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How the world is turning tropical right before our eyes

A new report on the State of the Tropics has revealed rapid changes in human and environmental health in the Earth’s tropical regions.

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By Sandra Harding, James Cook University

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. That report and this four-part series – based on the work of 12 universities and research institutions worldwide – explains trends in population growth, health and the environment, and the challenges for diverse nations such as 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Tropics was lost, but now is found.

The Conversation

Professor Sandra Harding is Chair of Universities Australia and Vice-Chancellor of James Cook University, which produced the State of the Tropics report together with 11 other universities and research institutions worldwide.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Report typos and corrections to [email protected].
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