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Population clock

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Sometimes my mind wanders and I find myself pondering the most unusual things. It happened again recently when, out of the blue, a thought popped into my head about global population. I suddenly found myself subconsciously asking: How many humans have ever been born?

Finding the answer to this intriguing question saw me consult several websites. I was going around in circles until I hit upon the work of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau (PRB). The PRB is a private, non-profit organisation that studies population related issues.

The PRB collects, analyses and disseminates demographic data. Its most popular article ever - How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth? - was first published in 1995. It was subsequently updated in 2002 and 2011. I managed to locate further PRB statistics up to 2015.

Demographic researchers at the PRB estimate that, as of 2015, 108.2 billion people have existed since the dawn of modern humans. By subtracting the 7.4 billion of us who are alive today, we arrive at the figure of 100.8 billion people who have died before us.

From the above data, we can calculate that just under seven per cent of all those ever born were alive in 2015. Viewed from a different perspective, we can say that the dead outnumber the living by almost 14 to 1. This dispels the myth that there are more people alive today than have ever lived.

By delving back into the mists of time, the PRB researchers believe that the first two Homo sapiens (some call them Adam and Eve) walked the Earth about 50,000 BC. At the dawn of agriculture, about 8,000 BC, the population of the world was approximately five million. By AD 1, human population had risen to circa 300 million.

By 1650, the world’s population had climbed to about 500 million and then passed the 1 billion mark by 1800. From 1850 until now, the planet’s living population has increased by more than sixfold. Last August, the PRB forecast that the Earth will be home to 9.8 billion people by 2050 - an increase of 31 per cent in just 33 years.

The world’s population is predicted to hit the 10 billion mark in 2053 if the PRB’s 2050 assumptions are applied to subsequent years - and this will impact the dead-to-living ratio. By 2053, the living will make up close to nine per cent of those who have ever been born while the dead will outnumber the living by almost 10 to 1.

Some demographers believe that the world’s population will stabilise at 10 billion inhabitants. At that rate of population growth, the living will never outnumber the dead. The number of people alive will always be dwarfed by the number of history’s dead.

Throughout most of human history, life expectancy has been very short. Infant mortality in the early days of our existence was very high - perhaps 500 infant deaths per 1,000 births. And in the Middle Ages, many people never made it out of childhood, living only 10-12 years.

Infectious diseases have been the most common cause of death throughout human history by a wide margin. Plagues like the Black Death killed 50 million Europeans in the 14th century - about 60 per cent of Europe’s entire population. In contrast, there were 42 million deaths because of World War II in Europe.

We are forever dying and this impacts contemporary society in myriad ways. For example, Facebook has over one billion users and 30 million of these died in the first eight years of its existence. At the current rate that Facebook users are kicking the bucket - more than 10,000 per day - it is estimated that by 2065 Facebook will have more accounts belonging to the dead than the living.

Not surprisingly, digital condolences are on the rise. Family and friends set up memorial pages for loved ones on social media sites and this extends the digital footprint of the deceased beyond the grave. Twitter has also become a popular medium to express grief and pay tribute.

Believe it or not, there is even talk of the possibility of offering individuals social media immortality after their biological death. A team of academics from the University of Melbourne put together a brief article explaining how digital afterlife technology (which is in its infancy) allows social media information to be harvested in order to construct a digital personification of the deceased.

As creepy as it sounds, this technology creates an interactive, digital avatar of the deceased which can “chat” to other people in the deceased’s communication style long after the person has passed away. The avatar is akin to a digital alter-ego, providing some quasi-permanence to a person’s existence.

If the futurists are to be believed, the dying will increasingly prefer to be remembered with a virtual space on the Internet rather than a traditional headstone in a cemetery. Personally, I have no desire to blur the line between life and death.

Good grief! When my time is up, I would rather rest in peace than live in cyber space.

Regards,
Paul J. Thomas, CEO

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CEO Paul Thomas