Population Matters

Hans Rosling: great communicator, wrong on population

Hans Rosling: great communicator, wrong on population

Hans RoslingWe were saddened to hear of the death of Hans Rosling on 7 February 2017. He was a brilliant communicator and did much to help people understand issues surrounding health and international development. His very popular videos about population, however, gave a false sense of reassurance about the environmental and resource crises we face.

Here is the comment we posted when his high-profile BBC programme about population was first broadcast in 2013.

Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population

The BBC’s publicity outlines the argument made by Professor Rosling in his programme:

“Using state-of-the-art 3D graphics and the timing of a stand-up comedian, world-famous statistician Professor Hans Rosling presents a spectacular portrait of our rapidly changing world. With seven billion people already on our planet, we often look to the future with dread, but Rosling’s message is surprisingly upbeat. Almost unnoticed, we have actually begun to conquer the problems of rapid population growth and extreme poverty.

Across the world, even in countries like Bangladesh, families of just two children are now the norm – meaning that within a few generations, the population explosion will be over. A smaller proportion of people now live in extreme poverty than ever before in human history and the United Nations has set a target of eradicating it altogether within a few decades. In this as-live studio event, Rosling presents a statistical tour-de-force, including his ‘ignorance survey’, which demonstrates how British university graduates would be outperformed by chimpanzees in a test of knowledge about developing countries.”

Not reassured

Yes, the UN projects that the human population may well peak at around 11 billion in around 100 years, time. Yes, the UN is seeking to end extreme poverty.

We in Population Matters are not reassured.

That is because the programme failed to consider in any detail resource scarcity and depletion, environmental degradation and climate change.

Natural world under threat

The Global Footprint Network, in association with the WWF and the Zoological Society of London, tell us that humanity is already consuming renewable ecological resources at a rate 50% higher than can be produced sustainably, while non-renewables are steadily depleted. The consequences, which are already with us, are rising resource prices, and environmental degradation. These will of course be increased by a world population some 60% higher than the current level, as well as by rapid industrialisation of countries which have not yet done so.

We cannot be sure to what extent the consequences will be a gradual decline in living standards and quality of life or a series of economic and environmental crises. However, we can be reasonably sure that changes in technological use or affluent lifestyles will be insufficient to avoid one or both of these in the absence of early stabilisation in human numbers.

Birth rates

The programme reported a widespread fall in the birth rate and seemed to leave it at that. In fact, birth rates are increasingly diverse, both between and within countries. The programme acknowledged that birth rates are a variable, not a given – they are affected by a wide range of factors, including the provision of family planning services and clear messages that smaller families are better. Consequently, if we act now, we can reduce that population peak to the enormous benefit of mankind, other species and future generations.

Rosling may be a good statistician, but his understanding of the dynamics of birth rates and the environmental challenges we face is shaky. He assumes that ‘demography is destiny’ – that all current trends will continue. He ignores the facts that: while the proportion of people in poverty is shrinking, the actual number of such people in the high fertility countries is rising; the fertility decline he celebrates has recently stalled – the UN increased their 2050 projections by 300 million this year; the danger of discontinuities or ‘tipping points’, leading to a sharp increase in mortality, is visibly approaching (cf the ‘perfect storm’ foreseen by the last UK Chief Scientist); the reduction in fertility rates does not happen automatically, but has taken years of effort, resources and priority to achieve in developing countries; no non-oil country has achieved economic take-off until it reduced its fertility to three births per woman or lower; and the timing of countries’ achievement of replacement fertility radically affects their eventual population equilibrium number, which means there is great urgency in achieving it as quickly as possible.

A dangerous message

At worst, Rosling’s message – “The population problem is solved – don’t worry about it” could be dangerous. If the effect of his presentations and arguments was to persuade governments, both donors and recipients, to reduce the still inadequate priority they give to family planning and women’s empowerment programmes, the effects would be: to increase the number of unwanted births, unsafe abortions, maternal deaths, and stunted children; to increase the rate of planetary degradation and the probability of crossing a tipping point, with a rapid increase in premature deaths; to reduce the number of people, the Earth can sustain in the long-term; and to reduce the likelihood of all our children enjoying a decent quality of life. That is surely not Hans Rosling’s goal but it is the risk he runs.

For us, the lesson of the programme is not that the population problem is solved but that it is soluble if we take the actions required.