughly about 75 years based on today’s dollars. The values range from more than six million U.S. dollars for a baby born in Luxembourg to less than $20 thousand for a child born in the failed states of sub-Saharan Africa. The goal, however, is to have governments look upon their citizens long-term as assets to be nurtured to reach their fullest economic and social potential for that society, rather than as
    liabilities to the state in the short term. Only then can humans ascend to their rightful, God-given respected place as productive citizens in a stable, self-sustaining world.

  • Monte Reitz

    I also remember on more than one occasion the topic of depopulation being addressed at a LongNow seminar. Isn't the population tipping point thought to amass around 2020-2050?

  • Dave P

    World population growth isn’t accelerating, it’s decelerating, a pretty basic fact that one should be aware of before blogging about it. The animation says more about ZPG/”Population Connection”’s racist, anti-poor agenda than about population growth, ending just as annual numbers added start to fall, and depicting India and China in a deliberately alarming light compared to Europe or the US: I wasn’t aware for that matter that the Himalayas, the Gobi or the southern half of Siberia were about to become densely settled. A “visceral punch” founded on lies is worse than worthless. If you think this is a “sophisticated tool of macroscopic vision” then population growth is the least of your problems.

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