News Archive

posted 04/16/04

How Long Can Earth Continue to Sustain the Human Race?
NOVA Television Program Uses Experts from the Earth Institute to Probe Surprising Population Trends and the Future of Humanity

Children collecting floating waste for recycling, Manila Bay, Philippines.

Children collecting floating waste for recycling, Manila Bay, Philippines. Over the next fifty years, 98% of population growth will occur in the poorest regions on earth — where resources are being consumed faster than they can be renewed. Image Credit: H.Schwarzbach/UNEP/Peter Arnold

It took all of history until the year 1804 for human population to reach its first billion. Now a billion new people are added every dozen years. In the industrialized world — Japan, Europe, and the United States — birth rates are falling steeply while the senior citizen population is booming. NOVA explores these and other trends in the relationship between people and the planet in World in the Balance, with interviews with Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, and Joel Cohen, director of the Laboratory of Populations at the Earth Institute and Rockefeller University. This two-hour Earth Day special, airing Tuesday, April 20, 2004, from 8 to 10pm ET on PBS (also airing in New York City on Saturday, April 24, 2004 -- check local listings).

With moving personal stories from India, Japan, Kenya, and China, World in the Balance gives an up-to-date global snapshot of today’s human family, now numbering 6.3 billion and likely to increase to nearly 9 billion by 2050.

Paradoxically, the world is now careening in two completely different directions. By 2050, the average age across Africa and the Middle East will be twenty-five. In Japan, Europe, and Russia, it will be fifty. And in the United States, it will be forty. Many experts argue that these demographic disparities could have severe global repercussions. NOVA explores how decisions made now will affect the United States and the Earth over the next fifty years.

In the first hour, The People Paradox, NOVA investigates three countries where social and economic forces have produced starkly different population profiles. In India, women still bear an average of three to four children. Within a few decades the country will overtake China as the world’s most populous nation. NOVA interviews a young Indian woman who nearly died delivering her eighth baby. Three of her children have died, and another pregnancy may jeopardize her life. Nevertheless, her husband and mother-in-law want her to try for another son—a highly prized asset in traditional Indian culture.

While India’s population pyramid has the classic shape of a triangle resting on a wide base—with large numbers of youth at the bottom and a small number of elderly at the top—Japan’s population pyramid is shifting to look like a triangle standing on its head. There are now more people over sixty than under twenty in Japan. Concerned about paying pensions and decaying economic productivity, the government is using incentives such as bonuses to encourage women to have more children. Yet increasing numbers of Japanese women are declaring their independence from marriage and motherhood to pursue professional careers.

In Haikou, China,
        a man transports plastic bottles and containers for recycling.

In Haikou, China, a man transports plastic bottles and containers for recycling. About half of China's plastic waste goes uncollected. Photo Credit: REUTERS/China Photo

Meanwhile, the population pyramid in sub-Saharan Africa is beginning to resemble an hourglass. Adults between the ages of twenty and sixty are dying in the prime of life, largely due to AIDS, leaving the very old and young to fend for themselves. In a powerful personal story, NOVA interviews a nineteen-year-old Kenyan woman who suffers from AIDS. Her parents have died, and she is raising her four brothers and sisters, as well as a nephew. Like many teenage girls in Africa, she is a victim of predatory more sexual behavior by an older male, through whom she contracted HIV. Funding cuts in family planning assistance from the United States are putting many young women at risk for unwanted pregnancies, HIV infection, and illegal backstreet abortions.

In the second hour, China Revs Up, NOVA takes the pulse of China’s hyperactive economy, which is the fastest growing in the history of the world. During the last two decades, China clamped down on its population growth through its controversial one-child policy, but in recent years, it has relaxed those rules, moving in the direction of more reproductive freedom.

As the sprawling country develops from a poor nation and aspires to a more middle-class lifestyle,

China’s air, land, and water are beginning to suffer. Already, a massive dust cloud of eroded soil from Mongolia has darkened the skies over North America, and air pollution from Beijing and Shanghai regularly wafts as far as California.

The prospect that all Chinese will strive to live like middle-class Americans is daunting, since it has been calculated that if all the world’s people had an American standard of living, two more planets the size of Earth would be needed to support them.

But one planet is all there is, and World in the Balanceshows that it will take our best scientific and technological efforts to make this one do for all its inhabitants—present and future.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.