World in the Balance

Posted: 15 April 2004

It took all of human history until the year 1804 for our population to reach its first billion. Now a billion new people are added every twelve years. In the industrialized world-Japan, Europe, and the United States-birthrates are falling steeply while the senior citizen population is booming. In this two-hour Earth Day special, the award-winning US science series, NOVA, explores these and other trends in the relationship between people and the planet.

Elderly Japanese
Elderly Japanese
If current population trends continue, well over 40 percent of Japan's population will be aged 60 or older by 2050.© NOVA

With moving personal stories from India, Japan, Kenya, and China, World in the Balance gives an up-to-date global snapshot of today's human family, now numbering 6.3 billion and likely to increase to nearly 9 billion by 2050. Paradoxically, the world is now careening in two completely different directions.

By 2050, the average age across Africa and the Middle East will be 25. In Japan, Europe, and Russia, it will be 50. And in the United States, it will be 40. Many experts argue that these demographic disparities could have severe global repercussions. The programme explores how decisions made now will affect the United States and the Earth over the next 50 years.

Gooday, India. Photo: NOVA
Gooday, India. Photo: NOVA
Like many women in India, Gooday was still in her teens when she married. By the age of 33, she had given birth eight times.© NOVA
Written, produced and directed by Sarah Holt, the first hour programme, 'The People Paradox', investigates three countries where social and economic forces have produced starkly different population profiles. In India, women still bear an average of three to four children. Within a few decades the country will overtake China as the world's most populous nation. NOVA interviews a young Indian woman who nearly died delivering her eighth baby. Three of her children have died, and another pregnancy may jeopardize her life. Nevertheless, her husband and mother-in-law want her to try for another son-a highly prized asset in traditional Indian culture.

While India's population pyramid has the classic shape of a triangle resting on a wide base-with large numbers of youth at the bottom and a small number of elderly at the top-Japan's population pyramid is shifting to look like a triangle standing on its head. There are now more people over 60 than under 20 in Japan. Concerned about paying pensions and decaying economic productivity, the government is using incentives such as bonuses to encourage women to have more children. Yet increasing numbers of Japanese women are declaring their independence from marriage and motherhood to pursue professional careers.

Meanwhile, the population pyramid in sub-Saharan Africa is beginning to resemble an hourglass. Adults between the ages of 20 and 60 are dying in the prime of life, largely due to AIDS, leaving the very old and young to fend for themselves. In a powerful personal story, NOVA interviews a 19-year-old Kenyan woman who suffers from AIDS. Her parents have died, and she is raising her four brothers and sisters as well as a nephew. Like many teenage girls in Africa, she is a victim of predatory sexual behavior by an older male, through whom she contracted HIV. Funding cuts in family planning assistance from the United States are putting many young women at risk for unwanted pregnancies, HIV infection, and illegal backstreet abortions.

Produced and Directed by Chris Schmidt, the second hour programme, 'China Revs Up', takes the pulse of China's hyperactive economy, which is the fastest growing in the history of the world. During the last two decades, China clamped down on its population growth through its controversial one-child policy, but in recent years it has relaxed those rules, moving in the direction of more reproductive freedom. As the sprawling country develops from a poor nation and aspires to a more middle-class lifestyle, China's air, land, and water are beginning to suffer. Already, a massive dust cloud of eroded soil from Mongolia has darkened the skies over North America, and air pollution from Beijing and Shanghai regularly wafts as far as California.

The prospect that all Chinese will strive to live like middle-class Americans is daunting, since it has been calculated that if all the world's people had an American standard of living, two more planets the size of Earth would be needed to support them. But one planet is all there is, and World in the Balance shows that it will take our best scientific and technological efforts to make this one do for all its inhabitants-present and future.

The programme airs nationwide in the United States on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on Tuesday, April 20, 2004 @ 8-10pm ET. Check local listings as dates and times may vary. A copy of the film in DVD or Video (VHS), can be ordered for $19.95 through WGBH, the Boston public television station that produces NOVA. To place an order, go to: WGBH Boston Video shop.