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Human Development 1900 & 2000 The facts


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, 1900^1^ and 2000^2^


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


In 1900 Europe and North America controlled 84 per cent of the land surface^4^. The colonial system meant that there were only around 35 independent countries, almost half of which were in the Americas^5^. At the end of the century there are 193 independent states^2^.


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:


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, 1950^7^, 1976^8^ and 1997^8^

  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.

New Internationalist issue 309 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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