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. Richard

    ALL this growth is in the Third World. The West is almost in a negative growth mode (it is negative once you factor-out Third World immigration to the West) in many countries. The Third World has growth rates approaching 14 per 1000 people and they are the ones who are least able to provide for those people. It's time for a Chinese-style one child per family law LINKED to ANY foreign aid.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Caleb Jones

    I personally feel that the Earth has plenty of resources for 7 billion and more. What makes population growth unsustainable is the geo-political structures and the general level of corruption and aggression that exists. If you take away the waste that comes from geo-political posturing and the destruction/waste from continuous conflict, there's more than enough to go around. Many experts in global hunger have stated that hunger is not a food problem, it is a corruption problem.

    It could be that population growth is the challenge which mankind must either unite as a species in order to manage or collapse under its weight.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rufus

      The world needs fewer people with your mentality.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. skopas

    THis could not be good..

    October 26, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  4. SconnieGuz

    Pull out!!!!! For the sake of the world!!!!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dustin

    "THE SKY IS FALLING THE SKY IS FALLING" US news and world report figured out back in the 1990's that the earth could support 80 billion people. we getting close to 10% capacity, but the sky is not falling any time soon Chicken Little.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. john80

    Have kids for the right reasons. Don't have them to trap you're boyfriend or girlfriend or to try and fix your marriage. Don't have them to build armies for jihad. Don't have them because a celibate religious leader says you can't use birth control or you're a polygamist and can't help but have 40 kids if you have 15 wives. We're putting a strain on the Earth and our resources. And somebody please tell the undeveloped African nations that you can't get rid of AIDS by raping a virgin.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Infinity

    If you really want an eye opener look at the population growth by country. North America is not the problem.

    http://www.photius.com/rankings/population/population_growth_rate_2011_0.html

    October 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Phil

    Considering after the 1st "7 billionth person" is born, somebody will die, there would theoretically be at least 2 "7 billionth" babies...

    October 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. steve, in Phoenix

    When is it EVER going to be "politically correct" or just " OK ".....to tell the THIRD WORLD to just STOP BREEDING !!!
    Besides their wars : Islam against Judaism, Islam against Christianity, etc., etc., that they had us involved in.....THEY are the ones who give us the " gift " of overpopulation, starvation, and the trashing of the Planet ......If you're trying to solve a problem, geniuses.....look to the ORIGIN.....

    October 26, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • JB

      How many of those third-world nations are predominately Catholic? They're being told birth control is a sin.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastafarian

      another example of the dangers of religious ignorance.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      The problem is, developed countries like the US use more resources than all the third world countries combined, even though they have more people. We are pigs when it comes to resource use per person.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      When did we all decide that being politically correct was more important than being honest? I hate political correctness and have no trouble telling third world countries and Catholics to get a condom! And Africa – not only are they having kids but they are passing HIV like cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving!

      October 26, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike Gordon

      Steve, you're ignorant of the real problem. Folks in the developed world are the root cause of the planet trashing you speak of through indoctrinated over-consumption.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      You're simply an idiot. You swear we're not doing the same thing as the THIRD WORLD. We christianizing people by force; we wage war for politcal imperilism gain; we do every evil thing they have done or about to, but we just like them have a reason for it. It's not the third world, it's HUMAN on earth, no matter where you are. DUH!

      October 26, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. The mice colony experiment

    A colony of mice was held in a closed-cage set-up and provided with plenty of food and water and exercise equipment. The colony grew exponentially, then suddenly, 90% died. This process was repeated ten times and the same result happened. Despite being undeprived of the necessities of life, they nearly all died off time and time again. That's what we're headed for, if on a much wider timescale.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • CC

      Natural selection at work, the mice probably were inbreed and contracted a disease to which only 10% were immune.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  11. NeedZ

    half of them are indians and chinese..cut the d**k

    October 26, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • adam

      They are trying to become world powers, but in an unrealistic way. They simply need to realize that they have to set limits for themselves in order to better the world as a whole.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  12. amy

    every one of us and every newcomer "bundle of joy" might have to worry about water scarcity in the not too distant future.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. john80

    Children are expensive!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  14. zvooki

    7 billion TOO much ! We need more WARS, earthquakes and other natural disasters to wipe out at least 3 billion...
    There is just too many people on earth sucking down our oxygen supply.... maybe a virus could do the trick ?mmmmm

    October 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Weck nation

      Are you stupid or something??!?!

      October 26, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • No Name

      Yeah! test it with your family (including you) and let us know how it works

      October 26, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • fedup

      all you people complaining should jump off the planet, and stop contributing to the problem you are talking about, your parents had you and their parents had them and so on and so on, choices were made, maybe you people should stop using all the conveniences that everyone is comfortable with, live in caves and so forth, so we dont burn out the planet, we all contribute to too many people, not just third world, they cant afford what we can afford like octomom, perfect example, shes not third world, maybe birth control should be free! and how about the people that are against abortion?
      There are so many factors leading to overloading the planet.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  15. JB

    We're the only species on the planet with the intellect to control our own population, yet we rarely use it. Happy to say my wife and I aren't contributing to the problem. Child-free and thrilled to be so.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      I'm not married but I don't have kids and won't be having kids so I'm not contributing to the problem either. Though I do resent paying taxes for education for other people's kids...

      October 26, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • pappakapp

      @Kate. Would you prefer paying taxes to keep them in prison? We appreciate that you aren't spreading your DNA, but if we don't educate, you will be dealing with more crime and criminals.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • OneOfTheSheep

      Married my blushing bride in '64, vasectomy in '65 with no kids, wonderful, fulfilling life. Wouldn't change a thing!

      October 27, 2011 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
    • fedup

      Your here arent you? what do you mean, not contributing to the problem, if your parents had decided not to have you and be child free, you wouldnt have a voice and then you wouldnt be contributing! Do you live in a cave?, with none of the conveniences that are destroying the planet? Get real, you are part of the problem, we all are.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
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