The End of the Population Pyramid

The issue of overpopulation has been a bugbear of the popular imagination for decades, and remains so especially into the 21st century, when humanity crossed its seven billion mark — unprecedented in both size and scale of growth (consider that while it took millennia for humanity to finally reach a billion only in 1804, it took just another two centuries to hit seven times that number).

Given all that, it is perfectly understandable why people would be concerned about the impact such rapid growth is having on everything from the environment to global food supplies and energy resources (to say nothing of the subsequent social, political, and economic instability that results from such strains).

But as the following video from The Economist shows clearly, the global population — though set to grow by another two billion by 2042 — has already begun slowing down in its rate of expansion.

An excerpt from the original article nicely sums up the visual data:

 The pyramid was characteristic of human populations since the day organised societies emerged. With lifespans short and mortality rates high, children were always the most numerous group, and old people the least. Now the shape of the global population is changing. Between 1970 and 2015 the dominating influence on the global population was the fertility rate, the number of children a woman would typically bear during her lifetime. It fell dramatically over the period, meaning that the world shifted from having larger to smaller families. The age groups start to become markedly smaller only about the age of 40, so the incline starts much further up the chart than with the pyramid. The shape looks more like the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Between 2015 and 2060 the biggest influence upon the population will be ageing. Small families are already becoming the norm, the fall in fertility is slowing down and now almost everyone is living longer than their parents—dramatically so in developing countries. So, by 2060, the dome will have come and gone and the shape of the population will look more like a column (or perhaps an old-fashioned beehive).

In other words, barring any sort of unlikely massive uptick in the global birthrate, humanity is currently entering its peak of population: shortly after hitting nine billion, growth will begin to stagnate as the number of people of childbearing age declines.

Indeed, a map of fertility rates by nation shows that most of the world’s countries (many of them developing) are already experiencing slowing, stagnating, or even shrinking populations.

Total fertility rates as of 2013. Courtesy of Wikipedia / CIA World Factbook.

Keep in mind that a fertility rate between 2-3 (green) is considered the sweet spot for stable growth: any lower and you face rapid population aging followed by, and concurrent with,population shrinking (unless immigration is high enough to offset the difference); any higher, and populations grow too quickly for resources and institutions to accommodate. Both circumstances bring their own challenges and issues, which in turn vary from country to country.

But note how the majority of the world’s population growth is taking place in the developing world, especially in Africa (where not a single country has a total fertility rate of less than 2. Indeed, as The Economist video showed, 90 percent of the world’s youth will be living in emerging economies, with Africa having more young people than any other continent.

Conversely, it is mostly mid- to high-income countries whose fertility and birth rates are low, and whose populations have already begun stagnating, if not shrinking. The few exceptions — namely the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Ireland, and France — are growing mostly due to immigration and the subsequent increase it brings to the birthrate (since immigrants tend to have more children than native-born individuals).

The following map shows the population growth of the world’s countries by percentage between 2000 and 2010.

Courtesy of Wikipedia / United Nations. Note: data vary by source.

Notice again a similar pattern: broken down by country, most of the world is seeing low to negative population growth, even if the world as a whole is growing. Basically, the global population is growing highly unevenly, with a relatively small number of countries making up the lion’s share of total growth.

Moreover, as the video showed, much of this population “growth” is really a reflection of more people living longer: previously, population stabilized or shrank because enough people would die by the time the next generation came of age to have children. But as more people stick around longer, even the effects of a low birthrate will not be felt since so many people remain.

Hence why countries like Germany and Japan — which have long had some of the lowest fertility rates, and thus fastest-aging populations, in the world — did not begin to experience stagnation or decline until decades later. Their peoples are also among the longest-lived (note that higher immigration as of late has lead to modest but noticeable growth in Germany).

So what is the significance of all this? Well, there are many issues and challenges facing the world now and in the future as population dynamics rapidly change. Frankly, I do not have time to get into the larger social and economic ramifications of having whole societies without enough working-age adults; too many older people strains social security systems

But with regards to the most commonly cited concern — that of overpopulation straining resources — the solution is simple to recognize but difficult to implement: more efficient allocation of resources on a global level.

There is plenty of capital, food, and energy in the world to go around, but most of it is concentrated in and consumed by a wealthy few nations (and within those nations in turn, by a wealthy few people). Finding a way to allocate such resources to where it is needed most would lift hundreds of millions from poverty.

Consider that food output is well above what is needed, but that chronic malnourishment afflicts hundreds of millions of people — especially in fast-growing populations — because much of that food does not go to the poorer parts of the world, and 40 percent is wasted altogether. (To further underline this misallocation, in recent years the number of overweight and obese people in the world has outnumbered the malnourished.)

Moreover, shrinking wealthy countries could benefit from taking in the younger workers overflowing fast-growing poorer nations — as several immigration-friendly nations are experiencing — but there is (and would be) much resistance.

Perhaps as the world continues to develop its global consciousness — and with it the necessary global institutions to implement such policies — we will find a mutually beneficial way address the mismatch in demographic changes. There is a lot more to this topic that I have not touched on given my time constraints, but as always I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

The Last Hero

Russian Veteran (James Hill)

The Last Hero, Gorky Park, Moscow, May 9, 2007. Credit: James Hill.

The Atlantic adapted Hill’s account of this shot (and others) from his new book, Somewhere Between War and Peace, which chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s work across the world.

Of the hundreds of Russian World War II veterans I have photographed, Yuri Stepanovich Zaguskin remains for me the most charming.

Members of the public traditionally give flowers to the veterans, in gratitude for their valor and sacrifice, and Zaguskin, resplendent in his naval officer’s uniform, had already collected a sizable bouquet by the time he entered the park. I asked him to stand in front of the white backdrop I had set up, and since I needed a minute to change my film, he asked if there was time for a smoke.

When I had reloaded the camera, he was still puffing away. I took just one frame before he noticed that I was pointing the camera at him, whereupon he stubbed out the cigarette and returned his attention to the shoot. I finished the whole film, but that first image, in which he was looking off, lost in his thoughts, was far richer than the others. It was not a naval officer in front of me but an old matinée idol, caught unawares on the set.

I cannot get enough of how much personality there is in this photo. I wager that this man has no doubt lived an interesting life, even beyond his highly decorated service during history’s largest conflict.

Africa Rising

When one thinks of Africa, prosperity and progress rarely come to mind. In the minds of most Westerners especially, the name conjures up chronic instability, strife, poverty, and (more so lately) disease. But the people of Africa — incredibly diverse and culturally rich — are nothing if not resilient, and they have endured these widespread (though often exaggerated) hardships with remarkable tenacity and perseverance.

The end result is a broadly improved outlook for this fast-growing continent’s future, whose vast potential already being realized, according to a special report by The Economist:

War, famine and dictators have become rarer. People still struggle to make ends meet, just as they do in China and India. They don’t always have enough to eat, they may lack education, they despair at daily injustices and some want to emigrate. But most Africans no longer fear a violent or premature end and can hope to see their children do well. That applies across much of the continent, including the sub-Saharan part, the main focus of this report.

African statistics are often unreliable, but broadly the numbers suggest that human development in sub-Saharan Africa has made huge leaps. Secondary-school enrollment grew by 48% between 2000 and 2008 after many states expanded their education programmes and scrapped school fees. Over the past decade malaria deaths in some of the worst-affected countries have declined by 30% and HIV infections by up to 74%. Life expectancy across Africa has increased by about 10% and child mortality rates in most countries have been falling steeply.

A booming economy has made a big difference. Over the past ten years real income per person has increased by more than 30%, whereas in the previous 20 years it shrank by nearly 10%. Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent just now. Over the next decade its GDP is expected to rise by an average of 6% a year, not least thanks to foreign direct investment. FDI has gone from $15 billion in 2002 to $37 billion in 2006 and $46 billion in 2012.

Many goods and services that used to be scarce, including telephones, are now widely available. Africa has three mobile phones for every four people, the same as India. By 2017 nearly 30% of households are expected to have a television set, an almost fivefold increase over ten years. Nigeria produces more movies than America does. Film-makers, novelists, designers, musicians and artists thrive in a new climate of hope. Opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of Africans think this year will be better than last, double the European rate.

Indeed, while all eyes are (nonetheless justifiably) on China and India, Africa has clearly become another rising force in the global economy, especially as its population is far younger and faster-growing than most parts of the world (which, while currently problematic in light of strained resources, might bode well for the long-term if its potential is harnessed).

Of course, Africa is not a monolithic place by any stretch: on every level, from politics to culture, it is the most diverse geographic area on the planet, by some estimates more than the rest of the world combined. As such, it is not surprising that different countries or regions on the continent are going in varying directions, in equally varying degrees. But the overall trend seems encouraging, if the following maps are any indication:

Africa Rising

Africa Politics

In recognition of how many readers may be skeptical of such a rosy few of Africa’s prospects, The Economist had set out to verify these data with a physical tour of the continent, perhaps the longest ever undertaken by a journalist (at least by my recollection).

Inevitably, Africa’s rise is being hyped. Boosters proclaim an “African century” and talk of “the China of tomorrow” or “a new India”. Sceptics retort that Africa has seen false dawns before. They fear that foreign investors will exploit locals and that the continent will be “not lifted but looted”. They also worry that many officials are corrupt, and that those who are straight often lack expertise, putting them at a disadvantage in negotiations with investors.

So who is right? To find out, your correspondent traveled overland across the continent from Dakar to Cape Town (see map), taking in regional centres such as Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg as well as plenty of bush and desert. Each part of the trip focused on one of the big themes with which the continent is grappling—political violence, governance, economic development—as outlined in the articles that follow.

The journey covered some 15,800 miles (25,400km) on rivers, railways and roads, almost all of them paved and open for business. Not once was your correspondent asked for a bribe along the way, though a few drivers may have given small gratuities to policemen. The trip took 112 days, and on all but nine of them e-mail by smartphone was available. It was rarely dangerous or difficult. Borders were easily crossed and visas could be had for a few dollars on the spot or within a day in the nearest capital. By contrast, in 2001, when Paul Theroux researched his epic travel book, “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town”, he was shot at, forced into detours and subjected to endless discomforts.

Doubtless, I will be keeping track of the coming articles based on this continental tour. I strongly welcome a more nuanced and firsthand account of Africa beyond the usual stereotypes of decay, underdevelopment, and misery. While we should not make light of the many humanitarian issues that still bedevil that region (among many others), nor get carried away into thinking that prosperity is destiny, it is vital to see that progress is possible and Africa is more than just its negative stereotypes.

Poppy Field

My thoughts and reflections related to Veterans Day, and on war in general, have not changed much since the last time I shared them. This year’s post will not be any less somber, however: as the one hundredth anniversary of the end of history’s first (but sadly not last) “Great War”, the commemorations are especially solemn and reflective.

To mark this grim centenary of the First World War, an independent project called Poppy Field was launched to visualize just how devastating this conflict was — a reminder we sadly never need enough of, given how many other horrific conflicts have transpired since the “war to end all wars”.

Using the opportunity to highlight the brutality and tragedy of war as a whole, the project moves beyond WWI to show every conflict that has every occurred in the 20th century onward, from the lesser-known civil conflicts of Colombia and the Philippines, to the present strife in Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic (notice how most of these wars tend to occur within states rather than between them).

The infographic is as beautiful as it is informative, creatively displaying the length, fatality, and location of each recorded war through the use of stylized poppies (the flower became a symbol of commemoration because it was among the first plants to emerge from Europe’s devastated battlefields after WWI, with its blood-red color and resilient yet delicate nature evoking war).

screenshot-poppyfield.org 2014-11-11 13-00-35

There are several patterns to note here. As mentioned before, most wars have become “internal” in nature — usually fought between governments and rebels, among different ethnic or religious groups, or between breakaway regions and a central power; tellingly, these types of conflicts are especially common in post-colonial Africa and Asia, a legacy of ancient grievances combined with the arbitrary borders that ignored such histories and diversities imposed by European powers.

It also seems that wars have become more frequent since the mid-20th century, although comparatively less deadly than the two great wars that dominated the earlier half (and that for most people serve as a common point of comparison, despite their anomalous nature in terms of scale). Modern wars also appear to last much longer, often drawing out into what are known as “low intensity” or “fourth-generation ” conflicts, in which the lines are blurred between civilians and combatants, and fighting is conducted in such a scope as to become normalized.

In any case, war’s every changing nature in terms of tactics and characteristics does little to change the awful human cost. Looking at these beautiful poppies and the data attached to each of them, it is easy to forget that they represents millions of full, individual lives snuffed out just this past 114 years alone. Especially from this physical and psychological distance.

A Worthy Lesson to Start Each Day With

While cleaning up my room, I stumbled upon this beautiful scroll; I think I had purchased it years ago from some Tibetan Buddhists that had visited my university. It seems like a great way to prime every day, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, since it is an easy lesson to forget. I should hang it somewhere more visible.

A Portrait of Ebola Survivors

Amid all the fear, panic, and misinformation regarding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it is easy to overlook the human element, especially insofar as the main victims have been abjectly poor and marginalized (from well before the disease emerged).

But thankfully one Pulitzer Price-winning photographer, James Moore, is determined to tell the stories of those who have endured one of the most horrific and deadly diseases. His highlights from a trip to Liberia, one of the epicenters of the outbreak, are featured at National Geographic here.

As you would imagine, each story is powerful and nuanced, combining the obvious joy of survival (and subsequent immunity to the disease) with lingering sorrow and uncertainty. They highlight the sheer randomness and cruelty of life, in the way some survived when others died despite not discernible difference in circumstance or changes between them. The following story I have excerpted especially stood out for me:

Like several other Ebola survivors, Lassana Jabeteh, 36, now works in the high-risk ward at the Doctors Without Borders Ebola Treatment Center in Paynesville. Jabeteh used to be a taxi driver; he thinks he caught Ebola while transporting a sick policeman who vomited in his car. Like many people who contract the virus, he was trying to help someone else with the disease, which Moore calls “one of the many cruelties of Ebola.”

Thankfully, Liberia at least seems to be recovering, although its equally impoverished and unfortunate neighbor Sierra Leone seems to be getting worse. It is remarkable what tremendous suffering these people (and so many more around the world) senseless endure. I am glad to be seeing a glimmer of hope in some of these resilient stories.

Map: Gay Rights Around The World

Gay rights have come a long way globally: it was only a little over fifty years ago that many developed countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the U.K., still had laws criminalizing homosexual acts (even if they were de facto overlooked). Sadly, humanity still has a long way to go, as shown in the following map from The Economist.

Gay Rights Around the World

I recommend reading the article from which I pulled this map, as it does a good job exploring the current state of gays rights around the world, and why anti-gay sentiments and laws remain so stubbornly prevalent in some parts of the world. As expected, the factors are multidimensional and complex:

An enemy within can be handy for all sorts of leaders, and often more or less any old enemy will do. Some leaders’ anti-gay language has a conspiratorial tone that feels borrowed from the anti-Semitic diatribes of another time: gay people are portrayed as in thrall to alien values and particularly dangerous to children. Recent developments in the West also create exotic targets against which divisive leaders can define themselves without taking on any particularly powerful enemy at home. Nigeria’s law would surely not have taken its current form had gay marriage not made such remarkable advances in Europe and America.

None of this would work if there were not deep wells of homophobia to draw on. Over 95 percent of Ugandans and Nigerians disapprove of homosexuality. Four-fifths of Russians say that they have no gay acquaintances (though many may be wrong to say so). Such numbers say little about the intensity of anti-gay feeling in each country. They are certainly not evidence of a clamour for legislative attacks on homosexuals; activists often point out that gay people in places like Nigeria were able to lead relatively untroubled, if intensely private, lives before they became political targets. But the feelings they represent offer an opportunity for politicians seeking a quick populist win.

Some argue that the colonial provenance of anti-gay laws, in Africa and elsewhere, shows that these feelings have little genuine cultural basis. Imperial British authorities were certainly not slow to impose such laws on the lands they occupied, and they were often imported directly from home; in several former British colonies such provisions are numbered 377 in the legal code, indicating their common source.

Such sentiments seem comparable to the historic basis of antisemitism in Europe: Jews were a convenient and sufficiently alien enemy on which to unload all sorts of blame and societal frustration. Pogroms targeting Jews (and other “foreign” populations like Romanies) were often directly instigated or facilitated by expedient political leaders seeking to vent public discontent towards another source. But as with antisemitism, there is more to anti-gay attitudes than opportunism mixed ignorance:

A more contemporary and pernicious Western influence is that of conservative American evangelists who export their anti-gay message to places where it may meet more receptive ears, along with money that makes it all the more attractive. In Uganda’s case, they appear directly to have influenced the drafting of legislation.

Whether domestic or imported, religion matters. A survey of 39 countries by the Pew Research Centre last year found a strong correlation between a country’s tolerance for homosexuality and its religiosity. African and Middle Eastern nations are the least tolerant; in several Muslim countries homosexuality is a capital crime. Russia, a relatively godless place, is an exception to the rule.

So, increasingly, is America, though in the opposite direction; it is more tolerant than its levels of religious belief would predict. The greatest exception along those lines is Brazil, where attitudes are broadly tolerant and, as in Argentina and parts of Mexico, gay marriage is now legal. Homophobic violence, though, remains a problem.

Thankfully, The Economist’s assessment ends on an encouraging note, one that I agree with:

In the end gay people in the developing world will probably win their rights as they did in the West. Civil-society organisations, enlightened political and judicial leadership, and the advance of the liberal idea that the state has no business regulating the harmless activities of adults will all play a role. Most powerful, though, is likely to be people’s discovery that they have perfectly decent gay friends, neighbours, even relatives. The most pernicious thing about institutionalised homophobia and legal repression is that they make this realisation so hard. Once the wall begins to crack, though, it can quickly come tumbling down.

It will no doubt take a lot of time, but I would like to think that like so many other human rights scourges, homophobia will come to an inevitable end, or at least be greatly minimized so as not to retain the broad support and acceptance that it does in many parts of the world. What are your thoughts?

Chart: Gender Equality Around the World

The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report determines disparities between men and women in areas like political empowerment, economic opportunity, health, and education. Scores are tallied between zero and one, with one signifying perfect equality (an impossible ranking thus far for even the most progressive countries, though thankfully no country ever ranks at zero). Here is a chart of some of the results courtesy of The Economist.

Out of 142 countries examined in 2014’s index, Iceland topped the list at 0.86, followed by the rest of the Scandinavian countries — Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden — taking the next four highest slots. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that these nations typically perform very well in just about every metric of human development, from poverty to social stability.

But plenty of developing countries have high gender equality as well; Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Rwanda each made it to the top ten despite being among the world’s poorest countries. This challenges the notion that economic and political development are the main factors bettering the lives of women (although such solutions certainly help of course).

Like most social and culture values, a lot of multidimensional influences are at work in determining the treatment and opportunity accorded towards women. Thankfully, many countries seem to be improving in this and other metrics of human development, but we still have a long way to go. What are your thoughts?

 

Giving to Charity Intelligently

There are so many causes worth supporting, and no shortage of charitable organizations to choose from to address them. But since money tends to be short and there are only so many groups to give to, it is important to know where you get the most bang for your buck.

If anyone needs help determining which charities they should support, check out CharityNavigator.com, which was founded to help improve the efficiency of charitable giving. To that end, it evaluates philanthropic organizations based on a range of criteria, such as financial efficiency, accountability, and transparency. It also provides a detailed profile on every nonprofit, including how much goes to overhead versus the cause, how much CEOs are paid, where donations come from, and the like.

Moreover, you can compare charities within particular fields (education, animal welfare, etc.), view a top ten list of the best (and worst) charities, see which organizations needs the most help (and which do not), and learn about the most recent trends and developments in the world of humanitarianism (for example, which organizations are involved in fighting Ebola in West Africa). You can even find vital tips on how to donate most effectively

Fortunately, my research suggests that Charity Navigator — which is also a nonprofit that could use some donations — is an independent and trustworthy source; crucially, it does not except donations or advertisement from any group it evaluates, and all of its own financials are public record and available on its website. Of course, you are free to leave any feedback regarding this or other charity watchers, so that we can all do a better job of doing good in the world.

The Haunting Paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński

This Halloween, I want to highlight the creepy and captivating works of Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor Zdzisław Beksiński (24 February 1929 – 21 February 2005). Describing his style as ‘Baroque’ or ‘Gothic’, the first and most well-known period of his work — from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s — consisted largely of surreal, post-apocalyptic environments and/or very detailed scenes of death, decay, and deformity.

Beksiński stated, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams”, and was known for his meticulous attention to detail. He claimed music, namely the classical genre, was his main source of inspiration, and that he was not influenced by literature, film, or other artists.

Despite the grimness of his work, he saw them as humorous and even optimistic, though he also noted that even he did not know their meaning. In fact, he was uninterested in possible interpretations and subsequently refused to provide titles for any of his drawings or paintings, going so far to often avoid the openings of his own exhibitions.

Although shy and low-key, Beksiński was known to be a pleasant and gregarious person with a great sense of humor and keen love of conversation.