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. joe

    What does it matter anyway? One day the sun will burn out and the earth will be no more. Live life to the fullest, take what you can because in the end there will be nobody to remember anything you ever did....good or bad

    October 26, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joey

      I believe the sun burning out is so far out, man will be able to survive with advancements in technology, get a clue. The sun....get an idea that is closer than a few thousand plus years away.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kerry

    I have an idea.....why not save some more starving and disease infected people in the third world, that ought help the problem.....NOT. Let nature take its course rather than disrupt the natural order of things. Man’s intervention has brought us to where we are now. Unless someone has a master plan for feeding, housing, and educating these people, think again. Look where the explosion is and decide for your selves. Educating them has not worked, what is plan B?

    October 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • MaryM

      WOW, its already started. Like the people(gop) that said if he does not have any insurance, let him die.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      Sorry Mary but Kerry has a good point.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • jimk5

      Sad but true. Letting the population continue as it is will lead to an even bigger calamity than "letting nature take its course". We need to find a balance, and since people can't seem to do this in a reasonable way, the only solution is to "let it fail". ...And the faster we let it fail, the sooner we can find balance.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastmorm

      The world needs to make mandatory sterilization a law for every other man and woman. Who cares about these breeders if they don't care about the planet that are supposed to be sharing????

      October 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • aksdad

      Hey dumb people, try some facts for a change. Populations in developed countries are already declining. Only populations in underdeveloped countries continue to grow. As they become wealthy too, sometime mid-century, their populations will decline too. There, I've eased your seriously troubled minds–if you can call them that. Instead of postulating immoral and repugnant "solutions" now you can go worry about important things, like spending time with your friends and family, or maybe giving a little charity to help out hungry people or those less fortunate.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  3. rockfish

    Solent Green Baby!... Solent Green!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • aksdad

      Soylent. It's Soylent, not Solent.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maty

      It's people!

      October 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Reed from NYC

    Seems like a reasonable alibi for gay marriage & adoption...

    October 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. MaryM

    The earth can not sustain that many people for long. There is not enough food to feed the polulation now. Gotta start limiting the population or next generation will be SOL.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • rocco

      the world will correct its balance soon....natural disasters, etc...tsunamis, earthquakes...diseases.....oh and the world is supposed to end soon too, remember, there are RV's supporting that message, and busybodies who support that msg!

      October 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Randall

      Mary,
      You, like many, are misinformed. There is more than enough food to go around, the problem is getting it "around". Both of the world's leading authorities on food distribution (the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] and the World Food Programme [WFP]) are very clear: there is more than enough food for everyone on the planet. The FAO neatly summarizes the problem of starvation, saying that "the world currently produces enough food for everybody, but many people do not have access to it." Food is a lot like money: just because some people have none doesn't mean that there isn't enough of it–it's just spread unevenly.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dorianb

      It has nothing to do with the amount of food it has to do with the concentration of the people and the ability to get the food to the people.

      There are many people in the world that have many children because they know that they will lose several to illness and malnutrition. This while the area that they live does not have enough food supply to support the current population.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ken

      God said; "Be fertile and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it." (Gen 2:28)
      Man said; "Don't multiply. And since the earth is our god, worship it at the expense of human life."

      October 26, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • OneOfTheSheep

      Ken,

      And I said, you're an 1D10T.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:44 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jimbo

    Why are the United Nations' celebrating this horrible event? This is not something to rejoice about. I don't think people will be too happy when there is a mass die off of our race from famine or starvation becuase we couldn't control our birthrates. Nature will fix this problem no doubt, but it will not be enjoyable.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • aksdad

      Populations in developed countries are already declining. Only populations in underdeveloped countries continue to grow. As they become wealthy too, sometime mid-century, their populations will decline too. There, now you can go worry about important things, like spending time with your friends and family, or maybe giving a little charity to help out hungry people or those less fortunate.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      Glad you think you can predict the future, I hope you are right. You are correct about developed countries population growth slowing down, but none-the-less it is still growing. Just turn your head and look the other direction, everything will be fine.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • TMACK

      Celebrating the unfettered consumption of irreplaceable resources, political strife resulting from inequality and injustice, and an uncertain future based on a non-sustainable economic/social structure. The United Nations has failed on so many fronts (with population control being the at the forefront), it's easy to see why they need to use Orwellian double-speak to "celebrate" the moment. This is so far beyond "Mission Accomplished", it's criminal.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • aksdad

      No, Jimbo. In DECLINE, not slowed growth. Check your facts. In fact, do a lot more reading on this subject and get back to us when you've become a little more enlightened about population growth and decline.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jimbo

      And by the time our population "levels off" there will be way to many people on this planet. There are already way too many people to live the way we do now. Anyway you put it this is not good news. So what will the population be by mid-century? Look how well we treat our planet right now

      October 26, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. CountingWizard

    "As the Earth's population nears 7 billion, many people are trying to figure out the real importance of hitting that marker..."

    Bigger marathons?

    October 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. jimbob

    Supply cannot keep up with demand. Ever have an ant farm that became too populated? They ALL died.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. jrddk7

    We now have enough to defend against the impending alien invasion! Bring it on!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Alien Scout

      We're already here. Why do you think the population is now 7 billion?

      October 26, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. aksdad

    This is a story only worriers can get excited about. Here's some perspective. The planet can support a far larger population. Out biggest problems are oppression, poverty, hunger, and war and the biggest contributing factor to these problems is repressive governments. Spread democracy and you fix most of the problem. Here's some more perspective: populations are already in decline in developed countries around the world. As underdeveloped countries become wealthy sometime mid-century, their populations will begin to decline too so the entire population of the planet will probably decline somewhat then perhaps stabilize. The out-of-control population explosion is a myth.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • phyllis

      Population growth is a real problem. Every wonder why oil is becoming scarcer? There are too many of us using it or who want to use it. Ever tried to buy waterfront property? It's scare, because there are too many people. Why are our highways so crowded? Too many people. We can never build enough roads if everyone on the planet has a car.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      A myth? The population in my region has more than tripled in the last 20 years. It's feeling crowded, housing is expensive, traffic is awful, and this is far from the highest density out there. Just because the planet *can* support more people doesn't mean we want more. I'm sure your home could support many more occupants too, would you like a dozen more people to move in with you?

      October 26, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Celib(r)ate

      What are you smoking? Your point about supporting more is insupportable. We have already passed the tipping point through these of petroleum based fertilizers. We are now seeing the salivation of our aquifers. And the worst is yet to come.

      Spread Democracy? Like that has helps the US? But then that really isn't a democracy is it? It is a corporatocracy, run by the mega-ag corporations like Monsanto, Seminis and the rest. Is that who you work for?

      October 26, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. John Kanyi-KENYA

    Hi folks what's Kenya's chance on this. Feed this blog. Msafiri of NAIROBI

    October 26, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Celib(r)ate

    It's simple: stop breeding. People complain about China's one-child policy. But I've got news or you folks, it is actually working. China's population is shrinking. Certainly there are those silly cultural issues in China and India such as you need to have a son. So sterilize them all. Everyone for an entire generation.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. James

    Things are getting a bit crowded, with no natural predators it's only a matter of time before we have a larger population than the planet's resources can support. We need to work on reducing our rate of reproduction, especially in third world nations that are already lacking sufficient resources while having very high birth rates.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. NotYou

    I only want to comment on the photo, CNN. Are you trying to trigger a seizure in some of your readers? Yikes!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Debra

      ahahahaha...by far the best post....

      October 26, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
  15. optimismUSA

    There are WAY too many people here. What we need is another big war. I say we poke the stick at Isreal and the Palestinians again or finally take over N. Korea. While we're over there we might as well go into China, too!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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