Not Your Parents’ National Geographic

Not Your Parents’ National Geographic

Cool (as in climate) food at Beijing's Vegan Hut, in the world's most populous nation

Venerable, a bit staid, with vibrant photos is how I’d describe the National Geographic, the magazine of the U.S. National Geographic Society, I read in my youth. Like many people of my age, my family kept each monthly issue for years. We considered it a quasi-encyclopedia, a reference we might (but rarely actually did) refer to for articles or sublime images about undiscovered parts of our world. But today’s National Geographic of today is less a museum piece. Often the issues explore current global issues (oil, extinction and most recently, the still-growing human population) through serious, engaged, even-handed reporting and those same arresting photos I remember from my youth, but now, often joined by some very good graphics.

The magazine has a special series on “7 billion,” the number of people who’ll be alive before the end of 2011. This issue (May 2011) has a pungent graphic representing the number of land animals eaten around the world each year: the sum = more than 60 billion, including 52 billion chickens. “Estimating animal populations, especially wild ones, is hard,” writes Nigel Holmes, “but here’s a look at one category of animals we can count: the ones we eat.” Video with the graphic here. And the lead-off article in the “7 billion” series tied population numbers closely to consumption and social factors like gender and power. And it mentioned the role of meat consumption in resource depletion and climate change:

It’s too late to keep the new middle class of 2030 from being born. But it’s not too late to change how they and the rest of us will produce and consume food and energy. “Eating less meat seems more reasonable to me than saying,” ‘Have fewer children,’ [French demographer Hervé] Le Bras says.

Surprising? Yes, for the National Geographic of my youth. But not, it seems, for this year’s model. More from the 7 billion project, including multimedia, is available here.