Kate Allen The greatest story never told

He calls it the biggest story of our lifetime – and he’s on a mission to make sure that everybody knows it.

Hans Rosling – rockstar data wrangler, global stats icon, Swedish health professor – will use a one-hour BBC TV programme on Thursday to try to convince us we don’t know what we think we know about the world.

This vital truth: the global population boom is fizzling out. “This is a fact that media have missed. It has failed to communicate,” Rosling told the FT.

The rate of growth of the world’s population accelerated sharply over the past half a century, leading to much rhetoric about over-population and exhaustion of the planet’s resources.

But, as Rosling will argue in tomorrow night’s programme, the world’s population is set to plateau by the end of the century. All that Malthusian rhetoric about the population timebomb? Redundant.

This isn’t just another plucked-from-thin-air forecast. In fact, the driving factor behind the reversal of everything we think we know about future population growth has already happened.

It’s the birth rate.

Globally, the average number of children being born per woman has plummeted in the past 50 years, and it’s still falling. Most countries are either below or near to the replacement rate (the number of births per woman needed to keep the population at a steady level – it’s 2.33, by the way).

The effect of that will filter through within two generations, meaning that the world’s population will not continue on its current, almost exponential trajectory. Instead it will plateau.

This is good news, Rosling tells us – the world really isn’t in as bad a shape as we think it is. But, while this radical demographic change has been taking place, it’s received very little public attention, he contends.

For example, he asks, did you know that Iran’s birth rate is lower than Britain’s? And Bangladesh has cut its birth rate substantially through a programme of public education and contraception; two-children families are now the norm.

There’s plenty more where that came from in the full programme – for example, the distribution of global wealth. The FT was lucky enough to attend the filming, so we’ve had a sneak preview. Anyone who’s already a fan of Rosling’s animated charts is in for a treat – and if you haven’t already seen any of his work, you may find that he makes stats more fun than you ever thought possible.

‘Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population’ will be broadcast on BBC Two, Thursday November 7, at 9pm.