How Poor Will the World Be in 2050? It Depends.

How would you reconcile the following two disparate claims? Here is the first:

according to a groundbreaking academic study . . . countries among the most impoverished in the world could see acute poverty eradicated within 20 years if they continue at present rates.

And the second:

Climate change and other environmental disasters could put 3.1 billion people into extreme poverty by 2050, if no significant steps are taken, says an annual United Nations report on the state of global development.

The first claim is from a study by researchers at the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative, and the second is from the United Nations’ 2013 Human Development Report. Both were released this week.

The Oxford researchers say that acute poverty (not exactly the same thing as “extreme poverty,” as discussed in the study) could be eradicated in some of the poorest countries by 2033, while the United Nations report says that extreme poverty could swallow up 3.1 billion people — yes, with a b — by 2050.

How to reconcile those claims?

First, the Oxford researchers’ claim is not strictly a prediction — it is an “if-then” statement. If present rates of poverty reduction continue, then some of the poorest countries will eradicate acute poverty. Their study leaves open the possibility that current rates will not continue, or even go into reverse. And if you believe in some kind of conditional convergence, then you would expect current rates of growth to come down.

Second, the Human Development Report’s claim is not strictly a prediction either — it is also an “if-then” statement. If people do nothing whatsoever about climate change, deforestation, and other environmental challenges, then a lot of them are going to be very, very poor. In fact, the 3.1-billion number is only in the worst-case scenario, which the report ominously calls the “environmental disaster scenario.”

Figure 4.4 of the Human Development Report tells the story:

UNHDR 2013 - Figure 4.4

Third, the two claims are about two different groups of people, at two different points in time. So the two claims are not necessarily on opposite ends of some environmental spectrum, nor are they mutually exclusive. Three billion people could fall into extreme poverty by 2050, while the seven or so “star performers” of 2013 will have had already eradicated extreme poverty more than ten years prior. It could very well be that in 2050 Nepal, Rwanda, and Bangladesh are all thriving, while China is not.

What does this tell us about predictions about poverty? The most obvious lesson is that predictions are hard, and you shouldn’t take any of them too seriously. A lot of us could be very poor in 2050 . . . or, the exact opposite. It’s just not clear.

This is sort of obvious if you think about it from the perspective of someone trying to make predictions about the year 2000 in the year 1950 — back then the Cold War was at its apex, the United States had no interstate highway system, and the internet did not exist, so how could you make reliable predictions? What Great Unknowns lie between today and 2050 — is it robots, 3-D printing, or something else?

But the more important lesson is that one of today’s Great Unknowns is the role that the environmental will have on development. No prediction about the future is without some implicit prediction about humans’ relationship with the environment.

So when we’re making predictions about poverty in 2050, the answer is not “X people will be poor.” The answer is just about always “it depends,” and in 2013 we know a lot depends on the environment.


This post has also been published on Jacob’s personal blog, with the generous permission of Sense & Sustainability.

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