Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Village of 100


If you have a bed to sleep in, a refrigerator for food, a closet for clothing, if you have a roof over your head each night, you are wealthier that 75 percent of the world’s population. According to the Minature Earth Project, if the world’s population were reduced to 100 people, 6 individuals would control 59 percent of the world’s money. The “State of the Village Report,” originally published by Dartmouth professor Donella Meadows in 1990, was used to calculate the statistics which many of us have seen in the form of an email titled "Village of 100." If the world’s population were reduced to 100 people, what would our global village look like? Since 1990, Ms. Meadows’ research has been circulated through millions of email inboxes and shared in thousands of classrooms, mine included. The updated version published by the Miniature Earth Project includes recent population statistics from the UN and the Population Reference Bureau.

The statistics are overwhelming. An estimated 4.3 people are born every second around the world. Around 2.5 billion people do not have access to improved sanitation. Almost 2 million people died from tuberculosis last year. More than 500,000 women die each year from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. But it is especially hard for students to grasp the significance of such large numbers. Can you picture 2.5 billion people? How about 2 million? What about just 500,000? Students cannot fathom the enormity and the implications of such statistics. I would argue that none of us can. It is when these statistics hit home, when we put a face to these numbers that they have power. We discuss a similar sort of phenomena in class when we talk about Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. It is shocking to hear about the Jews, political prisoners, mentally ill, handicapped, homosexuals – the millions and millions of people who died in concentration camps during WWII, but it is not until we can put a face to the horror that the numbers and the story become real.

Similarly, when our world population of 6.6 billion is reduced to 100, we can begin to understand the statistics. Yes, it is an over simplification, but it is one that we need to make the statistics real. It would mean nothing to my students if I told them only 1.98 billion people in the world have a bank account; it sounds like a rather impressive number. However, when I tell them that in a village of 100, if you have a bank account, you are one of the 30 wealthiest people in the world, suddenly the statistic starts to make sense. Seventy people do not have the means or the money to open a bank account, something all of them have. Or, instead of telling students that 3.5 billion people struggle to live off less than $2 a day, I have half of my class stand and tell them to think of our class as a global microcosm and those standing would have to find a way to clothe, feed, shelter, educate, and entertain themselves with less than $2 a day, the statistic comes alive. The numbers have a face. They become real.

So what do I do with these numbers? How do I help students understand their responsibility to our global community? Especially at the start of each semester, I am stared down by students who declare they have no responsibility to a larger community. “We all have to work for what we have, so everyone else should,” is a common first response. As the semester unfolds, students begin to understand that it is sheer luck that they were born when and where they were as most people in the world do not have it so fortunate. But even for those students who make that connection, fewer still understand the responsibility, connection, power they have to help those less fortunate. Is this a by-product of the American dream? Have we really all become so myopic that we believe the myth that it is possible for every human being to “pull themselves up by their boot straps”? One of the statistics that breaks my heart is this:

Of the industrialized nations, the United States has one of the largest populations living in poverty, about 17 percent.

It is pitiful that the wealthiest nation in the world does not even help its own people, let alone those outside her boarders. When did we stop caring for our fellow human beings?

(Statistics taken from the Population Reference Bureau)
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