Predicting future population chances remains a difficult issue. But while popular (and populist) media tends to dramatise every new release of population predictions, it is less often discussed that these figures are one possible scenario for what is an extremely complex issue. Small political and cultural changes in societies can lead to drastic long terms effects that change the future numbers of people within a country. The current estimates are therefore never figures that are engraved in stone, but estimates that look at the current trends that we can observe. The different scenarios therefore have an extreme variability, ranging from a decline down to just above 6 billion to an increase up to almost 16 billion. These are of course the very extreme scenarios in the latest revision of the Unites Nations’ World Population Prospects that has just been released. While it is almost certain that any scenario is likely to not happen in that way, the trends outlined in the report are in important political guideline that tells, what humanity should be prepared for and which economic, ecological and other implications the different scenarios have for the future. The following map shows a population cartogram of the most recent population estimates where each country is resized to its total population in 2013 (approximately 7.1 billion):
“A mappa mundi [...] is any medieval European map of the world. [...] To modern eyes, mappae mundi can look superficially primitive and inaccurate. However, mappae mundi were never meant to be used as navigational charts and they make no pretence of showing the relative areas of land and water. Rather, mappae mundi were schematic and were meant to illustrate different principles. The simplest mappae mundi were diagrams meant to preserve and illustrate classical learning easily. The zonal maps should be viewed as a kind of teaching aid—easily reproduced and designed to reinforce the idea of the Earth’s sphericity and climate zones” (cited from Wikipedia).
What would a mappa mundi of our times look like? A modern equivalent of such a map would have to focus on those spaces of our planet that we have a less vivid imagination of than the physical shape of the world that in medieval times was a much less familiar view than it is today. The following gridded population cartogram generated over the whole surface of Earth could be such a contemporary depiction of the world. It divides the world into equal spaces of population realigning the map view to show the human planet in a similar way as mappae mundi showed the world centuries ago:
In an article for the “In Focus” section of Political Insight (April 2013, Volume 4, Issue 1) Danny Dorling and I looked at the global geography of wealth. The map that I created for this feature displays data published by Forbes Magazine in spring 2012 (updated annualy). For 2012 Forbes counted 1153 billionaires across the globe (this figure includes families, but excludes fortunes dispersed across large families where the average wealth per person is below a billion). The total wealth of the billionaires was US$3.7 trillion – as great as the annual gross domestic product of Germany. Top of this league table is the US with 424 billionaires (or billionaire families), followed by Russia (96) and China (95). The following cartogram animation shows, how the distribution of billionaires and the distribution of their total wealth compares. Although there are only small changes between the two maps, it is quite apparent that the wealthiest in the wealthier parts of the world accumulate slightly higher shares of wealth than those living in the emerging economies such as China (though this may be some of the less worrying inequalities that exist globally):
Looking at similar data collected by WealthInsight (extracts published in the Guardian newspaper) – which published more detailed statistics on the geographic distribution of 521 of the wealthiest billionaires – we can see that the plutocrats’ global city of choice is Moscow with 78 billionaire residents, followed by New York City (58), Hong Kong (40), and London (39). The most attractive place for foreign wealth appears to be the United Kingdom with 15 different nationalities represented in the richest of the rich there. This tops even Switzerland (14 nationalities) and the United States (9).
Much of the wealth of billionaires is held offshore and their wealth is the tip of an iceberg of hard-to-tax personal assets. In a recent Tax Justice Network report (pdf), James Henry estimated the overall global offshore financial assets held by the world’s richest to be between US$21 trillion and US$32 trillion (out of the total global wealth, estimated at US$231 trillion). Nearly half of these offshore assets are owned by the world’s richest 91,000, just 0.001% of the global population.
The distribution of this wealth is a story of extreme inequality. For each billionaire there are millions of people who can only ever dream of such wealth – the ratio is only slightly smaller in the richest countries of the world: in the USA one billionaire can be found for every 740,000 people, while in India one billionaire is found amongst every 26 million people.
Over time the inequalities in the distribution of global wealth have become ever more polarised. According to a 2006 study by the United Nations University (UNU-WIDER), half of all global household wealth was owned by the richest 2% of adults. The poorer half of the world’s population owned just 1 per cent of the global wealth between all of them. Their distribution is the reverse image of the wealth maps shown here.
But it is not only wealth inequality that becomes very apparent in these numbers. The gender gap is large among the rich: Of the countries with more than 10 billionaires, Sweden is the most equal. But even here only 27% of billionaires are female, followed by Germany (20%) and Brazil (19%). Russia, home to the second largest number of billionaires, only has one woman in the ranking, and the USA is not much better with only 10% of the country’s billionaires female. 37 of the 59 countries shown here have no female billionaires at all.
In the face of unprecendented occurences of extreme weather, loss of species, and pollution, it is clear that climate change is affecting our planet. We cannot afford to wait any longer to act. This quote from the Earth Day 2013 website outlines the theme for this year’s Earth Day campaign which runs under the motto Climate change has many faces.
As the Earth Day campaign points out, the stories of the impact of climate change are extremely diverse: “A man in the Maldives worried about relocating his family as sea levels rise, a farmer in Kansas struggling to make ends meet as prolonged drought ravages the crops, a fisherman on the Niger River whose nets often come up empty, a child in New Jersey who lost her home to a super-storm, a woman in Bangladesh who can’t get fresh water due to more frequent flooding and cyclones.”
All these tales have one thing in common: They are a story of our impact on planet Earth, but equally of the impact of a changing planet on human’s lives. Our species has become one that is not just living in the natural environment, but is one factor that changes the environment to a level that no other species did before. This is happening to an extent that geologists discuss whether this can be seen as a new geologic era. Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen started promoting the idea of the so-called Anthropocene, a concept that has now left the scientific world and is increasingly entering the public debate regarding issues of global sustainability and humanity’s impact. Anthropocene.info is a project initiated by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) that aims to “to help visualize and better understand humanity’s geographic imprint in recent time.” Not only is it important to find better ways of understanding the complex interrelations of humans and their natural environment, to which visualisation can contribute, but also is it important to create a public understanding of issues relating to the challenges connected to global change.
Here is one example of a more challenging view existing knowledge that demonstrates how changing the view can make us rethink the way our natural environment is shaped. According to research by the US National Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, “[t]he strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth’s climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Most hurricanes do not reach their maximum potential intensity before weakening over land or cooler ocean regions. However, those storms that do approach their upper-limit intensity are expected to be slightly stronger in the warmer climate due to the higher sea surface temperatures.”
This is relevant due to the impact of more frequent flooding and cyclones on humans mentioned earlier. So where are these spaces where this is relevant. We know from historic records where there are tropical storm tracks, and the emerging pattern on a normal world map may be familiar to some of us (see here). But what if we change the perspective and focus on the actual areas that have the highest density of tropical storm occurrences. Using the records from 1945 to 2008, this intensity can be turned into quantities which are suitable for visualisation using the gridded cartogram technique. The following map shows a gridded cartogram of tropical storm intensity visualised over land based on a 0.25 degree grid. The larger a grid cell, the more tropical storm activity has there been over the past >60 years, indicating where the most affected areas of tropical cyclones (with a sustained wind speed of ver 40 mp/h) has been and how the climate patterns shape the world in a highly relevant issue of the Anthropocene:
The upcoming annual World Malaria Day on the 25th of April is one of the most visible international activities to tackle the problem of a disease that today is mainly a problem on the African continent. Beyond that day, activists from public sector as well as from many private organisations have regular meetings to find solutions for a disease that UNICEF describes as both preventable and curable. Continue reading
In 2007 nature conservation organisation WWF initiated a campaign “encouraging households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights for one hour to raise awareness about the need to take action on climate change” (Wikipedia). The campaign is called Earth Hour and always takes place at the end of March – this year on Saturday, the 23rd.
The Earth Hour campaign has motto of “uniting the world to protect the planet”, although certainly not everyone will join in switching off their lights at 8.30 pm to unite each time zone with a dark night sky (and there is criticism of campaigns like this). But the wealthier parts of the world will be the main focus, as large parts of the poor world live in relative darkness at night anyway. NASA’s composite satellite image of the world at night (as featured on this website before) that gives us an indication of where light pollution affects most of the night skies has just received an update recently. Earth at Night 2012 was published by the NASA Earth Observatory last December, promising nothing less that “It’s the end of the night as you know it; you’ll see fine.” The resolution and level of detail revealed in the data is stunning, so that I reworked my version of the Earth at Night in an equal population projection using a gridded cartogram transformation. The new gridded population cartogram of the Earth at Night gives an equally stunning insight into how human activity relates to the distribution of light at night, showing the already highlighted inequalities that became apparent in the old version of the map in even greater detail where large parts of the populations in Africa and also in some parts of Asia live in the shadows of the wasteful brightness of the wealthy world. The Earth at Night as seen by humanity – an image of an unequal world: