Population of the Dead

Jon Gosier —  November 16, 2009 — 26 Comments

How many people have ever lived? While doing research about populations for my last piece, I began to wonder just how many people had ever walked the face of the earth. The articles I found [here and here] were intriguing so I decided to visualize them as well. Link to the high-res.


Text from the image:

The numbers are highly speculative but are as accurate as modern science allows. It’s widely accepted that prior to 2002 there had been somewhere between 106 and 140 billion homo sapiens born to the world. The graphic below uses the conservative number (106 bn) as the basis for a concentric circle graph. The red dot in the center is scaled to represent how many people are currently living (red) versus the dead (white). The vertical line represents time. The spectral graph shows the population ‘benchmarks’ that were used to estimate the population over time. Adding up the population numbers gets you to 106 billion. The two spheres are then used to compare against other numbers.

Update Jan 29, 2010: Minor Spelling and Numeric Errors Corrected.

Update Feb 12, 2010: Now with 77,000+ views on Flickr.

The hypothetical maximum ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth based on current trends, known resources and existing technologies. The world population is expected to reach this size around 2050.

As one might guess, carrying capacity means scientists have no idea if the world can sustain human life beyond this point, but most would be inclined to say not. Especially since we’re seeing many signs of our affect on the planet with the current 6.8 billion. We know all too well that with the current estimated 3 billion people living in poverty, things will be a lot worse for the vast majority of the unborn, as many of them will be born into conditions of ‘extreme poverty’.

Economist Jeffery Sachs discusses sustainability, not just for the sake of those living now, but for unborn billions in this interview with EarthSky.

Jon Gosier

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Founder of Apps4Africa, Appfrica, and D8A

26 responses to Population of the Dead

  1. 

    You are on a roll Jon. Keep up the good work!

    • 

      Thanks! Several more planned, they're time consuming though. Hopefully those posters start looking like appetizing christmas gifts. I need to support my 'data-habit'.

      • 

        Interesting stuff. I found you through iFOUND! because of the great graphic. Dug a little more and discovered via an article in the Economist dated 29th Oct 2009 that the human race is self-limiting after all – it seems that the 10 billion souls the Earth can sustain will be reached and that the global population will actually stabilise at that point. Maybe once we get to that point we can start to clean the Aegean stables and start addressing global imbalances with a bit more zeal.
        Economist article was called "go forth and multiply a lot less" for those who want to find it.

      • 

        Amazing work! Thanks a lot for visualizing this. I think it has both philosophical and practical value, it is like a map of an area in the centre of our existence not yet fully explored. Would be thrilled to see more like this!

        Best wishes from somewhere in the white circle,
        Audun

      • 

        From someone somewhere in the RED circle, I mean… At least for a while:)

  2. 

    The poverty argument again. People are not in poverty because of overpopulation. People are in poverty because of political circumstances. Giving money to people in poverty will not relieve poverty. Changing the economic structure of these places can change the poverty status. Top ten most densely populated coutries, and GDP per capita (U.S. dollars): Macau (40,400), Monaco (30,000), Singapore (39,500), Hong Kong (30,700), Gibralter (37,500), Vatican City (can't find: i guess treasures in heaven, not on earth), Malta (20,700), Bermuda (69,900), Bahrain (29,500), Bangledesh (500).

    • 

      Nothing in this post says anything about giving anyone money or that poverty is caused by overpopulation, nor does it imply that that giving anyone anything is a solution.

      If you re-read carefully you'll see that what I said is that poverty is compounded by overpopulation. If a family of three can't get by on their earnings, how can a family of five get by on the same earnings? Also, the more people there are, the more people who are 'born into poverty'. All that means is that as the worlds population increases, so does the population of the poor but not necessarily the population of the rich.

      I'm not sure I follow your logic, as I agree with you and didn't imply otherwise.

      • 

        I think that the mention of population, sustainability, and poverty in the same breath gave the impression of correlation. So thanks for clarifying that.Certain human practices may not be sustainable (e.g. industrial scale agriculture that uses a huge amount of land, and water, and pollutes the groundwater), but the arrogance of suggesting (as you you say most scientists do) that the "carrying capacity" of the earth has been exceeded is breathtakingly. There has been NOTHING to suggest this is the case. It is (again) a tired theory from the 1970's resurfacing.

        I'm pretty optimistic about the elasticity of both the earth, and humankind. Earth as a biome has survived Volcanoes, Ice ages, meteor strikes, and countless other cataclysms. We humans are more fragile, but manage to carve out an environment for ourselves wherever we are.

  3. 

    Can you estimate the number of members of other species who have ever lived? I'm particularly interested in how many ants have ever lived.

  4. 

    How many Gorillas have ever lived?

  5. 

    I'm puzzled by the alive-dead graphic. If 6.8 billion are alive now, compared to 106 dead, shouldn't that little red dot be a lot bigger, so that only about 15.6 of 'em would fit inside the larger circle?

  6. 

    Let’s get this straight, there are more people alive today than have ever lived, but now and only now we are worrying about sustaining life because of poverty! So we are to assume those that lived before us had it easy? Lets not kid ourselves, those human kin who lived before us had it much harder, even though people go hungry and are sick today in large numbers, lets at least compare the sick and dying numbers of today, to the sick and dying of the past at lest to get a proper gauge on poverty,,, for starters everyone in the past died, and most everyone live as hard or harder life than anyone today…. for example least we can say everyone now present, today, is breathing, and to have the ability to breath, and lungs is as much as a rich as any thing, as a car, as oil, as house or running water, so we see Poverty is relative. but death is not, and we all will die, now how much redistribution of wealth of other peoples hard earned work, which is called slavery by the way, the poverty mongers want to peddle it aint going ot cure death, or end such a human travesty that we end up categorizing as poverty, just because somebody else lived a few years longer.

  7. 

    This the old notion that our recourses are finite, is as out of date as the flat earth,, the universe in infinitely bigger than any of our ansestors would have imagined, those same ancestors that taught us to conserve not out of reverce for the earth, as much of out of need for their own survival, not over graze, not use too much, those are ones the who are dead now, they had no means to travel, no means to industrialize, and no means to harvest the riches of the earth and other parts of the solar system, or any possible idea that it was even possible, folks,,, the universe is infinite, and can hold many more of us, than have ever lived and living combined,,, the only thing we don’t have room for or the feeble minded nay sayers, who want to continue to establish the notion of slavery by re-distribution wealth of somebody else’s had labor with the goal to and limit and control populations(often of certain races) killing babies by abortion or other, those with short sightedness and others just plain evil (yes lets use the word because it means something) who want to stick to the old ways, The universe is big, drill baby drill!

  8. 

    You do beautiful work.

    I don't understand the size of the white dots in the red circles where the white dots represent genocide, war and smallpox. Shouldn't these dots be larger? Shouldn't the dot representing smallpox (500MM) be appx. one-fourteenth of the size of the red circle representing 6.8BB? I have probably misunderstood.

    P.S. You're missing a letter in the sentence "The combined number of people currently living in Asia, Africa and Latin America…"

  9. 

    Since the chart maker is using circles, the population sizes should be represented by AREA, not RADIUS. That 6.8-billion circle is a lot less than 106/6.8 times the area of the large circle.

  10. 

    Er, i think you got your graphs wrong. The big white circle's radius is about 15 times the radius of the red dot, but it surface should be 15 times the one of red dot. The radius should be about 4x.
    I think it misleads into thinking the living are a small proportion of the "dead", although it's not the case.

    ONE OUT OF FIFTEEN HUMANS EVER BORN IS ALIVE NOW. (now that is big)

  11. 

    Thank you for the post and presenting this idea in graphics. I suspect that I'm not nearly as well educated as those who have left comments before me and yet, not surprised that some people don't seem to "get it"… and have left comments as though they've been distracted by a fly buzzing about in the room.

  12. 

    Strange why no one reported it before, but there is a minor cosmetic bug. "1750 A.D." mark – obviously first comma in 31,71,931,513 is positioned wrong, the number should be 3,171,931,513…

  13. 

    Looking at the numbers it really gives you an idea of the impact humans have on this planet, it also makes me wonder just how many people this planet can actually afford to hold giving the incredicbly high ratio of living vs dead right now. But even the dead can affect the planet, after all those bodies have to end up somwhere. Great article this one really made me think

    • 

      Yeah, those bodies have to go somewhere, and although they decompose for the most part, it is a grim idea you call to mind: it is one that reminds me of the plague in England and how infrastructure changed overnight to deal with all the bodies.

  14. 

    Fascinating aritculo now beginning to understand many things after reading it. I understand that things do not go too well in the world, for we are many and there will be many more.
    I guess that's the advancement of medicine etc …
    The big problem is that, as you say in the article, things will not improve simply because of two reasons, first, as indicated by the study, by global population growth, the second is that by nature humans are very greedy, little austere and costs shared.

  15. 

    As I understand it. the carrying capacity is the total volume the earth can sustain at any given moment, but that assumes that all variables are constant, right? A shift in resource usage or weather patterns throws this thing off a bit.

    What a thought provoking study and graphic. Thanks for sharing.

  16. 

    I am so excited about this discussion.I like the comments but i think as for now i dont have a right to speak because i dont have enough information.i will search in the literature and pose some questions later.

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