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How the world is turning tropical before our eyes

Our Tropical Future: A new report on the State of the Tropics has revealed rapid changes in human and environmental health in the Earth’s tropical regions. This is the first in a four-part series about…

This Vietnamese school girl is growing up in a new era: by the time she is middle-aged, 60% of the world’s children will be living in a tropical region. UN Photo/Mark Garten, CC BY-NC-ND

Our Tropical Future: A new report on the State of the Tropics has revealed rapid changes in human and environmental health in the Earth’s tropical regions. This is the first in a four-part series about the new report, based on the work of 12 universities and research institutions worldwide, which shows the challenges facing diverse nations such as Burma/Myanmar to manage those changes.

A marble bust of Aristotle, copied from a Greek bronze original from 330 BC. Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

More than 2000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle declared that there were three zones of the world – the Frigid Zone, the Temperate Zone and the Torrid Zone – and only one of these, the Temperate Zone, was a place where civilised human beings could live.

Fast forward to 2014. The Tropics are now home to four out of every 10 people alive on earth today, as well as 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Some of the most pressing issues of our time – including rapid population growth, rising obesity rates, reducing poverty, and the need to preserve vital freshwater and forests – are all playing out in Aristotle’s Torrid Zone.

As our new report on the State of the Tropics reveals, by 2050, 60% of the world’s children will be living in a tropical part of the world, shown in the map below. Whether you live in the Tropics or not, it’s a vast and diverse region that no one can afford to ignore any more.

Tropical areas of the world. State of the Tropics, CC BY-NC-ND

Launched by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar over the weekend, with simultaneous events in Singapore, Townsville and Cairns, the State of the Tropics report shows where life is getting better, but also where the biggest challenges for the future lie. Its findings include:

Aung San Suu Kyi, who launched the State of the Tropics report over the weekend. AAP Image/Paul Crock

  • Life expectancy has increased across all regions of the Tropics in the past 60 years, but is still well below that of the rest of the world.
  • The rate of adult obesity in the Tropics is lower than the rest of the world, but increasing at a faster rate.
  • Globally, extreme poverty has declined by almost 50% since the early 1980s, but more than two-thirds of the world’s poorest people live in the Tropics.
  • Education is patchy: adult literacy rates have increased faster in the Tropics than the rest of the world, but are still considerably lower. And despite those improvements, the number of illiterate adults in the Tropics is growing.
  • The Tropics has just over half of the world’s renewable water resources (54%), yet almost half its population is considered vulnerable to water stress.

A race around the world’s centre

The Tropics are an extraordinarily diverse region, covering an area surrounding the equator between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer that includes parts or all of countries such as Brazil, Bolivia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Countries that fall within the Tropics. State of the Tropics 2014, CC BY

It also takes in parts of nations that often don’t see themselves as belonging to the Tropics, including southern China.

Of all the world’s developed countries, Australia has the largest tropical landmass. That places Australia at the intersection of two great axes of global growth: the Asian axis that everyone recognises as vitally important to the world’s future, and the Tropical axis that is now being revealed.

Three years ago, 12 universities and research institutions from around the world, dedicated to the Tropics through either their location or their mission, determined it was time to take a fresh look at the Tropics.

With this in mind, our group set the parameters of an historic report on the State of the Tropics.

Our main aim was to answer a very simple question: is life in the Tropics getting better? But we also had a geopolitical goal in mind too, which was to change the way the world views itself.

Seeing the world anew

In viewing the world more recently as a set of dichotomies – north/south, east/west, developing/developed, Asian/the rest – Aristotle’s powerful lateral notion of the world in general and the Tropics in particular have been consigned to obscurity.

An engraving by Gustave Doré for an 1876 edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It depicts a sailor with water-serpents in the sea around him. Gustave Doré/Wikimedia Commons

But even today, among many people living outside the Tropics the word still evokes some of the negative sentiments that Aristotle popularised all those years ago.

Directly or more subtly influenced by Aristotle, Western philosophers and explorers over the centuries have overwhelmingly portrayed the Tropics as a place of pestilence: inhospitable, disease-ridden and backward.

Writing some centuries after Aristotle, Pliny the Elder riffed on these themes. The Torrid Zone was full of human troglodytes who ate vipers and men who moved like serpents. Ancient Indian geographers described the Tropics as a place inhabited by evil daemons, as a gulf like that between the living and the dead.

Later literature reflected these themes as well. Consider Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Becalmed in the tropics, the sea boiled like a pot, throats were parched, and slimy things crawled upon the slimy sea.

Beyond pestilence and paradise

Yet some Iberian explorers saw the Tropics as places of great wonder. For them, the Tropics represented the completion of the world: it was the Garden of Eden, a world lost when Adam and Eve were cast out.

You can hear and see the wonder of exploring paradise in 18th century poet Rafael Landivar’s exultation of plants and animals, and a century later in the beautiful art works of Paul Gauguin.

Arearea by Paul Gauguin. Musée d'Orsay/Wikipedia

There is much more to the rich history of the Tropics and it is fascinating to dwell there. But given 21st century statistics, it is well past time that we rediscover the Tropics, and the power of Aristotle’s lateral conception of the world.

To do so means charting the Tropics, not in ships, but through data on the region’s power and potential.

A boy at a sing-sing village ceremony on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Mark Ziembicki, CC BY-NC-ND

And we need to understand it not through an outdated Western lens that lurched between pestilence and paradise, but to consider it as a vitally important place where most of the world’s children will be living by 2050.

The trends we have identified in this State of the Tropics report demand the attention of global policy makers, as they show how the Tropics will, to a large extent, determine our global future.

The world is changing: we all know that. The news is it is changing in ways that defy current conceptions of our world. There is every good reason to be gripped by the power and potential of the Tropics, and what it means for global development.

The Tropics was lost, but now is found.

Further reading:
Earth’s generation next will be wealthier, but not always healthier
Wild creatures of the tropics are being lost before they’re found
Burma emerges from a shadowy past, but progress lies ahead

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    "Whether you live in the Tropics or not, it’s a vast and diverse region that no one can afford to ignore any more." I hadn't realised that the region was already being ignored! "The Tropics" is but a creation of human imagination, driven by our need to categorize and distinguish -- somewhat like the need to draw lines on maps, creating artificial nations, which then have to develop their own special unique features, traditions and mythologies, for reinforcement.
    There seems to be a need among…

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  2. Jacky Gleason

    Retired at Tertiary Education


    Your description of the tropics is perversely anglo-centric!

    How about revising your 'impression' so that at least geography and peoples are released from your distant wonderment and be honest enough to discuss the debilitating destruction that is in the majority 'the tropics'.

    1. Liz Minchin

      Queensland Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Jacky Gleason

      Jacky I'm not entirely clear what point you're trying to make, but the "distant wonderment" is certainly not accurate: the author lives in the tropics. And the point of this article as I'd read it (and I edited it, so I do hope it was all clear; if not I'm partly to blame) was to challenge outdated but pervasive myths about the reality of life in a very diverse band of the world, largely driven by people who'd never been there (eg Aristotle).

      Sandra is in Myanmar so is unlikely to be able to reply at the moment. I suspect your concern about people commenting from a distance is very much in line with what this article was about, so perhaps another reading with this extra context or taking a look at the full report could help. You may agree with Sandra more than you think!

      All the best, Liz

    2. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Liz Minchin

      I agree with Jacky Gleason.
      The description of the tropics is very anglo-centric. However, even though the author lives in the tropics she can only write from her perspecitive, which is that of an anglo (or what ever description she prefers) person whose heritage is from cold European climates.

      The piece does also read as though the tropics are a new site to be discovered, explored and exploited, heralding a new wave of colonisation perhaps.

      I disagree also with the statement that 'the tropics was lost, but now its found'. That statement demonstrates the Eurocentric focus of the paper. The people who live in the tropis have never 'lost' it so that it needed 'finding'.

    3. Jacky Gleason

      Retired at Tertiary Education

      In reply to Liz Minchin

      Don't try to second guess what I think, especially on behalf of someone else.

      Let me begin by saying that Sandra may, at present enjoy a position at JCU, she does maintain a strong Anglo view of global tropical geography through the comfortable lens of Townsville, Queensland and Northern Australia.

      A visit to Myanmar does not make one an expert for non Australian tropical regions. Also the article smacks of colonial wealth, pleasure and social transfer for the enrichment of those in extra tropical…

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  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    In reading this article, I could not be but drawn to the photograph alongside Aung Dan Suu Kyi.
    Though I have not travelled so widely in the tropics, I have seen and read of enough to have some appreciation for the heading of that article and in having a look at it, the opening paragraphs:
    " Any analysis worth its salt of what it means to be poor will include indicators explicitly linked to health – nutrition, for example, or mortality rates. But in reality, the many different aspects of poverty…

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    1. Gil Thorncraft

      Concerned World Citizen

      In reply to Greg North

      "The many different aspects of poverty".
      Most, if not all linked to overpopulation.

    2. Graham C Edwards


      In reply to Greg North

      'Every dog has its day', dontcha know Greg :-) And across time those days ebb and flow across the topics as much as anywhere else.

      In fact while technology aids the spread of information, it didn't fill a void. The human race across all regions has always been in touch. There's always been the Marco Polo's and one dogs day has always carried over into anothers. England was profoundly affected by Rome, Athens, et al. Our antiquarians give Egypt quite a rap, maybe because it's harder for mother nature to wipe the slate in desert than Jungle.

  4. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    " Aristotle declared that ......only .....the Temperate Zone, was a place where civilised human beings could live." He was wrong.
    Why would anyone live outside the tropics or where I am almost on the Equator? Everyday the same weather and temperature and length = summer. No earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis. Fantastic food, excellent heathcare (4 private hospitals) and no income tax for retirees. Several golf courses and beaches and even a rugby club. And 4m of rain a year, but sunny mornings. Sorry Aristotle you're wrong.

    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      There's usually exceptions to a lot of things in life Colin and hey are often reflective of a small portion of the whole and with Sarawak you probably have a population of well less than .1% of that in the tropics in total and then likely a relatively small % of that population who are considered to be well off, supported by oil wealth.

  5. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Maybe Susan's focus is a portent of doom. And her motive to showcase and privilege the regional challenges facing her role context and outlook.

    Moving on, I observe that in countries straddling the tropics its the equatorial regions that surpass the subtropical in resources, biodiversity and wealth, e.g. Southern India. Savannah grasslands, both in terms of climate and resources, are hardly as attractive, resourceful and peaceful (even perhaps as romantic and appealing to the imagination) as coastal climes and tropical forests.

    And perchance Liz Minchin would tell us the information source for the remark that "ancient Indian geographers described the Tropics as a place inhabited by evil daemons."

    Nice article!

    1. Liz Minchin

      Queensland Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Don't know that one Michael – hopefully if Sandra gets a chance to take a look at comments she'll be able to add a link (or possibly no easy hyperlinks for that, so perhaps a book/paper title instead).
      Glad you liked it, Liz

    2. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Liz Minchin

      Thanks, Liz. Its just that, as an Indologist, I am unaware of such a reference, other than in the Ramayana saga. So, if you could pass that request onto Sandra I'd be grateful.

      Just reflecting further: Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' thesis about the Tropics, as it is now called (and which Sandra evidently, and properly in my view, contests) didn't simply attract the support of white racists, as alleged and criticised by Chinua Achebe and some others, but also, on the information provided by Sandra, by Indians as well.

    3. Graham C Edwards


      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Mathew23:27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like to white washed sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.

      It's in the context of that biblical reference that I find the line

      "In a very few hours I arrived in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre. Prejudice no doubt"

      the most interesting in 'The Heart of Darkness'. He's tipping us off, no doubt about that. But you can interpret it as you will. Personally I think he's callihng himself a hypocrite. He is the scribe pandering to an audience of English Victorian values; from whom he needs to make a quid. I think he was well aware of the books shortcomings. I forgive him. I like Conrad a lot.

    4. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Graham C Edwards

      Thank you, Graham, for the scriptural reference and your Conradian insight. I'm quite sure he straddled the great divide between colonial and postcolonial readings, especially of the Tropics, since my introduction to 'Heart of Darkness' was in the Sixties, when modernism and the decolonisation process were at their social, cultural and political summit.

      My own blindness to Conrad's religiosity arises out of his familial abandonment of a social Catholicism; though, naturally, I also applaud the semblance…

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    5. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      I might add that it is the darker-skinned lower castes that in the main inhabit the subtropical parts of India, which was why I continue to ask Sandra and Liz for the source of their reference to "ancient Indian geographers describ(ing) the Tropics as a place inhabited by evil daemons." It sounds to me like an Elizabethan Tudor reference, rather than an indigenous Indian one.

  6. angela meyer

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Did the lens of genesis teach us to care for our gardens?