Human Journey

Visualizing the World’s $1 Trillion Black Market


According to this infographic released today by, the world’s shadow economy rivals the legitimate one. It may seem hard to believe, but about half of the planet’s workers are thought to be involved in illicit activities, and that number could swell to 2/3 by 2020.

Drugs are a big part of the problem, of course, as are traditional criminal activities like stolen goods, intellectual property theft and sex slaves.

But some of the items now on the black market also have direct implications for the health of the environment, from smuggled animal parts (causing a crisis for wildlife in Africa) to bogus pharmaceuticals, which can end up poisoning people and our water supply.

The drug war is destabilizing Mexico and resulting in tens of thousands of deaths around the world, and it has its own problems with environmental degradation, from cleared forests for crops to spraying of toxic chemicals. Confronting the enormous problem will require solutions on many fronts.

Where there’s demand it’s tough to completely cut off supply.


1. Tragic Video of Black Market Wildlife

2. Kingpin Wildlife Trafficker Jailed

Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including,,,, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.

  • Thomas

    Here is where most of the data on the black market comes from.

  • Chris

    Did you seriously just hyperlink an online business school past your trillion dollar black market image? Who links an entire infographic, especially with horrible ads?

  • KPT

    That is one of the worst of these infographics I’ve ever seen. Check out the graphs – what exactly is the scale here? The one for HIV infection – is each tick mark 10k people? Is there a difference between the dark marks and the light marks? Can we relate this to population? There are a lot more people in Thailand than, say, Jamaica. Might a rate, rather than an absolute number, be a far more informative thing to know?

    And complaining about cocaine based on the amount of solid waste it generates? That’s a new one.

    And calling street vendors “legitimate”, with scare quotes? The families selling yams and breakfast food on the streets of Beijing (yummy, by the way) are working a lot harder than I am, though I pay all my taxes.

    The whole world spends on gambling more than a country with 5 percent of the population spends on education? Is that unexpected? I don’t know if that’s bad or just kind of neutral. Lots of jurisdictions in the US fund education with gambling. That might an interesting fact to explore.

    Perhaps a definition of “black market”? I suspect it just means a market the government doesn’t get their cut of. I like me some good government, but I bet way fewer than 40 percent of the countries in the world have a government I’d judge as “good”.


  • Brian Clark Howard

    Re KPT:

    You make some very interesting points, thanks for reading.

  • Brian Clark Howard

    Re Chris: I linked the graphic to that page because that’s the site that produced the infographic. I am acquainted with someone on the team that made the graphic and they asked me if I was interested in running it. I thought it looked interesting and relevant to the Newswatch audience so I said sure, and said I didn’t mind linking to that website as the originator.

    I didn’t mean it to be confusing, and tried to explain where it came from in the text.

  • […] are thought to be involved in illicit activities, and that number could swell to 2/3 by 2020.Source: Jan […]

  • Raja

    Well something which is not recognised by governments doesnt mean it is bad. people ignored by mainstream make a living through means in which everybody benefits. illegal drugs are as bad as legitimate unnecessary prescriptions by the pharma-medical nexus.

  • […] jQuery("#errors*").hide(); window.location= data.themeInternalUrl; } }); } – Today, 12:46 […]

  • Mary

    Mr. Howard, your blog post is quite disappointing in that the graphics and your commentary are both sloppy and vague.

    It’s unworthy of being published under the auspices of National Geographic. In the future, please refrain from sullying the publication’s reputation by researching your material before posting.

  • […] The global Black Market has already surpassed $1 trillion in sales.  The United States alone already accounts for more than $600 billion, almost three times the nearest competitor- China.  Americans, seeing that the economy for the “99%” still isn’t healthy, are doing an end around to oppressive, financial restraints imposed by the government and Wall Street.  When times become too financially difficult and unbearable in the face of financial repression (think Prohibition and the War on Drugs) black markets spring up like mushrooms after a morning dew.  The economic intrusions of a government gone haywire include repression of raw milk sales, tracking gold and silver purchases over $600, the IRS considering taxing barter exchanges and the FDA having jurisdiction over personal gardens.  Citizens are creating new economic systems that serve their own interests outside of corporate, centralized markets. […]

  • […] global Black Market has already surpassed $1 trillion in sales.  The United States alone already accounts for more than $600 billion, almost three times […]

  • […] global Black Market has already surpassed $1 trillion in sales.  The United States alone already accounts for more than $600 billion, almost three […]

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