More, most and never before

What is the name of our age? The late Eric Hobsbawm wrote a series of brilliant histories that each named the era it covered – The Ages of Revolution, Capital,  Empire and, for the age in which I grew up and whose aftermath still shapes us,  the Age of Extremes. So what is the name of our age?

It’s the age of more, most and never before.

Here is probably the fundamental reason why some international crises and challenges today generate widespread and profound unease. International institutions and world leaders are having to deal with questions that are unprecedented – for which institutions were not designed and of which leaders have no experience, and where they have no tradition of practice or wisdom on which to draw.

When we are faced with the unprecedented and the highly complicated, one default mode of human psychology is to translate it into something more familiar – to tame the wicked problem. But the thing is, trying to solve the wrong problem is as bad as simply making no effort to solve the right one.

What are the dimensions of the unprecedented-ness of today and tomorrow?

People & Countries

It begins with population. There are more people, living in more countries, and more of us living in cities, than at any time in the past.

It is only two hundred years ago – less than a blink of an eye in the timescale of the planet, and not much than a blink in the timescale of human beings walking the planet – that the world’s human population passed the 1 billion mark. Today there are just over 7 billion of us.

In 1945 the United Nations was founded by 51 countries, some of which were not independent in that they were republics of the USSR. Today there are 193 UN member states.


But it is not just about numbers. It is about where we are living. Two centuries ago, some three per cent of the global population – just 30 million people – lived in cities. Today, the corresponding figure is about 50 per cent, or some 3.5 billion people.

It is worth going over those figures one more time before moving on. There is a whole world of implications and ramifications for development, economic policies, social safety nets, environmental impact, human rights, health, culture, patterns of authority and conflict and more sitting right there in the 200 year change from 30 million to 3.5 billion.

And the trend is not stopping any time soon. Current projections are that these figures and percentages will all increase. World population is expected to grow and the proportion of us who live in cities likewise, meaning that the numbers who live in cities will continue to soar.

  • The total expected population increase by 2030 is about another 2 billion people.
  • The total expected increase in urban population is also about another 2 billion people.
  • To encapsulate that, it means an increase in both total and urban population of about 100 million people a year, as it has been for the last decade.

Humanity has never before experienced demographic change on such a huge scale. The movement from the countryside to the cities in the industrial revolution two centuries ago has nothing on this. The migration from Europe to the New World of the Americas from the mid-19th century to the early 20th numbered some 30 million people.


And then there is the matter of resources. According to one estimate,* our 7-times larger population compared to 1810 produces 50 times as much in economic output, and uses 60 times as much water and 75 times as much energy. 

Those figures testify to the creativity unleashed through the industrial revolution. They are the evidence to rebut those who have over the past two centuries believed that population increase must end in starvation and mass misery. But…

Sustainability – er, what?

It is no new thought to wonder how long such growth of output and consumption can be sustained and at what cost. China’s economic growth since 1990 is over 1,000%: what if it keeps going at even two-thirds of that speed till 2030? And India’s over the same period is pushing towards 500%. Africa’s workforce by 2050, some say, will be larger than China’s: similar growth rates there in, perhaps, the 2030s and 2040s? 

What if individual prosperity starts to increase, just like national wealth? The average GNI per head of population in the world’s richest countries, like the Scandinavians, is about 200 times what it is in the world’s poorest countries in Africa and Asia. That is a great deal of growing room for the wealth of the poorest people, a great deal of potential for consumption – and a great deal of resource use and output.

In the 200 or so years since the industrial revolution began at around the time global population topped a billion for the first time, about half a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide has been pumped into the atmosphere. As a result, the idea that we can keep global warming to just 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels is a faded dream; we are currently – according to a study led by a well known climate sceptic who changed his mind as he did the research (yes, sceptical in the traditional and philosophical sense of “open-minded”) – at 1.6 degrees above the 1950 level.

And largely because of over-use, mal-distribution and pollution rather than climate change, and even though there is no global shortage of water, current estimates suggest two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water shortages by 2025.

And more knowledge

There is another dimension of more, most and never before. This growth in production both owes much to and has fed the extraordinary growth in human knowledge over the past 200 years. Whether knowledge generates wisdom is, as we all know, questionable. But if we are seeking to compare ourselves to the past in the effort to understand who we are today, one thing is that we are also better educated. We know more and, despite the way it seems for much of the time, we understand more.

We know more about each other than ever before. We know more about our physiology and about the physical world. We may not like everything we see but if we are to find a way out of the deep pit of environmental  damage the human race is digging for itself, knowledge will be key. 

It would be foolish to conclude that the unprecedented nature of the challenges we face mean that we must fail. Rather they mean we must mobilise all our resources of knowledge and act.

* Quoted by Paul Seabright in his brilliant book, The Company of Strangers (Princeton UP, 2006) p.205.

5 thoughts on “More, most and never before

  1. Hi Dan,

    I’d be interested in hearing how you would relate the above post to the upcoming COP18 in Doha. Should there be (for instance) binding commitments on a country’s population? If, bluntly, limiting population increases means limiting the amount of children a woman may have, then should this not become a human rights issue? Should population growth even be discussed at a climate change conference? Clearly the size of our population is having a major effect on the environment, but should the environment trump human rights or vice versa?

  2. Thanks, Matt. No I don’t think there should be binding commitments on a country’s population size or growth rate. I don’t think it can work either as a policy or as a moral approach. But the dilemma is an obvious one to think about and shouldn’t be shirked. At the same time, I think it may ultimately be a false dilemma. It could be that there is a human right to live in a sustainable environment, sitting alongside other rights such as women being in control of their reproduction together with a partner or not, as they choose. Today when “green growth” economic options are so clearly available to any government that chooses to take that route, I cannot see why the environment would have to trump human rights. Similarly, the needlessness of a choice between sustainability and poverty reduction is becoming clearer.

  3. Pingback: Resources – the coming crunch and some things that could be done about it | Dan Smith's blog

  4. Pingback: The Samosa » Archive » The coming crunch and some things that could be done about it

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