Review, Top Stories

The One-Sided Worldview of Hans Rosling

A review of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Flatiron Books (April 2018) 352 pages. 

Charisma and upbeat messages about global trends made the late Hans Rosling (1948–2017), professor at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, an international TEDTalk-star, listed among TIME Magazine´s “The World´s 100 Most Influential People” already in 2012. The posthumous book, Factfulness written with his son and daughter-in-law is now becoming a global bestseller. Bill Gates promises to hand it out to all US university graduates. Nature is full of praise: “This magnificent book ends with a plea for a factual world view. …Like his famous presentations, it throws down a gauntlet to doom-and-gloomers in global health by challenging preconceptions and misconceptions.” In Sweden, The Nobel Prize Foundation has teamed up with the Rosling family, announcing that it will “light up Stockholm every spring, in connection with the arrival of the light, with a new public education day in memory of Hans Rosling.”1

Unfortunately, Factfulness presents a highly biased sample of statistics as the true perspective on global development, avoids analysis of negative trends, and refrains from discussing difficult issues, such as the ecological consequences of the current type of growth and the risks related to the continued global population growth. A critical analysis of these shortcomings is the subject of this essay.

*    *     *

A review of Factfulness needs to start with acknowledging that it makes several positive contributions, for example a new perspective on global poverty and well-being. During his many lectures Hans Rosling observed that the audience had a view of the world that dated back to the 1960s: a small group of rich countries in Western Europe and North America were set in stark contrast to the overwhelming majority of poor developing countries throughout the rest of the world. Factfulness shows that this dichotomy is outdated and proposes a grouping of countries into four income levels, where each level represents a fourfold increase in income over the previous level. The starting point is $1/day at Level 1, then $4/day at Level 2, $16/day at Level 3, and $64/day or more at Level 4. According to Factfulness, about one billion people is today at Level 1 (extreme poverty). The majority, three and two billion are at Level 2 and Level 3, with access to electricity, some form of education, and healthcare. One billion people are “rich” and live at Level 4. In 2016, the World Bank officially accepted this grouping, after 14 years of Rosling’s lectures. The United Nations, however, still adheres to the dichotomy of developed and developing countries.

The claim of Factfulness, however, is not just to present some good news: “This is a book about the world and how it really is.” Do the authors live up to this bold claim? The short answer is no. My criticism concerns three major problems in the book:

  1. Its selection of statistics does not do justice to the complex and contradictory trends in global developments.
  2. Its silence on the preconditions and ecological consequences of the current techno-economic regime makes its analysis of the positive trends superficial and inconsequential.
  3. Its view on global population growth as unproblematic and impossible to influence is flawed and has potentially serious political implications

1. The Best of All Worlds?

Factfulness includes many graphs of “bad things in decline” and “good things on the rise” but not a single graph of bad things on the rise. One graph depicts the reduction in oil spills at sea, but there´s no graph on the accumulation of plastic debris in the oceans and its effects on birds and fish. There is a graph showing the decrease in hunger around the world but no graph on the spread of obesity, though the book in passim notes that this is one of the largest health problems in the world (moreover, in September 2018 the UN World Food Program reported an increase in the number of hungry people in recent years).

The authors present a graph indicating a reduction of smoke particles in the air (measured as a decline in sulfur dioxide per person), but no graph on diesel emissions or the overall air pollution in industrializing Asia, although its “brown clouds” have been known for decades. In India alone polluted air was estimated to cause 1.1 million deaths in 2017, an increase of 50 percent since 1990. The book contains graphs on positive changes in protected nature, and good news on the conservations status of a few flagship species such as black rhinos, pandas, and tigers. However, it contains no information on the drastic decline in global biodiversity including a widespread decline of virtually all wild vertebrates, which researchers describe as the sixth mass extinction.2 The problem of carbon dioxide emissions is mentioned but mainly to complain about the West. An EU environment minister is attacked for saying, “China releases more carbon dioxide than the United States, and India more than Germany.” Instead, the authors argue, the focus should be on emissions per capita. From the perspective of the planet, however, only total emissions count, no matter how they are divided. The fact that China now releases more carbon dioxide than any other country is, therefore, a real cause for concern. Furthermore, if the authors had examined per capita emissions themselves, they would have found that China’s emissions have surpassed those of most EU countries: 7.45 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person in China, compared to 6.4 tons for the EU as a whole. Still, the EU is working to reduce its emissions, while China is not. The book’s criticism of the EU environment minister thus falls flat on its face.

The authors attack what they describe as the erroneous notion of income gaps between countries, arguing that there is an income spread in every country and overlaps between countries. Yet the existence of variation in social variables is well known in social science, and it does not prevent the existence of socioeconomic gaps between countries. There is, for example, a significant gap between the average income in the United States ($67/day) and Mexico ($11/day). In Factfulness, the authors seek to visually eliminate this gap. Without explanation, they insert a logarithmic income scale in which each step reflects a tenfold increase over the previous level. This, they argue, provides a better idea of ​​the reality behind the numbers and they triumphantly exclaim: “Now the gap has almost disappeared.” This effect is of course trivial when a log scale replaces a conventional scale, and recalls the quip about “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The true difference between Americans’ $67/day and Mexicans’ $11/day remains, of course.

And so it goes on—with a selection of indicators that sometimes are correct and important, but often disregard contradictory evidence in a way that reduces the credibility of the book and the trustworthiness of its good news.

2. No Discussion of the Ecological Consequences of the Current Progress

Rosling’s interest in the long-term trends in health, education, and longevity permeates the book. However, there is no effort to analyze the techno-economic regime at the basis of these trends, and how its global diffusion is predicated on a massive increase in the use of fossil fuel and overall resource consumption. The authors cannot blame their omissions on the lack of data. Particularly relevant to Factfulness is the research by William Steffen and his colleagues on changes in industrial activities, resource use, and environmental impact since 1750. A remarkable finding in their studies is the acceleration during the last half-century, the period at the core of the story of progress told in Factfulness. In Steffen’s words: “We expected to see a growing imprint of the human enterprise on the Earth system from the start of the industrial revolution onwards. We didn´t, however, expect to see the dramatic change in the magnitude and rate of the human imprint from about 1950 onward.”3 The Great Acceleration, the name given to this period, was first identified in a book published in 2004 and its charts have since been updated to cover the decade up to 2010. The Great Acceleration illustrates a number of socioeconomic trends—population growth, urbanization, energy use, water consumption, fertilizer consumption, and transport. All have accelerated since 1950.

The same applies to the indicators that illustrate what the researchers call “earth system trends”: carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, methane emissions, marine acidification, loss of tropical forests, and terrestrial biosphere degradation. Almost every one of these trends is accelerating in a negative direction. The only exception is stratospheric ozone. The previous declining trend in the ozone layer—the so-called Antarctic hole—ceased in the 1990s thanks to the internationally binding Montreal Protocol (which received a strong support from the US president at the time, Ronald Reagan, but is now being eroded by the current President).

The Great Acceleration is reflected in an increasingly material-intensive and heavy civilization. In the period 1940–2015, for example, the production of copper rose from 2.4 million tons to 18.7 million, aluminum production rose from 0.8 million tons to 58.3 million tons, and iron production increased from 110 million tons in 1940 to 1,100 million tons in 2015. At the same time, carbon dioxide emissions from coal, oil, gas, and cement production multiplied. 4

Researchers from the Global Footprint Network summarize our use or abuse of the planet’s resources by calculating the Earth Overshoot Day. On this day, humans’ total consumption is considered to exceed the capacity of nature to rebuild the resources consumed during the current year. Thirty years ago, this day was calculated to be October 15. In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day occurred on August 1. There are several possible objections to this simple measure, but measurements of specific planetary boundaries arrive at similar results.5

A central assumption in Factfulness is that the economic growth underlying the Great Acceleration will continue to spread globally during the entire twenty-first century, when the world’s population is expected to increase by 50 percent. Should everyone enjoy an income at Rosling’s Levels 3 and 4, and the resource consumption of the people in these classes continue to rise as it has in the last 50 years, this will result in an eight- to ten-fold increase in global resource consumption and emissions. Is this at all possible? Or a better question: in what ways is it necessary to change the current techno-economic regime to make it possible to create a decent standard of living for the overwhelming majority of the world´s population?

For Factfulness these are non-questions. According to the authors, the key challenge now is for Western companies to take advantage of the new markets: “…if you work at a company based in the old ‘West,’ you are probably missing opportunities in the largest expansion of the middle-income consumer market in history, which is taking place right now in Africa and Asia. […] The Western consumption market was just a teaser for what is coming next.”

Factfulness infers this from its particular historical statistics, but an intellectually credible analysis of global trends cannot build on selective extrapolations.

3. Continued Population Growth: Inevitable and Unproblematic?

Global population development is an important theme in Factfulness and critical for the prospect of future sustainability, but the book´s analysis is misleading in several ways. The latest UN forecast, published in 2017, predicts that the world’s population will rise sharply. Today’s approximately seven billion people will probably grow to between ten and thirteen billion by 2100. According to Factfulness, there is no reason for worry: population will stabilize at the end of the century, and the key reason for this is that the current number of children is no longer increasing. Moreover, the authors argue, declining infant mortality is directly related to declining fertility: “More survivors lead to fewer people.”

All these statements—that the population will stabilize at the end of the century; that future population growth is determined by the current number of children; that lower child mortality leads to lower birth rates and population growth—are questionable.

First, the UN’s population forecasts are less stable than Factfulness suggests and have changed substantially since the beginning of the twenty-first century. This is especially true for the forecasts regarding Africa: in 2010 the UN predicted that the continent would have 3.6 billion inhabitants by the turn of the century; seven years later, the new UN forecast had increased this figure by 900 million to 4.5 billion. Moreover, new calculations based on Bayesian probability estimates show that uncertainty over forecasts of the world’s population in 2100 is greater than previously assumed. According to leading researchers, the likelihood of population stabilization is only 30 percent: “These predictions indicate that there is little prospect for an end to world population growth this century without unprecedented fertility declines in most part of sub-Saharan Africa.”6

Second, the UN reports do not show that the current number of children in the world determines future population growth. On the contrary, the forecasts emphasize that population growth is strongly dependent on future fertility. For countries with high fertility rates, “there is significant uncertainty in projections of future trends, even within the 15-year horizon of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development…. Fertility declines that are slower than projected would result in higher population totals in all subsequent time periods.”

Third, there is no causal link between lower infant mortality and lower birth rates. Factfulness presents Egypt as a “public health miracle,” as child mortality fell from 30 percent in 1960 to 2.3 percent today. The authors argue: “Now that parents have reason to expect that all their children will survive … a major reason for having big families is gone.” If they were correct, Egypt’s population would now have stabilized. Instead, the population increased from 70 million in 2000 to 97 million in 2017 and is expected to increase to 200 million by 2100.7 Other African countries display similar trends. In Niger, for example, child mortality has decreased by two-thirds since the 1980s. At the same time, birth rates have increased, leading to an expected population explosion.8

The combination of reduced infant mortality with high fertility and high population growth in Africa is an indication of the absence of any clear causal relationship between lower child mortality and lower birth rates. According to the latest UN forecast, Nigeria’s population will increase from 191 million in 2017 to 794 million to 2100, Tanzania from today´s 57 million to 304 million in 2100, and the Democratic Republic of Congo from 81 million to 339 million. How can this pattern with much higher birth rates than in Asia during its corresponding development phase be explained? Factfulness provides no answers; the book does not even mention the problem. Independent observers point to local norms that promote large families, religious resistance to contraception, and a tendency of political leaders to see a large population as a source of political power. According to Tanzania’s President John Mugufuli, for example, women who use contraception are lazy and should stop taking birth control pills, as the country needs more people.9 In the 1960s, many Asian economies started to change: growth increased, healthcare improved, schools expanded, and child mortality and birth rates declined. However, the transition from high to low birth and death rates did not constitute a causal chain where economic improvements reduced child mortality which lead to lower birth rates. Effective family planning played a big part in the decrease in fertility—from Iran to China and Korea. In China, fertility was halved before economic development took off, contributing to its rapid improvement in productivity and reduction of poverty. According to Guillebaud, lower birth rates usually precede improvements in prosperity, and these improvements accelerate when birth rates continue to fall. Many observers have criticized the reduced international support for effective family planning today, noting that only one percent of the current development aid goes to family planning. This has probably contributed to the continued high fertility in much of Sub-Saharan Africa which implies a serious drag on productivity growth and reduces the chances of eradicating poverty.

Ambivalence and Determinism

The treatment of family planning in Factfulness is ambivalent. On the one hand, the authors mention Iran’s “family planning miracle” where birth rates decreased from more than six children per woman in 1984 to less than two fifteen years later. According to Factfulness, this was related to investments in cheap contraceptives from the world’s largest condom factory and mandatory sexual education for young engaged couples. On the other hand, the authors do not draw any conclusions from this success, do not compare it with the so-called miracle in Egypt, and do not discuss how Iran’s strategy could be employed in other countries, for example, in the Muslim world.

When, a few years ago, Hans Rosling was queried about the most significant effects of the upwardly revised population forecasts by a journalist at a leading Swedish daily, he replied: “But it will be as it happens. It’s like asking how the world will be if the sun rises tomorrow. People are free and decide themselves. There is an idea that population increase is the problem, but it is a constant, it is impossible to do anything.”

This response resonates with a view in Factfulness of population growth as fundamentally unproblematic. The authors argue that everyone should have the same standard of living as today’s wealthiest billion but are silent on the questions of how the increase in population will affect the chances to reach this standard, and which problems it may cause regarding resource use, biodiversity, and global emissions. According to Crist et al.,10 the human population’s scale and current rate of growth are significantly contributing to biodiversity losses, and these will increase as revenue and resource consumption expand in today’s poor countries. Several researchers believe that, with climate change so close to a breaking point, it is necessary to reduce both our average (carbon-based) footprint and the number of new feet which will create new large footprints in the future.

The issue of population growth and resource extraction is not only about numbers, however, it is also about social equity: Paul Ehrlich, who together with Anna Ehrlich authored the often-misunderstood 1960s classic The Population Bomb, maintain that It is the combination of high population and high consumption by the rich that destroys the natural world.” Factfulness contains countless bubble charts on the diminishing differences between countries and continents, but it does not devote one chart to the growing inequality within countries, despite the abundance of statistics on this subject (such as the annual World Inequality Report).

If reading Factfulness has to be summarized in a single word, it would be “ambivalence.” It is hard not to be impressed by the energy and enthusiasm that permeate the book, with its stream of statistics regarding global improvements in vaccination, education, and longevity. Had the title of the book been Factfulness: A Book about the World’s Positive Changes, its one-sidedness would be less disturbing.

But Factfulness not only suffers from a selection problem. On a salient subject—the world’s population growth—the book is positively misleading. The authors argue that the expected 50 percent increase in the world’s population in the twenty-first century is determined by the current number of infants, cannot be influenced by policy actions, and that the rate of growth will level off by 2100. These arguments are not supported by the reports they refer to or the research on which those reports are based. Instead, these reports show that changes in birth rates over the next few decades will be very important for future population growth. In this case, as in many others, Factfulness tends to treat social issues with a gross economistic determinism. Thus the authors argue that the “male chauvinistic” values ​​in Afghanistan and other Asian countries are “patriarchal values​​ like those found in Sweden only 60 years ago, and with social and economic progress they will vanish, just as they did in Sweden.” Culture, identity, religion, historically based customs, legal systems, and institutions have no meaning; the economy determines everything.

The reputation of the Nobel Prize has been tarnished by the scandals at the Swedish Academy in 2017–18, and the scientific and medical scandal caused by the fatal windpipe transplantations at Karolinska.11 The Nobel Foundation seeks to improve its public profile by utilizing Rosling’s name for various public events, and supports the handout of Factfulness to all Swedish students when they leave senior high school. However, the propagation of a celebrity-based view on global development is a very different task from the Nobel Foundation’s primary role of letting specialized committees select and reward the best researchers in their academic disciplines. The Foundation´s close link with Factfulness runs the risk of backfire and could, in the end, damage its core scientific reputation.

This article is an abridged version of a much longer paper which can be found here.

 

Christian Berggren is a Swedish professor in industrial management. He has studied multinational companies, knowledge integration and innovation in technology-based firms, and research integrity and misconduct.

References:

1 Dagens Nyheter (Daily News), May 21, 2018.
2 Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P., Barnosky, A., García, A., Pringle, R., Palmer, T. 2015. Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction, Science Advances, Vol. 1, no. 5, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400253;
Pennisi, E. 2016. We’ve destroyed one-tenth of Earth’s wilderness in just 2 decades. Science Sept. 8.
3 Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch L., Gaffney, O., Ludwig, C. 2015. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, Vol. 2, 1, 81–98, p. 82.
4 Laestadius, S. 2018. Klimatet och omställningen (Climate-induced Transitions). Umeå: Borea.
5 Steffen et al. 2015. Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347 no. 6223.
6 Gerland, P., Raftery, A., Ševčíková, H., Li, N., Gu, D., Spoorenberg, T., Alkema, L, Fosdick, B., Chunn, J., Lalic, N., Bay, G., Buettner, T., Heilig, G., Wilmoth, J. 2014. World population stabilization unlikely this century. Science, 346, 234 – 237. s. 234, 235.
7 Nathans, J. 2017. Population growth: Help to make food go further in Egypt. Nature 546, 210.
8 Potts, M., Graves, A., Gillespie, D. 2017. Population statistics: Does child survival limit family size? Nature 542, p. 414.
9 Radio Sweden News 2018, Sept. 11.
10 Crist, E., Mora, C., Engelman, R. 2017. The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection. Science 356, p. 260 – 264.
11 Berggren, C., Karabag, S. F. 2018. Scientific Misconduct at an Elite Medical Institute, Research Policy, in press https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2018.03.020

76 Comments

  1. Carlton says

    So ironically, there are very few substantial facts in Christian Berggren’s article and he does nothing at all to disprove the facts in Rosling’s book.

    I can’t believe Berggren spends a whole section on “overpopulation” as a question. How many times does this chimera need to be debunked?

    • Morgan says

      It is no small achievement that he is forced to acknowledge any positive facts at all.

      But there is no possibility he will put aside or even question his anti-human, Malthusian views.

      • Trasch Clan says

        “there is no possibility he will put aside or even question his anti-human, Malthusian views.”

        “Anti … human … views?” Wait …. Wait …. OH NOOOOOO!

        I DID IT AGAIN!
        GROD CRAM IT!
        I SCROLLED TOO FAR AND LANDED IN THE COMMENTS SECTION … AGAIN!

        MY BRAIN IS SHRINKING! ARRRGGGGGH!
        I CAN FEEL IT! PUCKERING LIKE A PICKLED MUSHROOM!

        SOMEBODY, FOR THE LOVE OF PEANUTS THROW ME A LIFELINE! I’M STARTING TO FEEL LIKE BITCHING AND MOANING AND ARGUING WITH ANONYMOUS STRANGERS!

        There should be an inoculation against comments sections, like when you travel to [insert your least favorite country and feel guilty for your racism].

        See, this RIGHT HERE is why you should watch insipid TV, or porn, and not read. You might accidentally get excited by a curvy woman who turns out to have a dong or find out that Chelsea Handler exists; but at least no one ever says “anti-human views.” 😖

        I think “Rick and Morty” might fix this…

        • Morgan says

          @Trasch Clan

          Yes, evidently, you would like to censor comments. Particularly when every single one that speaks to your delusion is unequivocally anti-human.

    • Greg Maxwell says

      As many times as it takes for people to realize that the environment is affected by population, and the quality of life is affected by the relationship between population and resources. But keep pretending population size is never an variable . . . in your comfortable environment.

    • Dzoldzaya says

      The facts in Rosling’s book are cherry-picked; as with Steven Pinker, he’s making a case for human progress and, as with Pinker, he tends to neglect the environment, climate change and sustainability issues whenever they come up. It’s super frustrating because, for the most part, they’re doing a good job in informing people.

      In the Gapminder test, for example, following questions about the population distribution of the world and the number of kids in school, one of the questions is ‘how have the population numbers of tigers and giant pandas changed in the past decade’, to which the answer is: ‘increased!’. As if that’s a representative example of the state of biodiversity and the environment…

      Berggren referenced lots of articles that go into greater detail. He’s right that population concerns are ‘back in fashion’ in the development community since scholars have started to realize that trends are actually quite volatile and incredibly relevant to future issues; Nigeria is the classic example. The only ‘chimera’ of population growth is the Malthusian view that didn’t take agricultural innovation into account; all the other concerns mentioned in this article are all too real.

    • Elwood Wulf says

      Agreed. As soon as I hear the spectre of overpopulation being raised I tune out. It is fundamentally anti-human and quite likely a “compassionate” pretext for genocide of the poor. Hans by contrast cares so deeply about the poor he worked in many poor countries as a doctor for the WHO. The Swedish professor of management has less skin in the game by contrast. And he misses Hans point that the developing world represents huge market opportunities which businesses can best address by providing affordable products that add real value to their lives.

      • Margit Alm says

        Human overpopulation is the greatest single threat the planet faces today. To think otherwise is foolish and anthropocentric. Indeed, people who care for humans will also strongly support human population control. Human population grows at the expense of all other species, be these fauna or flora. We are all interconnected, one web of life and cannot live without the other. Rosling (and his disciples) tend to ignore that, perhaps deliberately because of their anthropocentric views that somehow humans are the most important species on the planet, when in fact they are the most dispensable one: remover them and see how the planet will flourish.

        Berggren delivered a very critique of the book. In the interest of balance I hope that the Gates Foundation in making Factfulness widely available, will also include critiques of the book.

        • It is not foolish. Why has human welfare increased as the population has increased? You cant be that stupid. All of human kind can fit into a city the size of Texas. All the greenery needed for everyone to breathe is the forest the size of California. You cant be that simple.

  2. Michael Lardelli says

    What a brilliant critique of the work of the Rosling family – particularly with its analysis of Hans Rosling’s mistaken statements on population growth and stabilisation. There is almost no better example of how humans seize conveniently ideas they want to hear in order to ignore reality than our attitude towards population growth. It is, ultimately, the greatest threat to our survival and the core driver environmental damage but we simply cannot admit it to ourselves. Filled with optimism for our future I am not….

    • Carlton says

      Nope. Overpopulation never was and never has been an issue. Countless papers on why.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Carlton
        What then do you consider to be a sustainable population? Or do you believe that population growth can be infinite?

          • Alan D White says

            Now explain how those Levittowners will get their homes, their jobs,and factories, their environment and and farms to Mars or the moon…

          • Not Bill Gates, So No Free Books! says

            “Not infinite, of course, Ray, but there’s a whole solar system out therwe waiting for Levittowns.”

            🙄

      • Factful Ostrich says

        “Nope. Overpopulation never was and never has been an issue. Countless papers on why.”

        Well there we go. An anonymous poster on an obscure comments board said it, so it must be true.

        I will choose now to feel better.

        • Carlton says

          Factful Ostrich, do you want a reading list? And will you read the literature on overpopulation if I provide one? Let me know. Otherwise, you are just noise.

          • Greg Maxwell says

            Yeah, you are the noise with your pronouncements and references to ‘literature’ as argument. Provide us with an argument in you own words and maybe we won’t think you are a troll with a big head who loves to believe “literature” is proof.

    • Stoic Realist says

      It is interesting to me how people like to take such an antiseptic view of the issue of ‘population growth’ and ‘stabilization’. It enables them to put several opaque layers of distance between them and the ground level fact that any plan to address it amounts to telling people that they do not get to choose whether to have a family or how many members to have in it themselves. Instead they must leave those choices to some designated individual or group who will tell them if they can have children and if so how many. Or, in the supposedly ‘cleaner’ sense they are to be ‘educated’ by ‘those who know better’ in such a way that their personal choices and the cultural factors that may influence them are adjusted to match the views that ‘those who know better’ feel they should hold.

      • @Stoic Realist – Well, if people are left to it, they are sure to overdose on too many people. Earth will resolve itself just fine, but human society could be in for serious conflict.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Stoic Realist

        Right. The alternative is of course what I call Africa’s three friends: war, famine and disease. People can control their numbers, or they can have others control them, or they can let mother nature do it her way, which tends to be harsh.

      • Morkus says

        exactly. leaving the enforcement of hard choices to others is a special human trait.

    • Lennart Edenpalm says

      Rosling has discovered that people like to hear nice things, that is why he is popular his rediculous ideas gives people without any critical thinking hopes for the future.
      If you tell them about the sad state of this planet they will not listen.
      All sane people knew the real problem is overpopulation. At the turn of the century there were 6127 millions which increased to 7349 millions 2015, in 2030 it is estimated to be 8500.

      • Elwood Wulf says

        Well Lennart, there’s a way to put your money where your mouth is on this topic by starting with yourself. The fact that you’re writing at all proves you do not have the guts to act out your own beliefs. So perhaps you should stop with the rationales for foisting them on entire populations.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @Elwood
          That is a substandard cheap-shot by Quillette standards. It does not follow that suicide is any answer because it would not make any difference. What we need is fertility control.

        • @Elwood Wulf

          Sure enough, if you wait long enough on one of these comment threads on a population issue, someone will trot out the old ” well if you are so concerned about overpopulation, why don’t you top yourself in order to start reducing the numbers?”.

          Idiotic. Infantile. No evidence or argument to be seen here.

  3. Reality Checker says

    Anyone still arguing about “carbon footprints” needs to take some courses in the hard sciences.
    The Earth is not a “greenhouse,” the half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 5 years, and CO2 increases FOLLOW natural warming trends, they don’t create them. While human influence may play some role in climate, so far its too small to measure. Furthermore, Rosling’s book is not about every unintended consequence, most of which are temporary. It’s about a more accurate outlook at long-term, big-picture trends. This reviewer has done nothing to “debunk” the book.

    • And that CO(I wish we still had a sub text choice)2 that is so very worrisome makes up less than 4 one hundredths of one percent of the gas volume around us. Also david of K’s post in reply to your post; it seems he’s not aware that CO(sub)2 is plant food.

  4. The fact that the book “…does not devote one chart to the growing inequality within countries…” is significant; this is at the heart of the worldwide dissatisfaction which leads many to turn to autocratic leaders who offer simple solutions. It is dangerous.

    • Because inequality is not an actual problem anymore than the fact there are tall and short people, or smart and dumb people, or hard-working and lazy people, etc.
      If you are paid $1/hour, and I am paid $10/hour, and you get a bump in pay to $2/hour and I get a bump in pay to $20/hour, we’re both twice as happy as before, but you’d suggest we’re worse off because the “gap” got bigger.

    • ga gamba says

      Call me skeptical if you like, but I doubt it’s only economic reasons, and specifically income (or wealth) inequality, that is “at the heart of … dissatisfaction.” Man is more than an economic animal. Moreover, is this dissatisfaction worldwide, regional, or occurring in a few prominent countries that tend to dominate the headlines globally? Turn on TV news or open a newspaper just about anywhere and there will be reports of the US, even long before Trump come on the scene, yet much less about other places. Attention on the US and few other major countries is amplified, perhaps even over amplified.

      Harvard sociologist Martin Whyte researches inequality in China and using the series of the World Values Survey, field studies, etc. he “discovered that the average Chinese citizen is not very angry about current inequality patterns or distributive injustice, and that in general Chinese are more enthusiastic about opportunities to get ahead and obtain what they deserve than are their counterparts in other societies.”

      We can identify several types of income inequality:

      1) Most everyone’s income is rising and those at the top are rising much faster than everyone else’s.
      2) Most everyone’s income is stagnant and those at the top are rising much faster than everyone else’s.
      3) The incomes of those at the bottom are falling and and rising for everyone else, with the top having the greatest gains.

      I think you can see where I’m going with this. Would you prefer to live in Cambodia with less income inequality or Canada with more? Someone may object by saying they’re not at the same level of development, and this is true, yet the objection is hollow if all we’re concerned about is income/wealth inequality. That’s the measure we’re fixated on. Perhaps we’re missing a lot of the picture. Maybe it’s because a lot of academics and activists are consumed with the subject of inequality that much focus is on it with the resulting mass media reporting.

      Returning to China, is it only because most everyone’s income are rising, albeit very unequally, that accounts for the low level of dissatisfaction? Dr Whyte thinks not. Though China under Mao was socialist, he says it was much more akin to serfdom. Those in the countryside, which was over 80% of the population, were stuck. You were locked to the land. Moreover, due to collectivisation you were stuck with many others than just your family, and aside from the squabbles, rivalries, and grudges many of these people were potential snitches. Tough to breathe free when you’re under observation constantly. Amongst the agricultural communes great inequality existed. Those that exceeded their gov’t-directed targets were able to acquire better quality services such as healthcare than those communes that struggled. The winners in the Maoist system were those allowed to live in the major cities. The rural areas existed to support them and these residents received the best package of services from housing to medical, education to cultural amenities. The communes became the dumping ground of those the gov’t deemed undeserving of city life. Nifty! Another city dweller who knows nothing about agricultural life that needs to be accommodated.

      Mao declares a Great Leap Forward and 20m country folk are moved to the cities – cities that were unprepared to handle the influx. The agriculture communes lost 20m workers whilst still having to provide for them, so meddling happens that results in the Great Famine. Fifteen million died. Or maybe it was 30 million. Numbers snumbers. That cockamamie experiment fails and the 20m are sent back. “What next will Mao attempt?” Eureka! The Cultural Revolution. Now there are millions sent to countryside, many of whom are ideologically possessed teenagers who are not simply shouty, they’re cruel and blood thirsty too.

      Traffic jams are bliss in contrast to that.

      “Well, China was an outlier.” Yes, things were extreme in China, but from decolonialisation to the collapse of communism much of the developing world suffered all kinds of mayhem and catastrophes. It’s been two to three decades – a generation – where stability and its attendant prosperity has been experienced, in fits and starts, by much of mankind. I think many of them are pleased, and perhaps even thrilled, by the ways things are progressing.

      I think we have to see many of the woes and whinges of North Americans and Western Europeans (excluding the Greeks, perhaps) are those of spoilt children going through a bit of adversity. The Great Recession? That was child’s play compared to the societal shattering of much of Asia in ’97 and ’98, the convulsions of post-Soviet Russia, and what’s taken place in Latin America.

      • Morgan says

        @ga gamba

        Indeed.

        It is puzzling how insulated the ‘Occident’ is when English-speaking press from dozens of countries is but a click away. Yet, the voices and concerns of most humanity are never heard by those in North America and Europe. Still, they claim to speak for all but their blatant, arrogant, and insulting ignorance only leads to the mistaken perception that the entire planet has nothing better to do than whine about AGW, immigration, or political correctness.

  5. All this reminds me of an argument oft lofted in libertarian circles: countries get cleaner as the get richer, so just focus on getting richer.

    Yes, countries often clean up their pollution when they get richer, but that cleanup entails lots of annoying and expensive regulations. Leaded gas went away because it was banned. We don’t see the air in cities any more because governments mandated scrubbers on smokestacks, and PCV valves and catalytic converters in automobiles.

    Wealth makes such expensive environmental regulation more affordable, but it doesn’t automagically make the pollution go away.

      • Morgan says

        @david of Kirkland

        Indeed.

        Always ignored by those that dismiss wealth and the extreme difficulty involving its creation is that what is desirable or even necessary has to be feasible first if it is to be accomplished at all.

        Poor countries compromise their environments because they have no choice, not because they are stupid, careless, or evil. Trees are massively felled and forests are devastated because coal is not available, for example. Once cheaper energy becomes available, forests are left alone. Same applies to arable land. Once yield is sufficiently increased, fields are gradually abandoned, perhaps reforested. And so on.

        Only those wealthy enough to fail to value wealth accept living in a pigsty. Generally speaking, as soon as humans can feed themselves, they trade for clean clothes and housing. Once that is accomplished, they proceed to straighten out their towns and cities. That eventually leads to the management of rivers and waterways which, consequently, involves the management of distant landscapes/environments.

        None of this is a mystery. It is, in fact, part of the history of every country that can be considered wealthy nowadays.

  6. ga gamba says

    The previous declining trend in the ozone layer—the so-called Antarctic hole—ceased in the 1990s thanks to the internationally binding Montreal Protocol (which received a strong support from the US president at the time, Ronald Reagan, but is now being eroded by the current President).

    OK, this is unclear. Is Trump eroding the Montreal Protocol? Vox, which I wouldn’t call a Trump supporting news organisation, reported about one year ago: “[T]he Trump administration declared its support for the Montreal Protocol last week when delegates from the 197 countries reconvened in the namesake city celebrate the agreement’s 30th anniversary and to discuss how to ramp it up.

    The administration even backed a new set of revisions to the treaty that would further ratchet down emissions of harmful gases that deplete ozone and warm up the planet.” (Emphasis mine.) […] And the treaty is still getting stronger. In 2016, parties to the Montreal Protocol met in Kigali, Rwanda, and hammered out the Kigali Amendment, which ratchets down emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), another class of refrigerants that warm the planet.

    The US backs the Kigali Amendment since it “represents a pragmatic and balanced approach to phasing down the production and consumption of HFCs,” according to Garber, but the revisions need approval from the Senate, and thus the United States was not one of the 20 votes that put the amendment over the top.

    It certainly doesn’t appear the destroyer of the world is eroding the Montreal Protocol.

    Perhaps another news source has the dirt: He [Trump] has even agreed to take a nearly 25 percent share of funding of over $500 million pledged by the developed countries to provide to the developing countries. The deal to provide $500 million over the next three years for the purpose was sealed in Montreal last week [final week of Nov 2017].

    That can’t be right, can it?

    The protocol has already achieved its goal of phasing out nearly 100 percent of millions of tonnes of more than 90 man-made ODSs [Ozone Depleting Substances] like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydro chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), used mainly in refrigeration, air conditioning, foams and solvents. The factories producing these chemicals have literally shut down.

    Major ODS like CFCs are also Green House Gases (GHGs). Thus, their phase-out under the Protocol has, as a side benefit, also resulted in the permanent cumulative emission reduction of GHGs […] Developed countries will start reducing HFCs as early as 2019, while developing countries will start later. Phasing down HFCs under the Protocol is expected to avoid up to 0.5 degrees of global warming by the end of the century, while continuing to protect the ozone layer. If the energy efficiency improvements due to use of non-HFCs in refrigeration and air conditioning appliances are taken into account, then the avoided warming would be even more. That will be equivalent of achieving at least 25 percent of the objective of the Paris pact.

    Spitfire! Trump the deceiver actually did something to reduce global warming? But he promised he wouldn’t! My gob is smacked.

    Could Mr Berggren be alluding to the Paris Agreement? I would think not because, as he surely knows, Montreal being a treaty makes it binding unlike Paris, a mere agreement bereft of anything binding other than an annual cash transfer from the developed world to the developing one which includes China. (After you export your industries and your wealth to it, Beijing will allow you the privilege of paying it to clean up. Nifty trick, that one. Golly, how was Trump not bamboozled like all the others? He must be stupid.) Paris has non-binding emissions targets and it bets on the force of rising norms and expectations rather than law to achieve its aims. Developing countries,
    which accounted for roughly 45 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions in 1990, account for over 60 percent today and are projected to account for roughly two-thirds by 2030. China’s emissions were about one third the size of the United States’ in 1992, but are about twice the size now. Yet the onus is on the developed world. It’s a global without a global solution. Given that Paris is a giant nothin’ burger, and one that isn’t about the ozone layer to boot, I doubt Berggren was referencing Paris.

    What could it be??? Obviously the dig about Trump eroding the Montreal Protocol by not giving it strong support can be substantiated. But how?

    Or perhaps there are many developing countries and their activists who are upset that $100 billion per annum they had in their grasp until the end of the century is potentially slipping away. Gosh, that would suck.

  7. Nicholas Conrad says

    Really? A run-of-the-mill neo-malthusian critique? Nothing new or interesting here.

    • Nothing new or interesting, other than that the smug “population must not be talked about and anyway the whole issue will take care of itself by demographic transition” position of those who position themselves as unwaveringly anti-Malthusian, may turn out to be… well, wrong!

      For example they may be wrong in thinking that ‘we’ (as a global human population overwhelmingly dependent on a fossil-fueled technological civilisation) may already be in overshoot and thus our numbers will be too great to sustain once either resource shortages or climate impacts disrupt major chunks of our globalized supply chain.

      And they may be wrong in thinking overall global population numbers will gracefully peak at around 9 to 10 million (or less) with no policy intervention whatsoever. The alternative, of continuing increase to 12 million and beyond, is considered possible by the relevant UN agency.

      And they are in fact wrong in thinking that the small reduction so far in the annual rate of global population growth (but NOT a decrease in the annual increase in the numbers of people, which is 80 million extra per year and will remain so for decades) was all achieved by ‘demographic transition’, when in fact family planning programs have played a major part.

      Apart from that, nothing to see here…..

      • Nicholas Conrad says

        I never said any of that, but good on you for spending your free time with this creative writing. Keep it up, you might have a science fiction career in your future, distopianism is very popular these days, and try to add a teenage love triangle, I know how much you think derivative work counts as ‘new and interesting’. I’m getting a sort of a maze runner meets twilight vibe from you.

        • Nigel, once we get beyond the snide put-downs, I would be interested to know what you actually DO believe……

  8. This article is a transparent strawman. Rosling was intending to counteract a deep misunderstanding of world health issues in popular culture, and how we can do better. He correctly describes how badly most people understand the current state of the world, and that careful collection and analysis of DATA is how we improve our thinking. Professor Berggren appears to have taken offense at the optimistic tone of the book and decided to point out that there are still things that aren’t perfect in the world. He comes across as a curmudgeon, and not a deep-thinking one.

    • Ok, let’s get this straight: Rosling tried to correct one set of popular misunderstandings about the world with a new set of misunderstandings?

      And, for good measure, DATA is something that must instill optimism? Otherwise, don’t bother me with bad news (bad DATA) which might turn me into a curmudgeon.

  9. peterschaeffer says

    The critique of Hans Rosling has merit. However, sometimes the author goes to far.

    The Mexico/USA comparison is flawed. The cost of living is a lot lower in Mexico than in the USA. Per-capita GDP in Mexico is around $17,740 per person (PPP adjusted). Per-capita GDP in the USA is around $60,200 per person (also PPP adjusted). That a ratio of 3.39. The article uses a ratio of 6.09.

    Stated differently (but correctly), the $11 in Mexico goes further than same amount of money in the USA.

  10. Farris says

    “There is a graph showing the decrease in hunger around the world but no graph on the spread of obesity…”

    This is a joke right? This is akin to saying, “we haven’t discussed the problems of too much disposable income once poverty is eliminated.”

    “Paul Ehrlich, who together with Anna Ehrlich authored the often-misunderstood 1960s classic The Population Bomb, maintain that “It is the combination of high population and high consumption by the rich that destroys the natural world.”

    One has to admire how flat out wrong becomes “misunderstood”.

    This critique can be summarized as follows:
    “How dare Rosling step upon all the doomsday predictions used to justify central planning and collectivized thinking. Doesn’t he know the world will go to hell in a hand basket, if the elites do not map the future for the poor ignorant masses?”

  11. Obesity just isn’t the same sort of “problem” as malnutrition. Nearly all people can fix this problem on their own just by following a sensible diet and exercise plan. There’s no government force feeding; there’s no coercion at all. Self-inflicted “problems” aren’t actually problems, just choices you don’t agree with. That’s very different than not having enough food to eat.
    And while you can quibble with some bad things like air pollution, they are known to resolve themselves as countries gain wealth, and progress makes everything less polluting than it once was (like people pretend humans don’t pollute, but sanitation fixed it, and horses polluted all over the streets until cars replaced them), so more general stats like longer, healthier lives proves the good is outperforming the bad.
    Income gaps between places requires that you consider cost of living. And besides, that some people have more doesn’t mean you have less. No rich person forcibly took anything from anybody unless they are related to a government or a corporate monopoly protected by government.
    Are you really going to compare problems of dirty air and too much too food with wars, famine, communicable diseases and despotic regimes?
    All the problems you mention are real, but they pale compared to the problems before, and they are likely solvable just as the problems of population and nukes and oil and new ice ages and whatever else others have predicted to be the end of the world.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @david

      ” And besides, that some people have more doesn’t mean you have less.”

      Unfortunately on a finite planet that is simply impossible. Coltan is already in desperately short supply. If someone has more of it, someone else will have less. Several ‘strategic’ minerals are going to run short in the not too distant future. I once read that there is not enough copper in the crust of the earth to provide everyone with the level of electrification the West enjoys if population growth continues. Yeah, we’ll come up with technological workarounds for some of these problems, but all of them?

      • peanutgallery says

        The best solution is that we need to work on expanding past Earth. There is no chance we can get all countries to cooperate anyway. We need to get off this rock and colonize the solar system before it’s too late. It’s a very hard project though.

        There is no new land to expand to, if I want freedom, the best plan would be to move somewhere free. The American Experiment brought on by the Enlightenment is almost over. The Dis-Enlightenment is here, but where would I escape to?

  12. Circuses and Bread says

    Wow. What a pessimistic article. I can certainly understand pessimism as it relates to politics. That’s a bottomless pit of misery, evil, and despair. The world is doing pretty darn well all things considered. We aren’t starving, live spans are increasing, and generally speaking we’re better off physically and economically than at any other time in history. Why do we seem to want to lament and focus on the negative?

  13. E. Olson says

    For all of human history, people on the bottom of the income distribution struggled to afford adequate caloric intake to avoid starvation and ill-health, but today obesity is a problem among the low income – hurrah we have solved one of the oldest problems of human existence. Yet Professor Berggren wants to rain on our parade because he thinks income inequality is a growing problem for today’s poor who now have enough money to get fat, but apparently not enough to over-consume other natural resources. On the other hand, Professor Berggren also thinks over-population is a growing problem because too many people will cause millions to starve to death just like “misunderstood” Professor Ehrlich predicted in 1968, but won’t mass starvation also solve the obesity and resource depletion problem he is so worried about? On the other hand, my understanding of Professor Ehrlich is that he predicted we would all be dead by about 1985, and when we weren’t all dead by the 1980s, NASA Professor James Hansen predicted we would all be dead by the end of the 20th century if we didn’t immediately stop burning carbon-based fuels. Must be disappointing for all these famous professors to always be wrong.

    • Circuses and Bread says

      @E. Olson

      Oh no. Looks like we’re doomed. DOOOOOOMED!

      I never could quite puzzle out why some are so attracted to doomsday scenarios. Maybe they’re just not happy unless they’re unhappy.

  14. I wonder how Stephen Pinker and the Human Progress website might respond to this.

    But heaven forbid I or anyone else should try to interfere with anyone’s fundamental right to despair, particular a Swedish professor’s!

    • Circuses and Bread says

      @johntshea

      I was not aware of Stephen Pinker or the Human Progress website. Thanks!

      ****PSA for Quillette comments: please consider putting down references, worthy reads, smart websites, good songs, titles of compelling art, etc that is relevant to the discussion. There are far more people reading your comment than responding to it. And those of us who are not as well educated appreciate having a trail of breadcrumbs to follow****

  15. Thank you for your detailed and, I’m convinced, on-target review. One of the major problems I had with Factfuflness is that Rosling’s scale for the four income levels is non-linear. The gaps are very large indeed, although he wants us to believe they aren’t. The fact that only 1/7th of the world’s population lives at Level 4 is criminal. It does NOT have to be this way, but Rosling’s depiction of an “everything is okay” world is too accepting of the situation. His incremental and gradual approach to correcting the income inequity makes me ill. Righteous indignation and immediate, forceful action is needed or change will never occur.

    • ga gamba says

      Indeed. Transfer the wealth. You first.

      Will force been needed or will you comply with the directives of the righteously indignant?

      • E. Olson says

        I believe Rick is a member of the Democrat/Leftist club that follows the adage: Don’t tax me, don’t tax thee, tax that fellow behind the tree. Leftists are always generous with other people’s money, but somehow are never quite rich enough or have enough time to donate either to a good cause besides protesting the evil Republican/Right who are actually the disproportionate payer of both taxes and charitable donations. It is also amazing how the “higher tax” Left are always the ones going out of their way to avoid paying taxes – almost Governor of Georgia Abrams owes the IRS $50K, John Kerry moved his yacht to another state of avoid paying Taxachusetts taxes, Willie Nelson didn’t pay taxes for years, Warren Buffet is still fighting tax assessments from 10-15 years ago, the Clinton Foundation was a total tax avoidance scam, etc. etc., and yet they always tell the rest of us how its our patriotic duty to pay taxes.

        • Paolo Scussolini says

          Do you have a source for the claim tha republicans pay more taxes(collectively or per capita)? I am genuinely interested but couldn’t find anything reliable.

          • E. Olson says

            Paolo – here is one link – 60 to 80% of welfare recipients are Democrats. Also the bottom 50% (approx.) of the income distribution does not pay any federal income taxes, and the bottom half is heavily represented by Democrat constituencies – blacks, Hispanics, university students, and single women. On the other hand, the very top of the income distribution tends to also be heavily represented by Democrats, but they are also among the most adept at using loopholes to avoid paying their “fair share”, which is why they had a hissy fit when the Trump tax reform capped the ability to deduct state income taxes and property deductions from federal income tax calculations.

            https://wallstreetpit.com/89671-are-welfare-recipients-mostly-republican/

        • Paolo Scussolini says

          Thanks for the link. That shows that most recipients of welfare are democrats, which is entirely unsurprising. I wouldn’t actually be surprised even if most were republicans, because there is surely a coherent logic also in protesting welfare while receiving it.
          But do you actually have anything about your claim above republicans disproportionately paying taxes?

    • It may be that the ruling class and their apparatchiks have always amounted to about 1/7 or less of any identifiable population. That is a common estimate for the number of peers and gentlemen in England in the 1630s, if you include the commoner gentlemen of trade and the professions in the ruling class.

      The ruling class is permanent, as it must be. But the economy of tomorrow appears to have no use for manual and unskilled to low semi-skilled labor. So the question is: “if the global population can grow to 10 billion and if the 1/7 number is something of a constant for any ruling class, what are the 8.6 billion people who are going to be limited to less than high end semi-skilled labor going to do if there is nothing for them to do but eat, sleep, get sick and eventually die?

      They won’t own much beyond the shirt on their backs; they won’t form families and they will be simply dependent on the largess of the ruling class. They will play video games, watch pornography, complain about their circumstances, drink alcohol and do drugs. This has been the trend in the US since 1970. Things are not getting better, they are getting worse.

  16. Paolo Scussolini says

    I very much enjoy that Quillette has room for opinion A and opinion anti-A. Many interesting reflections in this one. That said, the piece largely exaggerates plausible critiques of Factfullness (which I have not yet finished reading). It basically boils down to nagging about the Roslings not having dealt with everything in their book. Pretty much the main critique levelled at The Better Angels of Pinker.

  17. Colin Wright says

    To further explore some of the issues raised in this article, notably overpopulation and climate change, I suggest reading the recently released, “Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change,” by Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak. It catalogues the literature on overpopulation pre-Malthus to the present day and discusses the premises that underlie the catastrophist points of view regarding both overpopulation and climate change. They suggest there are two camps, pessimists and optimists, and their analysis would likely position Rosling in the latter. They argue that, to date, population tipping points have all been exceeded while the associated consequences have not been realized and they also agree with Rosling that there is no policy solution to the problem. They suggest that the inventiveness of mankind, technology and an ability and willingness to trade make it possible for humans to adapt to problems and improve quality of life while vaulting past perceived resource limits or a supposedly finite global carrying capacity.

    • Before anyone does read the suggested ‘Population Bombed!’ book, please be aware that the lead author, Pierre Desrochers, is associated with the right wing climate denial think tank, the Fraser Institute. In addition, the book is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate denial think tank in the UK. So if you prefer not indulge in the fantasies of climate change denial, you may like to give this book a miss.

      For further background see https://www.desmogblog.com/global-warming-policy-foundation

  18. lloydr56 says

    Ever since at least Rachel Carson, the environmentalist critics of capitalism have not really wanted less technology, but what they consider better technology: perhaps cleaner, more healthy (better for us), having less or better impact on the natural world. This always turns out to mean more or newer technology–wind turbines killing bats and birds, de-forestation for the production of bio-fuels, etc. As if to keep a clear conscience: oppose nuclear power and GMOs, I’m not sure quite why. Only a fool would predict that we won’t run out of things we need, but we need to recognize that human ingenuity can do a lot, and: running out of crude oil? What about methane?

  19. Charles Berger says

    Well, I hesitate to even begin here, after reading the comments above. It seems there is little room for a nuanced conversation here, nor even for a bit of civility to one’s conversation opponents. It seems there are lots of people here who want to immediately ascribe the very worst ideological extremism to anybody who suggests something slightly different from their own opinion…

    Nevertheless, here goes:

    On population, I led an effort at the Australian Conservation Foundations some years ago to develop a shared platform on population issues. It was hard, we spent a year on it at least, and even within the campaigners and Council members at ACF there were a huge range of perspectives – all the way from “overpopulation is the biggest threat to the environment” to “the population issue is a furphy at best, a trojan horse for racism at worst.” Many of these conversations were rather heated.

    In the end, through some intensive dialogue and mutual learning, we developed a position that everybody could live with, and that some of us were proud of. It avoided extreme positions, was moderate – focused on encouraging more Australian support for family planning initiatives and women’s empowerment in areas of the world that needed and wanted it, encouraged a very modest reduction in Australia’s net migration levels, and highlighted the need for strong reductions in ghg pollution and other environmental pressures, given the inevitability of population growth during the 21st century.

    Trying to put forward this moderate position into a highly polarised debate (this was around 2010) was extremely challenging. We were always being attacked as either sell-outs, or prophets of doom.

    You can agree or disagree with those propositions. My point is that there should be some room for moderation and civility in these dialogues. There is a middle ground between full bore techo-optimist and gloomy neo-Malthusian caricatures.

    • My Mum used to joke that she had one baby on each method of birth control she tried. The birth intervals went from 15 months to 36 months, when after 5 she had a tubal ligation. In the 1960’s she was practising medicine in rural India. She got some Lippes Loops fro Ford Foundation – because of the Catholics and Muslims, none of the UN associated development programs permitted any birth control offerings. All of a sudden, instead of little sponges soaked in home made vinegar, there was something that worked.

      Mum was not into advertising, but word spread fast around the women. Some of the first were young women whose first baby had benefited from antibiotics. What they wanted was to delay the next pregnancy. If you try working the fields and carrying water when pregnant, or with a nursing baby in a sling in the nearest shade, you would understand. When with further development, you do not need a son and a spare as your only old age security, the birth rate falls even further.

      The situation in much of Subsaharan Africa is very different. Rather than a generation of peace after a more or less peaceful Independence, and a more or less democratic government, there have been little and big tribal and resource wars for the past half century. The current panic about Africa is because families are not reliably getting smaller as deaths from disease and starvation falls. You need civic stability as well as health to be confident that having one son or daughter is sufficient.

      Pontificating about the ‘urgent need to control population’, mostly aimed at Africa and Muslim countries needs to recognise 1) the need for stable governments and 2) the support the Muslims are getting from Rome for their religious anti-birthcontrol attitudes.

      In the 1970’s Sanjay Gandhi started a brutal campaign to sterilize men and women, particularly the illiterate and poor (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-30040790). This kind of population control seems to be what the Left wants. Is there anyone who would support such an approach in Africa and Muslim countries? It sometimes sounds as if the ‘population alarmists’ do.

      • @Fran

        If you look into this a little more, I think you will find there is no responsible population action/ lobby group (anywhere that I know) that is calling for compulsory sterilization or any other kind of family planning that is not based on thorough individual consent and human rights.

        Yes there were some definite coercive campaigns in the past, particularly in India (and in China if you include the one child policy). And we must learn from those tragic mistakes. But most family planning efforts around the world have been and continue to be based on education and individual choice.

        As for the attitudes on the ‘left’, I think you will find that there is a strong contingent of the ‘progressive left’ who define themselves as ‘anti-Malthusian’ and do not see unlimited population growth as a problem. But there are others on the left who do see it as a problem and support policies to stabilise if not gradually reduce population.

  20. Charles Berger says

    There probably are some on the left who want coercive population control. I don’t know any of them. OK, maybe one. But most thoughtful people who are worried about population growth advocate investment in education and family planning – the same sort of things that worked in Iran, Thailand, etc.

    I visited northern India some years ago to study population and environmental issues. It was a short trip, 6 weeks, and I don’t pretend to expertise. I do know that I didn’t meet a single person – in formal meetings or on the street – who thought Northern India’s population growth was a good thing.

  21. @Charles Berger

    Thank you for your contribution. The work that you and your group did for ACF was excellent, in my opinion. It is still definitely well worth reading and is available at the following link:

    ‘Key Threatening Process Nomination: Human population growth in Australia,’ 22 March 2010.
    http://population.org.au/articles/2018-07-29/growth-squeezes-species

    To achieve some sort of dialog between ‘Malthusian’ and anti-Malthusian camps is a great achievement, not far short of squaring the circle.

    It is a pity that the discussion today continues to be based on superficial stereotypes and clichés.

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