Thursday, November 7, 2019

Hans Rosling’s Magic Washing Machine

This is another of several short pieces meant to preview this year’s Fall Ethics Symposium

Take about 8 minutes and watch this Ted Talk from Hans Rosling, the public health and statistics guru who tragically died from pancreatic cancer in 2017:.

There are a number of important lessons to take from his presentation (and you can watch the longer version HERE). I’ll focus on just two:

First, world population will increase. Predictions are controversial. Rosling has argued that it will go to about 11 billion by 2100 and then level off. At the time “The Magic Washing Machine” was recorded in 2010, world population was a hair under 7 billion; it’s now about 7.7 billion.

Some of this growth will occur in the poorest areas of the world. But this is because conditions for people in the poorest areas of the world are improving (as you can see HERE). When fewer of the children they have tragically die, population in these areas will increase a bit. Also, some of the growth will occur because people will continue to live a little longer. But most of the growth is explained by the fact that there are more people now who are below age 30 than above, and they will have children.

Second, more people will mean more energy consumption -- especially when there are more people who will be wealthier and have better lives (ones that will include magic washing machines). 

These inevitabilities inevitably raise climate worries, which have led to some pretty hard-nosed proposals to curb energy production and use. Is there a way to implement these proposals in a way that will allow everyone eventually to enjoy the magic of washing machines?

Kyle Swan
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State


  1. "But this is because conditions for people in the poorest areas of the world are improving."

    One reason for skepticism about the leveling off of population growth within Rosling's time frame may be that some of the improvements in the poorest areas are due to support from richer countries. Many of the countries that depend on aid have cultural beliefs that encourage having as many children as possible, and these beliefs may not change since the reasons for their increasing prosperity do not necessarily encourage it, as seems to be the case in countries that became more prosperous by different means. (e.g., a willingness to permanently leave one's neighborhood for a better job.)

    1. It looks like there are two things here and I'm not sure whether/how you see them as connected. But, right, the second thing is a big source of the controversy about Rosling's population numbers, though I think even the pessimistic estimates aren't higher than 12 billion.

      More importantly, it's not plausible to attribute the jaw-dropping global advances out of poverty in the past 30-40 years to foreign aid. (Direct) Aid mostly doesn't work and the places that account for the biggest moves don't receive significant amounts. Comparing world regions might be a useful way to address your worry (

    2. I think that's a very good point, but I suspect that it might not be as problematic as it might seem. The same economic forces that raise quality of life also put downward pressure on cultural norms that encourage large families. Irish Catholics, to take one obvious example, still have larger than average families, but they have smaller families now than they did a century ago.

  2. Thank you for such a clear and direct post, Kyle.

    To your closing question: I don't think there are any obvious magic bullets, but there are some general strategies that will at least aim for a balance between access to life-improving technology and the long term environmental concerns. One set of strategies involves subsidizing renewable energy sources in developing countries. Often the state department works hand in hand with fossil fuel corporations to build infrastructure to extract resources and/or provide power to regions of the globe where it is limited. (Not for nothing that Rex Tillerson, Trump's first Secretary of State, was previously Exxon-Mobil's CEO.) I'm not suggesting this is inherently a bad thing--sometimes fossil fuel development might really be the optimal choice. But when government and industry work so close the prospect for corruption should be a real concern. In many of these cases fossil fuel production and use is chosen not because it is the best choice, all things considered, but because industry has it's thumb on the scales. Prioritizing the development and use of renewable energy sources in State Department contracts and treaties would help the poor have their washing machines, and drink their potable water, too.

    1. I totally agree with this: "But when government and industry work so close the prospect for corruption should be a real concern." Of course, the worry about scales also applies to the thumbs of the renewables industry. In particular, it doesn't seem real good that direct subsidies for production of renewables is so, so much more than support of R&D in renewables and other low- and zero-carbon solutions.

      I also agree with your apparent endorsement of taking a cost/benefit approach to these policy issues. One of the 2018 Nobel winners in Econ, William Nordhaus, has taken a lot of unjust criticism for his attempt to attach numbers to the costs and benefits of alternative climate policies.