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. I'm angry

    It's crowded. There are too many people here. Somebody has to leave.

    October 26, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Canadian Dude

      Why do not you be the first one to leave?

      October 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      I would, do you have a starship for me?

      October 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • DJCowboy

      My vote is for Flanders!

      October 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mik

      We are (all human beings) are like a bunch of Roaches on Viagra... STOP IT ALREADY!!! The Earth cannot sustain this many people for long. I personally take a pledge not to add to the problem 🙂

      October 26, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  2. The Pringles Moustache

    They are lying 2 u. There is actually 9 billion people in the world. Been that way 4 awhile

    October 26, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jackie

      And you get your facts from......

      October 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • hi

      actually 8.2 billion.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • hi

      Its me. # 5,307,450,307 Just wanted to let you all know that we have long passed 7 billion..... in fact i was having lunch with # 6,945,760,134 the other day and she mentioned that close to half a billion people are not even accounted for.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Old Shoe

      ROFL @ Hi

      October 26, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • A W Messenger

      They are LYING to you! This world has room for hundreds of billions of people on it.
      I've seen it from the air. I GUARANTEE you, we haven't run out of space yet.
      As for the hunger issue, our world has ALWAYS had starving people in it.
      Next time you go up on an airplane, take a look at all the space ... nothing but green fauna ample land to use to grow food and allow people to live .... hundreds of millions of square miles ...

      Oh yeah, but the sky IS falling.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. saywhat

    Who do you suggest leave?
    Time to take a pause & think about produce & water. The already stretched to the limit resources of the planet & what man has been doing to destroy earth.
    Time for the world to come together on this issue.
    Enough of wars & weaponry, trillions being spent on keeping up with each other on methods of destroying each other. Iliteracy, disease , discontent, hate and fear destroying capacity of humans to be productive other than giving birth, preventing lesser developed nations from learning to protect the planet, poverty eating into intellect.

    Time for the world to come together on this issue.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Knucklehead

      Time to buy that grasshopper cookbook...

      October 26, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Epidi

    I already had my tubes tied.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      We cannot even come to agreement on how to deal with climate change, how on earth will we as a species come to an agreement on population growth? I do believe that humanity will evolve and find a solution. Getting people out of poverty and ignorance is going to be the answer or else humanity is screwed.

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

      Mother Nature will find the solution. I believe it is called an epidemic or natural disaster, whichever she chooses.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • RickeyV

      Mother Nature has already offered a solution, it's called "farming".

      October 26, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Moli

      How does farming create water?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:34 am | Report abuse |
  5. BobZemko

    Tuesday is Soylent Green day !!!!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • hi

      ironically.. it is also beat a protestor day.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Walt

    Overpopulation is one of the core problems facing our species. It drives overcrowding, housing prices, low-cost labor, pollution, social tensions and much more.
    Putting it in perspective, it required all of human history to about 1820 to reach just one billion – and now we've increased 7-fold in less than 200 years.
    This is a major issue that, sadly, just seems too big to handle.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
  7. SPQR

    In a world ruled by the monetary system this is a problem.

    In a world not ruled by the monetary system this is not a problem.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. CmonNow11

    Does every news story have to mention or somehow link to the Occupy Wall Street protest?? This is getting pretty ridiculous!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Hungryhungryhippo

    Cannibalism finally seems appropriate.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jackie

      Well if you think about when populations of a species starts to get to high what do we do? OPEN SEASON, hunting season open for business

      October 26, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Frank

    I find it hard to believe that with 7 Billion people on the planet only a few comments have been posted so far. I feel special.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bethany

    Wait... The U.N. is CELEBRATING this? Oh, yeah, overpopulation is great! Keep 'em coming!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. SeveRheaD

    More people = more problems. While we may find alternative energies to sustain life...and cope with an oscillating farm and produce cycle...one thing that will pose a tremendous problem with even the population we have not to mention a growing population....is fresh water. Some serious advances need to occur in water purification or some alternative to natural means than we have now. While reducing population significantly seems like a great idea...the fact that we're talking about real people, not just numbers and statistics, and possibly you and me, we need to look at how to slow population growth, and even more importantly, find means of sustaining such an enormous population. No easy task by any means.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thirsty

      There is only 2% of freshwater on this planet. You can have all the resources imaginable, but with no water it's worthless.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  13. 1nd3p3n3nt

    it's obvious to most critical observers that overpopulation will be the greatest cause for instability in the next century.
    lot's of people lack the perspective to understand the problem and think overpopulation is when we're all crowded shoulder to shoulder.

    in truth, it will effect employment, food, water, human rights and basic quality of life far before we are standing shoulder to shoulder.

    everyone should know what happens to an ecosystem when one species explodes in population from high school biology class

    October 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mik

      Extinction?

      October 26, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  14. patricia

    Wow! Where will we go from here?

    October 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mik

      I figure "straight to hell".... oh YEAH, we're already there *yikes*

      October 26, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Gregory Faith

    No need to worry. Nature will eventually gleen out a large amount of the population. We are going to suffer a mass die off caused either by our pollution of our environment, a solar EMP, famine. Those who are not prepared will be the first to die off. No more population issue.

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