New Internationalist

Human Development 1900 & 2000 The facts

Issue 309

This has been the century of change. Population has exploded, the colonial era has been outgrown and there have been astonishing increases in life expectancy. Yet, as the century ends, a few countries dominate the world economy in their own interest, just as they did in 1900. And while the quality of life for the majority has improved, the gulf between rich and poor, overfed and undernourished, is widening with every passing year.


The world will have almost four times as many inhabitants at the end of the century as it did at the beginning. Asia has contributed the lion’s share of human population throughout the century; Europe’s proportion has steadily declined.

World population by region, 19001 and 20002


Humans had a far more destructive effect on the global environment in the twentieth century than in all the millennia that preceded it.

  • About half the world’s tropical forests were destroyed after 1950. About 75 per cent of the clearance provided land for agriculture. In West Africa three-quarters of all forests had been destroyed by the end of the century.
  • The release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere from the 1930s onwards caused holes in the ozone layer which protects the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Use of CFCs rose from 100 tons in 1931 to 650,000 tons by the mid-1980s. CFCs have now been phased out but the ozone layer will not return to its former state until the middle of the twenty-first century.
  • About two-thirds of the effect of global warming comes from the emission of carbon dioxide derived from the burning of fossil fuels. Over half the total increase in carbon dioxide levels between 1750 and 1990 occurred after 1950. These levels are still rising, doubling every 16 years, yet no serious attempt has been made to deal with the problem3.


In 1900 Europe and North America controlled 84 per cent of the land surface4. The colonial system meant that there were only around 35 independent countries, almost half of which were in the Americas5. At the end of the century there are 193 independent states2.


For all but the wealthier inhabitants of industrialized countries in 1900 life expectancy was appallingly low. The improvements in life expectancy in all the world’s regions have been dramatic, largely due to the conquest of certain key diseases and reductions in infant mortality rates. But the gap between the industrialized and developing worlds at the end of the century remains uncomfortably wide.

In the rich world over-consumption has produced its own health problems in the diseases of affluence, notably cancer and heart disease:

  • Heart disease was almost unknown in 1900 beyond a pampered ้lite but now kills 40 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women in industrialized countries.
  • Around 1 in 3 Americans currently contracts cancer compared with 1 in 27 in 1900.
  • Lung-cancer rates in the industrialized world rose by 80 per cent in the 20 years after 1960, largely as a result of smoking; rates are now rising in the Majority World as the tobacco-smoking habit is exported there by Western transnationals7.


The proportion of people suffering from chronic malnutrition has declined through the century as global population has increased. But the absolute number who are chronically malnourished has remained at or over one billion from when records began in the 1930s to the present day. And in Africa, as the century ends, the proportion of people suffering from chronic malnutrition is again on the rise.


World consumption rose from $1.5 trillion in 1900 to $4 trillion in 1950, then mushroomed to $12 trillion in 1975 and $24 trillion in 1998. But the benefits have not been fairly distributed: poor countries have a much smaller share of the global cake than they did in 1950.

Gross national product per capita of low–income countries as percentage of that in high–income countries, 19507, 19768 and 19978
  1. JM Roberts History of the World, Pelican; Clive Ponting Progress and Barbarism: The World in the Twentieth Century, Chatto & Windus 1998.
  2. The State of the World’s Children 1998, UNICEF.
  3. Clive Ponting Progress and Barbarism: The World in the Twentieth Century, Chatto & Windus 1998.
  4. The World: An Illustrated History Times Books 1988.
  5. Calculated by the NI.
  6. 1996 figures from The State of the World’s Children 1998, UNICEF.
  7. Clive Ponting A Green History of the World, Penguin 1993.
  8. World Development Report 1998, World Bank.

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  1. #2 Jesus Christ 01 Nov 11

    1900- 1.6 Billion People,
    2012- 7.0 Billion People,
    112 years- 5.4 Billion People,
    Solution- Stop Creating Children

  2. #3 MacKenzie Graves 25 Sep 14

    I'm writing an essay and would love to use this article as a source. To use this article though, I need to know the author. If there is any way you could email me the author, that would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

  3. #10 Gordon 02 Dec 15


  4. #12 Your Mom 07 Jun 16

    So many bbs

  5. #13 Razan 03 Jul 16

    Well ...

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This article was originally published in issue 309

New Internationalist Magazine issue 309
Issue 309

More articles from this issue

  • The Radical Twentieth Century

    January 1, 1999

    The century is being hijacked. Time to reclaim it, says Chris Brazier.

  • A bunch of fives

    January 1, 1999

    From unsung martyrs to big ideas, from dangerous corporations to ridiculous wars, here is the century in lists of five.

  • The heart of Africa

    January 1, 1999

    Amid attempts to wrestle with conflict in Burundi and DR Congo, former Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere reflects with Ikaweba Bunting on an anti-colonial life.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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