Thanos was wrong about world population.
And our instinct is, too.
The latest Avengers movie is a fantastic example of a person being certain of something, while being very publicly and spectacularly wrong. It’s also a pretty good movie — worth watching if you haven’t already.
In the movie, the super-villain Thanos has a cause. He witnesses suffering all around him, caused by a lack of resources and an ever growing population, so he sets out to “sacrifice” half the population at random to liberate and enrich the lives of the remaining half. He sets out to acquire the 6 stones that together will make him all-powerful (as people do in these sorts of things), so he can snap his fingers and complete his great deed. While an idea like this isn’t unique to villains in movies – this one is relatively recent. Also Thanos has been trending as a meme recently so he’s a good target for a rant.
The reason I felt compelled to write about this villain’s ideology, is because we see the same mistake being made in many areas in the real world, at a time when we have the data to do better. Flat facts are taken out of context and used in often political narratives, aiming to evoke emotions and influence typically vulnerable people.
Many people have taken to Twitter and publicly claimed that Thanos had a point — the majority of people accept an ever-growing population as an inevitable happening — and because we already have publicly available data that suggests otherwise, this frustrates me.
This sentiment is also what drove me to begin the @allaboutdata initiative. The hope is that in sharing accessible stories relating to data and tech developments (in an increasingly data-centric era) — non-technical readers may gain insights that keep them aware of changes and trends, and people more familiar with the theme may come across pockets of inspiration.
Anyway, onward with world population.
While it’s true that the world population has experienced explosive growth, it’s important to crunch the numbers and find where this growth is coming from. Looking at a chart of the world population, it would be easy to get the impression that it’s growing exponentially, but to understand why it helps to have some historical context.
When looking at a population graph — they tend to begin from a relatively recent year, giving the viewer the impression that the population has always been multiplying. However, for better context what we should do is zoom all the way out and go as far back as we can see. The oldest found remains of modern people date back approximately 300,000 years — the graph below is dated back only 12,000 years, and this is the difference in the curve when you factor that in:
Instead of supporting the idea that the human population always grows and is a problem, this graph now has a very different impression on the viewer. What happened here?!
Our view has already changed from one of inevitable impending doom, to one of curiosity and fact-finding (I hope). The very-simplified answer to the question of “what happened here?!” is this: organisation. However we would have never gotten to this stage without all the changes that came before, and in-hand with it. To understand why organisation played such a big part you have to zoom out to when it wasn’t there, and find how it came about.
Between 10,000 and 4,000 BC people began cultivating plants and animals instead of continuously hunting. We became farmers. This meant people had a more predictable food supply, and in turn larger families (the more kids the more help you had), and hence, population growth.
The effect of this goes beyond having a more predictable food supply, farming means you stay on the same plot of land, and this together with growth in the number of people begins to form a village. A Village leads to disputes and eventually to the need for a decision maker/s. With time a village becomes a town, and decision makers become Kings. Easy to see how quickly things escalate and get a bit out-of-hand. While there are of course countless other factors that influenced the population during this period (positively and negatively), it is sufficient for this article to keep to the overall trend.
If we now follow the line past the agricultural boom and (as a result) the birth of Empires, a similar event happens again — and this time it’s the Industrial Revolution. With the introduction of machinery and specialisation, it became cheaper and cheaper to produce food and everyday useful products, like warm clothes for the winter or weapons for soldiers. More people, this time not just land owners, had a more predictable supply of necessities. One thing that came almost hand-in-hand with the industrial boom was modern science — and this one’s big. Investment into research (a luxury you can only afford once enough people have a home and food on the table) meant that medicine began to improve — at first slowly, but with mass production meaning that you could sell to more than just wealthy people, it picked up steam pretty quickly.
Each period of great change like this creates a significant shift in the rate of population growth. What happens next is that a new equilibrium is found and the effects of that growth become more stabilised over time — the reason we haven’t seen that period of stabilisation is because we’ve lived through a succession of revolutions all within a relatively short time-frame. Thanos is pretty short sighted.
That brings us to today. Yes, the population is growing fast, and yes it still has some growing to do, but it’s already shown signs of stabilising.
When looking at the UN’s data on world population, you’ll find that the number of children in the world has already stopped growing. This is key. A consistent rate of children means an eventual consistent rate of adults — but it will take a number of decades for these results to become more evident in the grander scheme of population growth.
The UN’s projections show that the world population will plateau somewhere between 10 and 12 billion people — and we already produce enough food for 10 billion. A stabilising world population is only an example of an important trend to know, whether you’re a CEO, government official or ordinary citizen — not because we can act on that information now, but because it may be relevant to a decision we make in the future.
In the past, drastic decisions have been made against population growth that resulted in the horrifying suffering of millions of people - China’s one-child policy is the most infamous of these decisions. The red line in the graph below illustrates China’s fertility (child-per-woman) rate from 1950 to 2015 — it’s evident that while it can be claimed the one-child policy accomplished what it set out to – China’s neighbours achieved the same or similar results through far less drastic means, forcing us to ask the heart-wrenching question of whether the suffering endured by millions was completely avoidable.
In a world so connected and interdependent, it’s critical to have global awareness and understand the impact of your own decisions as well as that of your governments — who your voting choices elect.
A little more conversation, a little more data please. 🎶