The buzz behind 7 billion people: A milestone and a warning
October 26th, 2011
12:46 PM ET

The buzz behind 7 billion people: A milestone and a warning

Trying to assess the importance of the United Nations' upcoming celebration of the global population reaching 7 billion is sort of like trying to assess the meaning of life.

As the countdown clock to the date keeps ticking, and people keep buzzing about the number, many are trying to figure out the real importance of hitting that marker.

The Wall Street Journal proposed the question: "How Do You Get to 7 Billion People?" The article raised the question: Exactly how do you know that we are reaching this symbolic number on a date set by the United Nations, given that some countries don't have full census data?

"The world's population will hit seven billion on Oct. 31. Or maybe not until next year. Or maybe it has already happened.

"No one knows for sure. But that hasn't stopped the United Nations from picking the last day of the month as the symbolic date, christening it as 7 Billion Day."

Perhaps the occasion will allow us to realize that we need to pay more attention to better tracking our growth and impact - our literal footprint on Earth. For some, there will be the typical celebrations: a baby wrapped in a blanket declared the 7 billionth person to enter this world as hospitals debate which baby was actually the one that hit the marker, similar to what has happened with milestones in the past.  (If you're curious where you fall in the mix, Population Action International has a handy "What's your number?" interactive based on your birth date.)

But it seems like this time around, if social media and traditional media are any indication, this milestone is about a little more than just balloons and fanfare. The Wall Street Journal wrote:

"While seven billion is a nice round number, knowing the identity of the lucky baby or the exact moment the threshold is crossed isn't really any more important than pulling over to the side of the road to bask in your car's 100,000th mile. But the building blocks for world population estimates — national demographic statistics and characteristics — are used by governments, businesses and aid groups to plan spending and spot potential trouble spots."

In a growing and ever-changing economic and technological world, this may be the time to look at where we've been, what we're going through now and what challenges lie ahead for such a massive population.

iReport: What does 7 billion look like

And with movements like Occupy Wall Street spreading across the globe to share growing discontent about government institutions' ability to deal with our problems and growing debt, the 7 billion mark poses questions about whether those concerns will be passed on to future generations.

"The milestone of 7 billion is marked by achievements, setbacks and paradoxes," a United Nations Population Fund report begins. (Read the report in PDF form)

The U.N. says it believes the world can thrive as it reaches the milestone, but the report also looks at the ways that countries are growing and changing, as well as how they can tackle critical challenges and prepare for the arrival of billions more people this century. Those challenges include empowering young people with economic opportunities; planning for the growth of cities; developing programs to share and sustain the Earth's resources; and improving education, including sexual education.

The U.N. has teamed up with the company SAP to help make those decisions easier by creating a widget on the site 7billionactions.org that allows you to assess the world's population by age, socioeconomic status and education levels, and to compare trends from country to country. The goal is to help governments assess their needs for the future.

After all, with more people comes the need for more resources.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, the director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, writing for CNN, says the occasion marks a huge task for us.

"The arrival of the 7 billionth person is cause for profound global concern. It carries a challenge: What will it take to maintain a planet in which each person has a chance for a full, productive and prosperous life, and in which the planet's resources are sustained for future generations?

"How, in short, can we enjoy 'sustainable development' on a very crowded planet?"

That crowded planet may cause some global issues. Those include the health concerns caused by the waste that 7 billion people create, according to a LiveScience report on MSNBC.com.

MSNBC's photo blog takes a visual look at the effect that we have on the world each day and how we tax the environment: through deforestation, pollution from developing countries and traffic jams, as well as the struggle to cultivate all of the food and crops necessary to feed our growing population. That imprint will only grow as more of us inhabit the planet, the accompanying article says.

And Roger Martin's article in the UK's Guardian newspaper says the growing population could cost us the planet we live on in the way we now know it.

"Every additional person needs food, water and energy, and produces more waste and pollution, so ratchets up our total impact on the planet, and ratchets down everyone else's share – the rich far more than the poor. By definition, total impact and consumption are worked out by measuring the average per person multiplied by the number of people. Thus all environmental (and many economic and social) problems are easier to solve with fewer people, and ultimately impossible with ever more."

"On a finite planet, the optimum population providing the best quality of life for all, is clearly much smaller than the maximum, permitting bare survival. The more we are, the less for each; fewer people mean better lives.

TV One in New Zealand took a look at the meaning of the number, but from the perspective of the tax burden it may bring on a growing population of aging people.

"Richard Bedford, an expert on population changes from Waikato University, told TV ONE's Breakfast, that young taxpayers' ability to cope is 'the big $64,000 question.'

"By 2030, more than a third of the population in a number of Western countries will be aged over 65."

For some, the projection has come with gloom and doom and questions of "are we prepared?" for the population growth ahead.

A National Geographic cover story from January, titled "Population 7 Billion," examined the history behind the global moment and fascination with how well and how long our civilization can continue to coexist with our surroundings.

"For centuries population pessimists have hurled apocalyptic warnings at the congenital optimists, who believe in their bones that humanity will find ways to cope and even improve its lot. History, on the whole, has so far favored the optimists, but history is no certain guide to the future. Neither is science," Robert Kunzig wrote. "It cannot predict the outcome of People v. Planet, because all the facts of the case — how many of us there will be and how we will live — depend on choices we have yet to make and ideas we have yet to have."

soundoff (778 Responses)
  1. Edd

    Twenty years from: "It's people! Soylent Green is people!!"

    October 26, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. ezdr00

    Why don't all you google population control? "THEY" already have a plan.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • engimaticb

      "A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable at first, but eventually he dies – often horribly. A similar fate awaits a world with a population explosion if only the symptoms are treated. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparent brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense. But the disease is so far advanced that only with radical surgery does the patient have a chance to survive."

      October 26, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kumar S

    That is a little over 1.2 people per square mile of land on earth. New Jersey has about 1200 and DC has almost 10,000. The number is still about 350 people per square mile of agricultural land. People are a resource if they are engaged in society, useless if they are not and destructive when hostile. The problem of starvation is not due to the population, but due to the drive to dominate by the oligarchy that controls the world and desire to enjoy the benefits of the labor of others by the elite of each region. The increase in population was inevitable when life expectancy went from ~30 to 70 worldwide. It will reach an equilibriuum as people enjoy their lives and stop having children and the population will suddenly drop as we are close to the maximum life span of man.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • vivian

      Don't forget that the world has limited resources. As populations increase, problems like pollution also increases.

      October 26, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dan

    Wow...
    that's a lot of..

    stupid people.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Dan

    No worries...
    once people find out that humans taste like chicken, then everything will work itself right out.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Argle Bargle

      Human...it's what's for dinner!

      October 27, 2011 at 1:27 am | Report abuse |
  6. Nasus

    Wonder how many of those 7 billion are illegitimate children, since having children out of wedlock seems to be the increasing trend.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Mike

    I know what will happen to the world. It will eventually blow up.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Fred May SR.

    While it is true the population of the world is increasing, lets not forget all the disasters that is controling it. Lets look at the wars, the earthquakes, plane crashes, auto crashes and natural death. How many people die because of these disasters. I believe the disasters kill more people then child birth will bring onto the earth. One balances out the other.

    October 27, 2011 at 12:50 am | Report abuse | Reply
  9. sevvie7

    I'm doing my part by not fathering *any* children. If my future partner (if I should have one) doesn't accept that, C'est la vie.

    I'm not saying it's bad to have kids, but we need to watch out in terms of population. And if anyone's wondering, there's many other reasons I don't want to have kids...for one, who likes fingerprints all over the backseat car windows =P

    October 27, 2011 at 1:02 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • SurRy

      LOL, love it!

      October 27, 2011 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
  10. Argle Bargle

    So what? It's not the number of people, but the degree of greed and inhumanity that should be addressed. The ignorant claim that the Earth cannot sustain 7B, yet many thousands of tons of food go to waste every day with people still starving. It's not because of lack of food or ability to grow it, but due to the rich, powerful and greedy needing to make a buck off of it all. Once the greed is eliminated, everyone will have enough.

    October 27, 2011 at 1:14 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. MCM

    One time I grew bacteria in a petri dish in high school. They mulitplied, ate all the food and died. We are like the bacteria and the world is like a petri dish and the fundamentals remain the same.

    October 27, 2011 at 1:38 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • JG

      . . . then you obviously didn't pay attention to the lessons you were trying to be taught.

      Did your bacteria make farmland, waste management facilities, and recycling centers?

      October 27, 2011 at 2:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Funny thing is that we can leave our petri dish. The only way humans will get out in space and advance our society is because of the need. There is massive room to build orbital colonies and the solar system has all the raw materials we could possibly need. Seven billion is nothing. Humanity will hit a trillion one day however the bulk will not live on this planet.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:27 am | Report abuse |
    • SJ SIX

      Humans....just another species.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:42 am | Report abuse |
    • brant3

      Let's try to evolve a little further today people.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:11 am | Report abuse |
    • ABC

      My bacteria did! Only the brightest for my petri dish world.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:36 am | Report abuse |
    • MCM

      Everything has a threshold JG.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
  12. bob

    the number of humans infesting this planet is truly disgusting. one can only hope that a pandemic or an asteroid collision will set things right again. if not we'll all be up to our necks in excrement and killing each other over this dying planet's finite resources in the near future.

    October 27, 2011 at 1:45 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chris

      Pessimistic but true.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:25 am | Report abuse |
    • JG

      We need to leave. We need to get colonizing Luna and Mars to get started. The fate of mankind is among the stars, not stranded upon this singular rock. We must get started today before it is too late.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:35 am | Report abuse |
    • CM

      You could always lead by example and dispose of yourself

      October 27, 2011 at 6:51 am | Report abuse |
  13. If I had a penny for every stupid Republican

    In a world it is all B.S.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:03 am | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Jcompguy

    IThere's definitely no need to worry about the world's resources being used up due to overpopulation for a few reasons. First and foremost, to put it bluntly, the vast majority of people that make up the 7 billion are not participating in the global economy and modern society. Are they worthless and deserve to live in squalor and starve? Of course not, but that brings me to the second point.

    Poor people who can't afford children also produce the most children, which only adds to the disparity between people in 1st world countries, and people in 2nd and 3rd world countries. This, however, is their fault. While it is sad that the children were born into extreme poverty and subhuman living conditions, that's just the way it goes and they have only their parents to blame. While it definitely sounds cold-hearted, it is not the responsibility of the 1 billion (or whatever the real number is) who plan for the future of their children and society to fix the mistakes being perpetuated by the 6 billion who reproduce for their own selfish reasons. (and yes, I believe it is very selfish of any parent to have a child if they are unable to provide proper education, nutrition, shelter, healthcare, and most importantly love)

    Finally, the earth is big. REALLY big. Most people can't really comprehend how big our planet actually is, and therefore how much space we have. Even though most of it is water and there are large uninhabitable areas of desert and ice, there is still a TON of room for humanity. Not only that, in "the future" we will certainly be capable of creating huge man-made islands or floating cities if the population ever went so out of control that we ran out of space on land. Resources are also never going to be a problem as long as scientists and corporations continue to invent new ways of making food, fuel, and materials. Pollution will one day be a concern of the past as well once we get serious about alternate sources of fuel and power. Basically, it will take a lot more than 7, 10, 20, or even 50 billion people to really tax the planet, and we're a long way away from that.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:18 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Decker

      "the vast majority of people that make up the 7 billion are not participating in the global economy and modern society"
      So the 12 year old working in that sweat shop 14 hours a day in china, breathing the toxic fumes all day to make the shoes your wearing is not part of the global economy because she eats one bowl of rice a day and lives in a cardboard box behind the factory? The 7 billion your speaking about Are the Global economy. I do agree that the planet needs some sort of population control. But the world is Not "REALLY" that big when you consider that it takes more than an acre to feed 1 person a year, and not only, as you mentioned, the world is mostly made up water. But crops can only be grown in certain regions, and many for only short periods out of the year. It's pretty arrogant to say only 1 billion actually contribute. And the problem with population goes deeper than that, like education, something You take for granted. The planet has finite resources, and if your waiting for corporations to solve resource issues you may starve to death first.

      October 27, 2011 at 4:01 am | Report abuse |
  15. Chris

    Time for the China rule globally. One child per family. No bias on the gender though. More than that and you're just being irresponsible.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:23 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • EQ

      Totally agree with you Chris....

      October 27, 2011 at 2:42 am | Report abuse |
    • iluv2dance

      That is so sick, what are you going to do with the twins?

      October 27, 2011 at 6:50 am | Report abuse |
    • CM

      Amazing how people want totalitarianism...

      I guess mass murder is okay so long as the ends justify the means, eh? But you're probably the first to condemn the Nazis, right?

      October 27, 2011 at 7:16 am | Report abuse |
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