200,000 Years of Staggering Human Population Growth Shown in an Animated Map

Last night, dur­ing a talk on his new book Rais­ing the Floor, long­time labor leader and cur­rent senior fel­low at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Andy Stern told the sto­ry of a king and a chess­mas­ter engaged in pitched bat­tle. “If you win,” said the over­con­fi­dent king, “you may have any­thing you desire.” Lo, the chess­mas­ter wins the game, but being a hum­ble man asks the king only to pro­vide him with some rice. The king smug­ly agrees to his eccen­tric con­di­tions: he must place a grain of rice on the first square of the chess­board, then dou­ble the amount of each suc­ces­sive square. Once he reach­es the mid­dle, the king stops and has the chess­mas­ter exe­cut­ed. The request would have cost him his entire king­dom and more.

Stern used the sto­ry to illus­trate the expo­nen­tial growth of tech­nol­o­gy, which now advances at a rate we can nei­ther con­fi­dent­ly pre­dict nor con­trol. Some­thing very sim­i­lar has hap­pened to the human pop­u­la­tion in the past two-hun­dred years, as you can see illus­trat­ed in the video above from the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry.

Evolv­ing some 200,000 years ago in Sub-Saha­ran Africa, and migrat­ing across the globe some 100,000 years ago, mod­ern humans remained rel­a­tive­ly few in num­ber for sev­er­al thou­sand years. That is, until the tech­no­log­i­cal break­through of agri­cul­ture. “By AD 1,” the video text tells us, “world pop­u­la­tion reached approx­i­mate­ly 170 mil­lion peo­ple.”

After a very rapid expan­sion, the num­bers rose and fell slow­ly in the ensu­ing cen­turies as wars, dis­ease, and famines dec­i­mat­ed pop­u­la­tions. World pop­u­la­tion reached only 180 mil­lion by the year 200 AD, then dwin­dled through the Mid­dle Ages, only pick­ing up again slow­ly around 700. Through­out this his­to­ri­o­graph­ic mod­el of pop­u­la­tion growth, the video info­graph­ic pro­vides help­ful sym­bols and leg­ends that chart his­toric cen­ters like the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty, and show major world events like the Bubon­ic plague.

Then we reach the world-shak­ing dis­rup­tions that were the birth of Cap­i­tal­ism, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Sci­en­tif­ic and Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tions, when “mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy and med­i­cine bring faster growth.”

That’s quite the under­state­ment. The growth, like the grains of rice on the chess­board, pro­ceed­ed expo­nen­tial­ly, reach­ing 1 bil­lion peo­ple around 1800, then explod­ing to over 7 bil­lion today. As the yel­low dots—each rep­re­sent­ing a node of 1 mil­lion people—take over the map, the video quick­ly becomes an alarm­ing call to action. While the num­bers are lev­el­ing off, and fer­til­i­ty has dropped, “if cur­rent trends con­tin­ue,” we’re told, “glob­al pop­u­la­tion will peak at 11 bil­lion around 2100.” Peak num­bers could be low­er, or sub­stan­tial­ly high­er, depend­ing on the pre­dic­tive val­ue of the mod­els and any num­ber of unknow­able vari­ables.

Andy Stern’s research has focused on how we build economies that sup­port our mas­sive glob­al population—as machines stand poised in the next decade or so to edge mil­lions of blue and white col­lar work­ers out of an already pre­car­i­ous labor mar­ket. The Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry asks some dif­fer­ent, but no less urgent ques­tions that take us even far­ther into the future. How can the planet’s finite, and dwin­dling, resources, with our cur­rent abuse and mis­use of them, sup­port such large and grow­ing num­bers of peo­ple?

It may take anoth­er tech­no­log­i­cal break­through to mit­i­gate the dam­age caused by pre­vi­ous tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs. Or it may take an enor­mous, rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal shift. In either case, the “choic­es we make today” about fam­i­ly plan­ning, con­sump­tion, envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion, and con­ser­va­tion “affect the future of our species—and all life on Earth.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Crowd­ed House: How the World’s Pop­u­la­tion Grew to 7 Bil­lion Peo­ple

Hans Rosling Uses Ikea Props to Explain World of 7 Bil­lion Peo­ple

The Birth Con­trol Hand­book: The Under­ground Stu­dent Pub­li­ca­tion That Let Women Take Con­trol of Their Bod­ies (1968)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.