Pocket World in Figures: A common booklet for a global readership

In this article, Ronnie Cohen writes about a UK publication involving measurement that is aimed at a global readership.

This year, The Economist has published the 25th edition of the annual Pocket World in Figures booklet. The 2016 edition is full of facts and figures about the modern world.


Much of the content in this booklet would not be possible without systems of measurement. I note it is overwhelmingly metric. This is not surprising because it is written for a global readership and the metric system is the world’s common measurement language.

I assure you that I am not trying to sell you this booklet and have no connections with the publication of Pocket World in Figures or with The Economist. The point of my article is to show an example of the benefits for international publishers, writers and readers alike the benefits of using a common global measurement system where all units are the same and represent exactly the same quantities everywhere.

Only a few non-metric measurements in common use for specific applications appear in this booklet. They are:

  • Barrels for oil production and consumption
  • $ per square foot for office rents
  • Gross tons for shipbuilding deliveries
  • Twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) for cargo volumes at the busiest ports
  • Troy ounces for official gold holdings (Country Profiles section)

These are the only non-metric units that I have found in this booklet. The number of phenomena measured in non-metric units is insignificant compared to what is measured in metric units. Those measured in metric units in this booklet includes:

Phenomenon Measurement
Largest Countries square kilometres
Highest Mountains metres
Largest Rivers kilometres
Largest Non-Polar Deserts (1) square kilometres
Largest Lakes square kilometres
Largest Islands square kilometres
Tallest Buildings metres
Biggest Producers tonnes
Commodity Producers tonnes
Commodity Consumers tonnes
Natural Gas cubic metres
Coal million tonnes of oil equivalent
Largest Energy Producers million tonnes of oil equivalent
Largest Energy Consumers million tonnes of oil equivalent
Largest Consumption Per Person kilograms of oil equivalent
Longest Road Networks kilometres
Densest Road Networks kilometres per square kilometre of land area
Most Crowded Road Networks number of vehicles per kilometre of road network
Longest Distance Travelled kilometres
Total Cargo of Busiest Airports tonnes
Longest Railway Networks kilometres
Most Rail Passengers kilometres per person per year
Most Rail Freight million tonne-kilometres per year
Food Supply calories
Beer Drinkers (2) litres per person
Biggest Emitters of Carbon Dioxide tonnes
Largest Amount of Carbon Dioxide Emitted Per Person tonnes
Most Polluted Capital Cities micrograms per cubic metre
Largest Forests square kilometres
Area (Country Profiles) square kilometres
Population Density (Country Profiles) population per square kilometre
Total Energy Output (Country Profiles) million tonnes of oil equivalent
Total Energy Consumption (Country Profiles) million tonnes of oil equivalent
Energy Consumption Per Person kilograms of oil equivalent

Footnotes for table:
(1) Deserts are defined as having an annual precipitation of 250 millilitres or less.
(2) Beer Drinkers: Figures for 2013.

These days, we take it for granted that we can read books, articles and web pages containing statistics written anywhere in the world where all metric units used mean the same to readers and writers alike no matter where they are based in the world. This has practical benefits for sharing and using recipes, information distribution, global publishing, commerce, research collaboration and so on. This was not always the case. Before the introduction of the metric system, states had their own systems of measurement, which often used unique units. Even units with the same names such as pounds and ounces, feet and inches, represented different quantities in different countries. This is still the case with tons, gallons, pints and fluid ounces, not to mention units such as teaspoons and cups used in recipes. Also, the same unit names can represent different quantities in the same system, depending on their context (e.g. “ounce” can be mean troy or avoirdupois ounce, “mile” can mean statute or nautical mile, etc.).

The old national measurement systems were mutually incompatible and caused problems in trade, commerce and manufacturing. This problem was solved by the signing of the Metre Convention by 17 countries in 1875, which introduced a common, international measurement system. Almost all national measurement systems are now history.

Imagine what a nightmare it would be for publishers and writers if they had to produce custom facts and figures booklets in all the previous national measurement systems. These days, we take it for granted that there exists a simple, rational and universal measurement system and that booklets like Pocket World in Figures will use it. Progress indeed.

6 thoughts on “Pocket World in Figures: A common booklet for a global readership”

  1. I notice calories are listed. The calorie which nowadays refers to a kilocalorie (kcal) is an ‘old metric’ unit.
    Let’s hope next year’s edition will show the Food Supply values measured in SI units, [joules/kilojoules/megajoules].

    Will the publisher be made aware of this serious suggestion?
    It would be great if The Economist adopted a no calories policy, ensuring that its style guide covered it. ‘Shed calories’ …

    From an earlier article on Metric Views:
    Just to repeat yet again …
    In their 1972 report on nutritional sciences, the Royal Society identified the problem of the continued use of calories to describe energy content of food. Its conclusions remain valid nearly 40 years later …


  2. Good article. An interesting example of the benefits of a single system. I wasn’t aware of this publication but I am certainly interested in buying a copy. I’m sure it will be fascinating reading.


  3. I hope I am not being to condescending here, but you are aware that the printed page is almost dead, right?

    Hardly modern technology printing presses, this coming from someone who has an avid love for the tactile and tangible. It’s hardly a showcase for modernity and the cutting edge.

    The industry has been doubling down on things that will still be printed, like *FOOD PACKAGING.* Books, newspapers, magazines are all taking a nose dive as the world revolves around the smart phone more and more. . .


  4. @ ACM

    The ‘Pocket’ part of the title of the Economist’s publication seems to have escaped your notice. This is an quick-reference booklet that fits easily into the, er, pocket, as the name suggests and is the kind of guide that many authors and writers still turn to, besides their printed dictionaries and other trusted reference publications. The Economist itself publishes both in printed magazine and digital format. But the medium of publication is not the issue. It is the information in the booklet that the article is about and how neatly it can all be expressed in metric units which are understood around the world.


  5. Not entirely happy about desert annual precipitation. 250 millimeters perhaps?


  6. @Jackthesmilingblack

    I double-checked the footnote in the Pocket World in Figures 2016 Edition booklet and I can confirm that it uses millilitres, not millimetres. At the bottom of page 15 in the booklet, the footnote states, “The definition of a desert is normally a mean annual precipitation value equal to 250 ml or less.”.


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