Lottery of birth
Lottery of birth

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Lottery of birth

4.1 Don’t panic: the truth about population

The statistician Hans Rosling has some interesting ideas about population change and whether or not, we, or our children and grandchildren, have anything to be worried about.

In the video below, Rosling discusses the distribution of wealth and the growth of population and asks some key questions about whether Africa can possibly respond to the forecasted growth in its population later this century.

Download this video clip.Video player: ou_futurelearn_birth_vid_1030.mp4
Skip transcript


Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to give you my all time favourite graph. I'm going to show you the history of 200 countries doing 200 years in less than one minute. I have an axis for income. I have an axis for lifespan. I start in 1800. And there are all the countries.
And back in 1800, everyone was down in the poor and sick corner. Can you see? Low lifespan, little money. And here comes the effect of the Industrial Revolution.
Of course, the countries in West Europe, they are coming to better wealth. But they're not getting much healthier in the beginning. And those under colonial domination don't benefit anything in there. They remain there in the sick and poor corner.
And now health is improving. Health is slowly improving here. It's getting up here, and we are coming into the new century. And the terrible First World War, and then the economic recession after that, and then the Second World War.
And now independence. And with independence, health is improving faster than it ever did in other countries here. And now starts the fast economic catchup of China and other Latin American countries. They come on here. And India is following there, and the African countries are also following.
It's an amazing change that has happened in the world. In the front here, we have now US and UK. But they're not moving so fast anymore. The fast movers are here in the mid. China is moving very fast to catch up.
And Bangladesh is already here. Now quite healthy, and now starting with fast economic growth. And Mozambique - yes, Mozambique is back there, but they are now moving fast in the right direction.
But all this I show you is concrete averages. What about people? Have people also got a better life?
I'm now going to show you something which makes me very excited as a statistician. I'm going to show you income distribution - the difference between people. And to do that, I take the bubbles back 50 years, and then we are going to look only at money.
And to do that, we have to expand and adjust the axis, because the richest is so rich and the poorest is so poor. So this will be a bigger difference between the countries. And what we do now is that we let the country fall down here - this is United States - and spread to show the range within the country. And I take down all the countries in the Americas. And now you can see from the richest person to the poorest person. And the height here shows you how many they are on each income level.
And now let's take down Europe. And on top of that, I'm going to put Africa. And finally, the region with most people on top of everything - Asia.
Now, in 1963, the world was constituted by two humps. First, the richest on this - it's like a camel, isn't it? The first hump here with the richest is mainly Europe and the Americas. And the poorest hump over here is mainly Asia and Africa.
And the poverty line was there. Can you see how many people there were in extreme poverty 50 years ago? And most of them were in Asia. People were saying Asia will never get out of poverty. Except that some people are still saying that about Africa today.
Now, what has happened? I start the world. And you can see that many people are born into poverty here. But Asia goes towards higher income, and one billion go out of extreme poverty this way, and the whole shape of the world changes. And the camel is dead. It's reborn as a dromedary.
And what you can see here is the variation from the richest - that is most people in the middle. And there's a much smaller proportion of the world now in extreme poverty. But be careful. It's been a lot of people - more than one billion people in extreme poverty. Now, the question is, can this move out of extreme poverty now continue for those in Africa and even for the new billions in Africa?
I think it's possible, even probably, that most countries in Africa will rise out of poverty, too. It will need wise action and huge investment, but it can happen.
The many countries of Africa are not all advancing at the same pace. A few are moving very fast. Others are stuck in conflict. But most, like Mozambique, are now making steady progress.
And what about feeding all the new African people in the future? Yes, there are shortages today. But there is also much potential here. Agricultural yields in Africa are just a fraction of what they could be with the better technology.
And Africa's rivers are barely tapped for irrigation. One day, Africa could hum with combine harvesters and tractors and grow food for many more billions.
And please, don't imagine it's just me who thinks Africa can make it. The United Nations is about to set itself a new official goal - eliminating extreme poverty within 20 years. Everyone understands it's a huge challenge. But I seriously believe it's possible.
When thinking about where all this leaves us, I have just one little humble advice to you. Beside everything else, look at the data. Look at the facts about the world, and you will see where we are today and how we can move forwards with all these billions on our wonderful planet.
The challenges of extreme poverty have been greatly reduced. And it's for the first time in history within our power to end it for good. The challenge of population growth is, in fact, already being solved. The number of children have stopped growing. And for the challenge of climate change, we can still avoid the worst.
But that requires that the richest as soon as possible find a way to set their use of resources and energy at a level that step by step can be shared by 10 billion or 11 billion by the end of this century. I've never called myself an optimist. But I do say I'm the possibilist. And I also say the world is much better than many of you think.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

In the next section you’ll consider Hans Rosling’s views in more detail and consider whether you agree or disagree with him.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371