Sweden's Gapminder shatters economic and environmental myths with online animated graphs
By Shane Leavy
Jan 2, 2011 - 4:33 AM

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The poor are catching up. This is the most obvious message of the Gapminder Foundation, a Swedish non-profit organisation that places vast quantities of economic and social data into online animated graphs. Gapminder allows international comparisons over long periods of time, shattering economic and environmental myths.

Most obvious is the oft-mentioned claim that the rich are becoming richer and the poor poorer. This graph pits life expectancy against GDP per capita PPP in 1946, where each of the world’s nations is represented by a dot, the size of the dot corresponding to the country’s population.

It is just after the end of World War II and the world is clearly divided into two major groups. Every country that is wealthy is either Western or oil-rich. The entire rest of the world languishes in poverty. Sweden and Norway have life expectancies of 70, China has 39, India has 35, Indonesia – then one of the poorest countries in the world - - manages only 28. The division between the have countries and have-not countries is pronounced.

Now press the Play button on the bottom left. Immediately there is a rush into wealth and longevity from Japan, followed by Latin America, Arab states, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Koreas. African countries rise too, albeit a little more slowly than the rest. By 2007 the West-dominated world has vanished. Far Eastern nations have reached, and passed, many European states, with a huge trail of developing nations closing in. Indonesia’s life expectancy has shot up from 28 to 71. Indonesia is far from unique; most countries today have higher life expectancies than the richest of 1946.

The most dramatic change here is the astronomical rise of Asian countries, and Gapminder offers a few clues as to how it happened. For one thing, they simply worked harder. In 1983 the average South Korean employee worked 53 hours a week, compared with 40 in Japan, 38 in Ireland, 35 in the US, and 34 in France. As economies develop, working hours tend to drastically decline, perhaps hinting at economic convergence as poor populations continue striving to catch up while the wealthy grow complacent.

In China, much-publicised increases in industrial output have been matched in agriculture. China’s total cereal yield per hectare growth has quadrupled since 1961, while the total area harvested slightly declined. Indonesia improved yield more slowly than China, managing to increase less than three times, and so it complimented its cereal production by extending its harvested area by 68%. Nigeria only managed to double its yield since 1961, and actually had to double its harvested area to feed a growing population.

Even in areas traditionally associated with European agriculture, China is on the rise. It produces nearly 100 times as much wine today than it did in 1978

…and 56 times as much beer from barley. That means China now makes 38 times as much beer as Ireland - - Guinness for strength indeed.

The rising Asia also has important consequences for competition over energy sources. Between 1971 and 2005, oil consumption per person dropped in the US by 3.7% and in the UK by 21%. Over the same period it increased over three-fold in India, nearly five-fold in Indonesia, six-fold in China and over eight-fold in South Korea.

As a consequence, CO2 emissions are soaring in the developing world. In 1971 the US produced nearly five times as much CO2 as China. By 2005 they were almost equal.

Some environmental concerns are dashed, however. Daniel Quinn’s influential 1992 ecological novel Ishmael claimed that: "given an expanding food supply, any population will expand. This is true of any species, including the human."

Gapminder shows almost the opposite. As wealth and food supplies increase, humans have fewer children, not more. In 1946 the average woman in China had 5.84 children, in Brazil had 6.07 children and in Botswana had 6.47. By 2007 China’s total fertility rate had fallen to 1.76, Brazil’s to 1.94 and Botswana’s to 2.91.

Another myth to dispel is that of the dangerously high Muslim fertility, which anti-Muslim groups have claimed threatens to engulf infertile Europe. Gapminder shows otherwise: Tunisia, Turkey and Iran all show dramatic collapses in fertility rates since 1960, bringing all three down to levels equivalent to Ireland.

One reason for this is that Muslim women in these countries are marrying at much older ages than their mothers did. In 1960 the average Egyptian woman married at 19, by 2005 that was up to 24. Morocco rose from 18 to 26. Tunisia from 20 to 29. Algeria shot up from 19 to 30, its fertility imploding over the same period.

In some cases, Muslim countries are specifically and clearly less fertile than their non-Muslim neighbours. Muslim Indonesia has a fertility rate of only 2.2 children per woman, compared to Christian Papua New Guinea (4.18 children per woman) and Christian East Timor (6.69 children per woman, by far the highest fertility rate in Far East Asia).

Likewise, Bangladesh has lower fertility levels than Hindu-majority India or Buddhist Bhutan. It seems Islam is a poor predictor of fertility rates, which instead rely on economic development, health improvements and lower infant mortality.

The real population growth will be in the rest of Africa. Niger’s fertility rates today are higher than they were in 1960, although they, too, are gradually dropping. By 2006, 21% of Niger’s population was below the age of four years. Even if fertility rates continue to fall there, explosive growth is likely.

Gapminder has its limits, warning users that data before 1900 is ‘highly uncertain’. Ireland’s life expectancy remains perfectly constant at 38 years between 1800 and 1861, sailing straight through the Great Famine without showing the slightest dip, so people need to be a little hesitant about making grand conclusions about the data.

Nonetheless, Gapminder does challenge myths and helps us to picture development, health and wealth in the modern world.

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