By Donella Meadows
–December 31, 1987–
I read somewhere that 8500 McDonald’s hamburgers are sold every minute. How on earth could they know that? I wondered. What, if anything, does that number mean?
Of course it can’t mean that precisely 8500 hamburgers — no more, and not one Big Mac less — are sold each and every minute. The actual numbers each minute, if they could be measured, must look more like 8532 and 8489. They probably vary more widely than that — surely hamburgers are more popular at 6 pm than at 6 am. Though McDonald’s may be so distributed around the world that the sun never sets on the Golden Arches, still they couldn’t cover the time zones evenly enough to balance out all the diurnal peaks and troughs.
What that 8500 must mean is that some bright statistician at the home office took the monthly hamburger sales figure, divided it by 31 (or 30 or 28), and then by 24 and then by 60 and came up with 8500. A more accurate but far less interesting way of communicating the same information would be, “if you take the reported average monthly sales figure for McDonald’s hamburgers, which is roughly 370 million, and divide by the number of minutes in the month, you come up with an average per-minute hamburger sales rate of 8500, rounded off to the nearest hundred.”
Why express hamburger sales in per-minute terms? Because numbers like 370 million are unimaginable. They make people’s eyes glaze over. I can’t begin to picture a stream of 370 million hamburgers per month. I can hardly handle 8500 per minute, but at least that number punches into my consciousness the intended message, which must be something like: “McDonald’s puts out a humongous lot of hamburgers, day in, day out, minute in, minute out — what a big and important and productive company it must be.”
Enormous numbers do become more digestible when expressed in per-minute terms. Take the government deficit, for instance. That number has been running roughly $200 billion per year, a number that apparently puts the electorate to sleep, since we haven’t yet thrown the rascals out. But — let me get out my calculator here — $200,000,000,000 divided by 365 is $550 million per day, divided by 24 is $23 million per hour, divided by 60 is $380,000 per minute. Every minute, day and night, your government is borrowing $380,000. Does that make it any easier to comprehend the hole you and your future taxes are being dug into?
Anyone can play this per-minute game, and many do. The Hunger Project publicizes widely the “fact” that 24 people starve to death every minute, 18 of them children.
How do they know that? They start with United Nations annual worldwide mortality statistics, which are pretty uncertain, especially in the poorest parts of the world where hunger is greatest and statisticians rarest. I was told once that Burma determines its infant mortality rate by looking up that of Thailand and adding 50%.
Mortality rates may be uncertain, but we have no choice but to use them. The U.N. does the best it can to keep them roughly in the ball park, and they are slowly improving in accuracy. In case you’re interested, the numbers say that roughly 50 million people died of all causes in the world last year. That’s 96 per minute.
Now how much of that mortality is due to hunger? A fairly wild guess is required here — “hunger” is almost never given as a cause of death on a death certificate. Hungry children die of measles and diarrhea and influenza that would not have killed them if they had been properly nourished. Most of them die without benefit of a death certificate anyway. U.N. experts in field stations all over the world work to estimate what fraction of deaths would not have occurred if malnutrition had not been a factor. Their figures range from 13 to 17 million deaths each year due to hunger-related causes.
The lowest figure, 13 million, comes to 24.7 deaths per minute. The Hunger Project is being conservative to say 24 per minute. If expressing that horrendous number in per-minute terms makes it any more real to people, more power to the Hunger Project.
Some big numbers are thrown around about the loss of tropical forests. In the early 1980s those numbers were so wildly different, source by source, that nobody knew what to believe. Then the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. took on a global forest study, using satellite mapping, aerial photography, and ground surveys.
They came out with what is now the official figure; about 18 million acres of tropical forest are being lost each year. That’s 34 acres a minute. An area the size of my farm every two minutes. An area the size of Maine or Indiana every year. That number, by the way, is related to the sales rate of hamburgers — in Latin America a major reason for forest clearing is to graze cattle to provide beef exports for gringo fast-food chains.
We could on. Every minute 162 people are added to the world’s population. Every minute 60 million barrels of oil are burned. Every minute 1.5 million dollars are spent on armaments.
It took you somewhere between two and five minutes to read this column.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988