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 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'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. Observer

    And the anti-choice gang insists that we need to populate the world will millions and millions MORE of unwanted kids.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Dude

      and you libs want more people to have healthcare, vaccinations, no death penalty, no wars.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastafarian

      "dude": did you really just list war as a form of population control?

      October 26, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bravo

    I love how we say things like "sustain the planet" or "save the planet" when nature and the planet could care less about us. We are simply engineering our own demise as we continue to bicker about the economic feasibility of renewable energy and set goals to reach a less than modest carbon footprint 50 years from now. We are in control of our own destiny on our planet, but greed (in the case of rich countries) and necessity (in the case of 3rd world countries and their poor) override practical commonsense solutions.

    Calamity will decimate us before humanity can ever achieve any semblance of global unity and consensus. The earth will heal and balance will once again return to nature.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Burbank

    If people don't willingly take steps to stop having so many children and start respecting this planet, Mother Nature is going to do it for them and I dont' think they will like her methods! Do you really want to bring more and more children into this big toxic overcrowded mess, people? Everyone thinks "the other guy" should be the one limiting family size, no it starts with YOU. People need to voluntarily start having either no children or only one. The population needs to come DOWN, not stabilize!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. lefty avenger

    7 Billion and the planet cannot support that many humans. There's no jobs, not enough water and not enough land. Soylent Green will be our future unless birth control is reintroduced to an uneducated planet.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Curt

    Indeed soylent green and thx1138

    that would be wierd if that's what fertilizer was made of.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Chris HOnry

    Wow, Europe has twice as many people as America, and America has twice as many as Mexico... Proves the more liberal give-away programs and policies the more people will multiply and emigrate. We need to get like Mexico and have the policy of "you don't like it? go North! (to Canada!) )

    October 26, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastafarian

      lol, yeah, that's really solid "proof" you moron. You probably think that the bible is proof that god exists too. read a book.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  7. PJRG

    Well, we no longer hunt or gather our own food so... Any significant disruption in the supply chain might be chaotic...

    October 26, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Eragon

    New images hosting provider !!!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Thisguy

    The concern is the maximum population as well as timing. People freak when farmers have a bad tomato season. If the world population comes anywhere near capacity and there is a farming epidemic, the population will suffer exponetially the farther away from the population balance. Depending on the drought criteria, we potentially could be over our "limit" and not even know it. This is a serious concern but I still must say, DUN DUN DUN!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Burbank

    Haiti is the handwriting on the wall. If we all want to live like that just keep right on breeding. Soylent Green will become a reality. Our own country has it waaaaay backwards. There should be tax breaks for those who opt out of having children instead of forcing us to support everyone else's kids.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      A person thats not reproducing is really a dead end and their DNA will not be missed – what say we confiscate what you have since you are a dead end to pay for the future generations that will carry the DNA forward? That does not sound humane does it? What you said did not either – use some humanity.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • amy

      child free by choice at 49 years old and thanks for your comments! agree completely. we don't need 7 or 8 billion of "god's little miracles."

      October 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rufus

      II agree, Burbank. Tax breaks for those who do NOT have kids. Higher taxes for those who do. Even higher taxes for idiots like James, just for being stupid.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • r schier

      Well said Burbank.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  11. judith

    This means utter disaster for many. It's all the fault of a patriarchal society–because whenever women are educated, they have fewer children. This truly is the world's foremost problem.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • john80

      I agree completely. Many people in the world are told they should have kids to serve the interests of governments and religious leaders who have ulterior motives.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jim

    Great job Chatolics. – Keep it up. You're screwing us out of a planet.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q

      LOL, literally!

      October 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • kendallpeak

      Jim, of course China and India have very few Catholics. Your ignorance is appaling.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rufus

    Reaching a population of 7 billion is hardly any reason to celebrate.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. r-hope

    All you who feel that there are communities/people groups that breed way too much/too fast, why not do the decent thing: lead by example. You have one kid? Good. Go the extra Mile and kill yourself..... One less is good.

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

    half of them are indians and chinese .....cut the dick

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