>Welcome to the world, number 7,000,000,000


The United Nations has announced, with headline grabbing flair, that the world will welcome its seven billionth inhabitant on 31 October 2011. The prophetic accuracy is tempered by caveats that the date is merely a projection, based on current statistical assumptions. 

Of course, nothing nearly as accurate can be achieved in a world of imperfect census data. United Nations officials have merely balanced guesses on global birth and death rates to arrive at the magic number on the target date. It seems apt that 31 October abuts All Hallows and then All Souls  days, when the faithful departed are commemorated. 

Population growth has shifted away from its traditional centres in Asia, with Africa and Middle East currently witnessing the biggest increases in population. This contrasts with Eastern Europe and Russia, where population has been in decline for a decade. They have recently been joined by Germany and Japan, and Italy looks set to see its population decrease within a few years.

>Prophecies of doom – the warning echoes of Thomas Malthus


Two minutes after midnight on 12October 1999 a baby boy was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia. He was 3.55kg (8lbs),healthy and welcomed in to theworld by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. The baby,Adnan Mević, was given such high profile attention after being selected by theUnited Nations Population Fund as thesymbolic sixbillionth person concurrently alive on Earth.

Just twelve years later and theDay of Six Billion will be superseded on 31 October as the world welcomes itsseven billionth inhabitant. Both of these days are highly symbolic projections– no demographer can be certain of the world’s population let alone able tobalance births and deaths to reach an accurate conclusion on the six or sevenbillionth person. But they do prompt debate on the world’s population, rekindlediscussion on the earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ and see demographers and politiciansask how many people can the earth support?

World population in 1800 – 1 billion

One name above all others isassociated with the arguments – the ReverendThomas Malthus. In 1798 he published “An Essay on thePrinciple of Population”, which argued that population would expand intimes of plenty until checked by a shortage of primary resources. If thepopulation continued to grow in excess of the earth’s ability to provide forthem, it would be checked by “premature death” that “in some shape or othervisit the human race”. His prediction was that mankind, through warfare are“active and able ministers of depopulations”:

“But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons,epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep offtheir thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete,gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levelsthe population with the food of the world.”

Malthus’s work is considered themost influential founding text on population. It was not, however, the firstbook to consider overpopulation. Jonathan Swift’s devastating satire in “A Modest Proposal” (a preferredshortening of the unwieldy long title of “A Modest Proposal for Preventing theChildren of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents orCountry, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick”) mockingly suggested aradical use for ‘surplus’ Irish children.

The tract retains its ability toshock, puncturing even the cynicism of the twenty-first century reader. Swiftargues that 100,000 surplus children of the Irish poor could be sold for goodprice to grace the tables of the better off:

“a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most deliciousnourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and Imake no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”

Swift’s Ireland would suffer theterrible consequences of overpopulation and crop failure in the Great Famine.But Malthus’s concerns were largely confounded in nineteenth century Britain byimprovements in agriculture and vast imports of wheat from the American andCanadian plains and Russian steppes.
World population in1900 – 1.65 billion

Malthus’s work continued to be widely read, andinfluenced Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” and his theory that thestruggle to survive was a consequence of overpopulation and the spur to naturalselection and evolution.  Both workswould heavily influence the development of eugenic theory, with HenryFairfield Osborn advocating “humane birth selection through humane birthcontrol” in order to avoid a Malthusian catastrophy by eliminating the “unfit”.The predictions of human catastrophe were largely rejected by the end of thenineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and those advocating populationcontrols were largely concerned with conservation issues.

Malthusian ideas werelargely dormant until 1948, when two works would spark a debate that wouldbecome one of the twentieth century’s biggest issues. Fairfield Osborn’s ‘OurPlundered Planet’ and William Vogt’s ‘Road toSurvival’ were both best-sellers and triggered the debate that woulddevelop into the ‘population bomb’. Vogt argued for population control whilstOsborn criticized man’s poor stewardship of the earth and depletion of naturalresources.  

World population in1950 – 2.5 billion

The concept of a population explosion wasexplored throughout the 50s and 60s. On 11 January 1960, Time magazine featured a front cover on thepopulation explosion. Rachel Carson’s ‘SilentSpring’ in 1962 would be followed by the widely read and hugely influential‘ThePopulation Bomb’ by Paul Ehrlich in 1968.

Population control was now more than anintellectual discourse, it was a struggle for mankind’s survival. The vast andincreasing populations of India and China were cited as major contributors topopulation growth, and it was these countries that embarked on high profilepopulation control campaigns. China’s ‘one-child policy’was introduced in 1978 and the authorities claim that it has since prevented400 million births.

India’s national policy was more permissive,focusing on education, contraception and legalization of abortion. As a result,China’s fertility rate is currently 1.8 (and below the replacement rate of2.1), whilst India’s is 2.7. India is predictedto overtake China as the most populous nation in 2026. Concerns aboutoverpopulated extended to humanitarian relief, for example with Lyndon Johnson’sshipments ofwheat to famine-struck India in 1966. The grain was exported on the strictcondition that the country accelerated its family planning campaign.

World population in2050? 12 billion, 9.75 billion, 5 billion?  

But catastrophe was averted and famine avoidedby the Green Revolution, which caused a dramatic increase in the production ofcereal crops. More recently, the debate on population has been linked withconcerns over global warming, resource depletion and peak oil. The concept ofthe Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ has been discussed, reignitingthe debate on the planet’s ability to cope with an increasing population. 

>International rescue


In 1807 the Slave Trade Act was passed, makingthe slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. The statutory manumissionof slaves within British possessions would follow in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.

The Royal Navy was the means by which the 1807 Actwas to be upheld, with British ships forming the bulk of the WestAfrica Squadron. This was officially a multi-national force, and ships fromPrussia, the Netherlands and Portugal assisted the Royal Navy. The United Statesconstituted the African Slave Trade Patrol in 1819, despite slavery remaining anintegral feature of southern American life until the 1860s.

In parallel with her military endeavours, Britainused her post-Napoleonic power to press for diplomaticsuppression of slavery. Over 30 treatieswere entered into, covering all of the major Atlantic powers (Portugal, Spain,France and the Netherlands), some distinctly non-maritime powers (Austria andPrussia) and many small countries (Sardinia, Naples and Tuscany).

All of this added legal and diplomatic complexitiesto the practical difficulties of the West African Squadron. Rule books wereprovided to Captains detailing treaties in effect with various countries, andoutlining the rightsof inspection, search and seizure.

All of this combined with miserable conditionsadrift the hostile, pestilent and humid African coast. Violent clashes withwell armed slavers added to mortality rates that were nearlysix times that of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean patrols.

Whilst some sailors and commanders had humanitarianor religious reasons for enduring their harsh regime, the prospect of prizemoney for captured ships and ‘headmoney’ for freed slaves also made duties more bearable. According to JanMorris in Heaven’s Command, this amounted to £5 per head if the freed slavewas alive and £2.10s if they were dead.

>Dealing with debt


This is a tale of two tables and a moral on lies, damnedlies and statistics. This morning’s Daily Chart in theEconomist features a table of government debt. Streaking ahead of the rest, thedubious distinction of topping this chart fell to Japan, with gross governmentdebt reaching 230% of GDP.

The financial markets are swirling with speculationon an imminent Greek debt default, and the Hellenes labour under debt at 165%of GDP. The article explains that Japan’s debt is more manageable than theGreeks because the vast majority of it is domestically held, and because adecent chunk is offset by other financial assets.

At the Liberal Democrat party conference, VinceCable likened the present fiscal situation to being the economicequivalent of war. We are told that our financial position is precarious,and that austerity is the only solution. It might then be a little surprisingto see Britain at the foot of the table, with a debt of 80% of GDP. Only Spaindoes better at a little over 70% of GDP. The stalwarts of fiscal rectitude,Germany, have a debt just above 80% of GDP and the USA has just reached 100% ofGDP.

So is all this overblown? Should we pump-prime thebeleaguered economy and spend for growth? Another set of statistics suggeststhat the caution may be justified. These are the figures for the total level ofdebt (set out in a recentButtonwood column in the Economist, and also inthis article from Global Finance), including government debt but alsoincluding business (financial (i.e. banking) and non-financial (i.e. business)and household debt. The graph below (click for large version) demonstrates the relative levels of debt.

Britain comes close to rivalling Japan for thetop spot, with an eye wateringly high figure of 466% of GDP. At the foot of thetable come the BRICs – Brazil (142%), Russia (71%), India (129%) and China(159%). This is borne out in the Economist’s map, which paints these vastcountries in the reassuringly sober green reserved for those with total debt ofless than 200% of GDP. Britain and Japan, by contrast, are alarmingly red. 

>Top of the class


Out of the five best performing education systems inthe world, four are in Asia. Out of the top ten, seven are in the Asia Pacificregion. The OECD collects data on reading, maths and science scores on astandardised basis. Top of the table is Shanghai, China, with top places foreach. They are followed by South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore. 

The top ten is completed by Canada, New Zealand,Japan, Australia and the Netherlands. Britain, France, Germany and the US areat the bottom of the OECD’s table of 18 countries. In a special report for theEconomist, four factors are highlighted as contributing most heavily to schoolsuccess: decentralisation; focusing on underachieving students, high standardsfor teachers and a choice for schools. 

Such issues are already forming the basis for thedebate in the UK, with the championing of free schools and the resultingdecentralisation that this brings. It may prove a useful test of whether theseideas deliver results in practice. One worrying factor is Sweden’s surprisepoor showing in the tests – much of the free school agenda is based on Swedishand American models.

>Biggest of the big


Westfield Stratford City has opened to a barrage ofpress attention, helped by large crowds, Nicole Scherzinger and a slow news day.It has been billed as Europe’s largest urban shopping centre, which seems anunusual caveat. What is an ‘urban’ shopping centre and does this descriptorsuggest that Stratford City is not Europe’s biggest shopping centre? 

Stratford City has missed out on being the UK’slargest shopping centre, with both the Metro Centre in Gateshead and theTrafford Centre in Greater Manchester being bigger. Stratford City boasts175,000 m² of total retail space, compared to the Metro Centre’s 194,000 m² and theTraffordCentre’s 177,000 m². 

Perhaps urban should be taken as being more central,given that both the Metro and Trafford Centres enjoy peripheral, motorway basedlocations. Whilst Stratford isn’t in Zone One of London, it is certainly anurban location. So how does Stratford City compare with other urban centres inthe UK? Its nearest city-based rival is its west-London sibling, WestfieldLondon with 150,000 m² of retail space. Manchester’sArndale Centre has 130,000 m² and Birmingham’sBull Ring is next with 125,000 m². 

Does this make it the biggest in Europe? It seemsthat the UK leads Europe in the size of its shopping centres. Although this isnot necessarily something to be greatly proud of, it does validate StratfordCity’s claim to be Europe’s biggest urban shopping centre. 

European centres are tiddlers compared with theworld’s largest temples of Mammon. Asia, the Middle East and America specialisein these vast complexes that are many times bigger than anything seen in theUK. The chart below (click for large version) shows how Stratford City compares with the world’s largestmalls.

But size isn’t everything, as is dramaticallydemonstrated by the New South China Mall in Dongguan. Although the world’slargest by retail area (its 600,000 m² makes it almost 3.5 times as big asWestfield Stratford City) itis currently 99.2% empty. As a vast monument to hubris and belief inChina’s economic rise, it is unbeatable. But with just a handful of open shopsit is not a retail destination.

>Under the waters


In terms of rank rottenness,Dunwich would vie with the fictional Dunny-on-the-Wold as the most rottenborough in the British Parliament. By the time of the Reform Act 1832, the bulkof the constituency was underwater, leaving only a tiny village of “44 housesand half a church”

It was a very different Dunwichthat received its entitlement to two representatives in Parliament in 1298, andeven this was a shrunken, storm-tossed survivor of its medieval glory. At itspeak, Dunwich had six parish churches, religious houses for the Grey and BlackFriars, a hospital, a shipbuilding yard and port complex and a yearly paymentto the Crown of £120 13s 4d and 24,000 herrings.

It was, in short, one of the mostimportant cities, ports and trading centres in England. It was one of thecountry’s 10 largest cities and arguably the capital of East Anglia. But theangry storm surges of the North Sea could destroy as easily as they brought prosperity.The watery threat had been signalled in the Doomsday Book, which recorded thatthe town had lost half of its fields to the sea.

But it was a huge, three day long storm in 1286 that signalled the end for Dunwich’s prosperity. The raging seaswept away a large chunk of the town and, most catastrophically, destroyedDunwich’s natural harbour. Recovery attempts were started –  a prize as rich as Dunwich was not easilyabandoned, but these were defeated in an even greater storm of 1328. Dunwichwould now begin a long and irreversible journey to decline and destruction.

>The extraordinary career of Mr Churchill


Winston Churchill is best known as the war-time Prime Minister who led Britain through survival to victory. Whilst constituting the most celebrated period of his political life, the five years of his premiership in the 1940s represent only a fraction of his overall Parliamentary career.
Churchill was a Member of Parliament for just under 64 years, between 1900 and 1922 and again from 1924 to his retirement in 1964 at the age of 89. During this time he represented five constituencies – Woodford, Epping, Dundee, Manchester North West and Oldham.
Although both his continuous length of service and age on departure are impressive feats, neither are record breakers. The oldest ever serving MP was Francis Knollys, the MP for Reading, who was either 97 or 98 (records being distinctly hazier in the 17th century) when he died in 1648.
Charles Pelham Villiers holds the prize for the longest continuously-serving MP. He was elected in 1835 and remained an MP continuously for over 62 years until his death on January 16, 1898, aged 96 years 13 days. For contrast, the current Father of the House is Sir Peter Tapsell with 44 years of continuous service.
In a varied political career, Churchill held the office of Prime Minister twice (between 1940 and 1946 and 1951 and 1955), was Chancellor of the Exchequer (between 1924 and 1929), Home Secretary (from 1910 and 1911), President of the Board of Trade (between 1908 and 1910), First Lord of the Admiralty (from 1911 to 1916 and again from 1939 to 1940), Minister of Munitions (in 1917) and  Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air (between 1919 and 1921) and Secretary of State for the Colonies (from 1921 to 1922).
He was a Conservative MP in 1900 and crossed the floor to become a Liberal MP in 1904. He would cross back again in 1924 to rejoin the Conservative Party, commenting that “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat”.

>The irresistible march of the dragon economy


The ‘Economics focus’ column in the Economist is not the first thing I turn to when my weekly copy arrives. Nestling at the back of the finance and economics section, it is quite rare that I ever read it at all. This week’s column (The celestial economy) drew my attention by presenting the graph above. Depicting the world’s top three countries by economic dominance, it neatly demonstrates the shift of world power from Europe to America and predicts the next shift to China and India.

At the height of Britain’s economic influence, when Britannia ruled thewaves and presided over an empire on which the sun never set, it had a 16.4%share of global economic power. This was almost twice the rate of the next twopowers combined (Germany on 9.3% and France on 8.3%).

By 1973, the USA had become the world’s economic hyperpower, with an18.6% share of global economic power. This time the USA’s dominance was clear –it had much more than the next two powers combined (with both Germany and Japanon 8%). By 2010, the rise of China was evident. America was still the leadingpower (with its economic power at 13.3% compared to China’s 12.3%), but themomentum was clearly with Asia.

In his new book Eclipse: Living inthe Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance, Arvind Subramanian argues thatChina will eclipse America sooner than is thought. By 2030, he forecasts Chinato have 18% of global economic power and for the USA to have slipped to just10.1%. India now features in the top three, and, at 6.3%, starts to close thegap with the USA. The reason for the decisive shift eastwards? Subramanianargues it is the threefold combination of demography, convergence and“gravity”.