Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hans Rosling at TED

I'm a big fan of the TED talks and, in particular, Hans Rosling's presentations based on the software (Gapminder) he developed to display and analyze global change through time. In his most recent talk, Rosling makes the paradoxical observation that the world's population will grow to 9 billion over the next 50 years -- and only by raising the living standards of the poorest can we check population growth.

I like this talk for two reasons. First, Rosling's earlier presentations tended to focus on changes associated with the emergence of Asian economies and underemphasized the lack of change in Africa. This talk directly addresses that omission. Second, most current discussions of the planet's future focus on the dual challenges of climate change and energy. While these are certainly real issues, they overlook the continuing importance of population growth as a source of environmental strain. Rosling's talk makes the provocative point that the ecological footprint of the least developed nations will necessarily increase through time -- either because of increased numbers or because of the increased levels of economic development necessary for them to transition to a condition of reduced child mortality and, hence, reduced pressure for large families.

However, I'm not as optimistic as Rosling. At the end of the talk he presents the west as becoming the foundation of a new, more equitable, global economic distribution. I'm not convinced that the dominant western nations (read the US) are as willing to embrace that vision as is Rosling's native Sweden. Given that continued global economic growth is environmentally unsustainable, America's two chickens in every pot, two cars in every garage philosophy, coupled with the country's military might, could just as easily be used to insure that the US continues to get more than its share.

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