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. Kate

    EVERYONE needs to limit themselves to one child and even then they should onlky have one if they can afford to take care of it. And we need to let people die! If you have cancer, MS, ALS, are paralyzed or suffering deeply and just DONE then we need to let you go! Why can't liberals, religious zealots and politicians learn to mind their own business? When people no longer have quality of life then we should let them go.

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

      are you serious? If so, you have no heart...so under your premise...you should check out too!

      October 26, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jim DeLapp

    This is the REAL source of all the problems in the world. Not enough land and housing, not enough food, not enough resources, not enough wealth and jobs. VERY simple we are over populated, if we were an animal it would be open season on us year round. This how you get massive casualties, simple statistics. One good virus and hundreds of millions die because of closer proximity and logistics

    October 26, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. SoWhatsthe problem

    Still is not a number problem, is still a human condition problem.... I know not all of it is livable, but if you group the whole world in family of 4, give them a home on 1 acre of land... the whole 7B will fit in Australia... plenty left to grow food and have clean water... people are not a problem their condition is.

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

      They would all die horribly...first from thirst, then from starvation. Any left will die of boredom.

      October 27, 2011 at 1:23 am | Report abuse |
    • fedup

      I agree!

      October 27, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jim34

    7 billion, double that you get 14 billion, 28 billion, 56 billion ..... not going to happen because there is a limit to how many people the Earth can hold.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Disgustipated

    No food in the future except Soylent Green!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Disgustipated

    The Republican Party will help the world trim down the population where it can.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Boomer in Mo

      But they are mostly only interested in killing off Americans with lack of health care, social services and jobs. I don't think they start wars to kill people off, only to exercise their power over them. Republicans are all about power and smashing down the masses with it.

      October 26, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Big Bird

    The NWO has always wanted to reduce the population by 90%! Just go read the Georgia Guide Stones and its all there! Thing is we are overpopulated that’s true and only war will save this earth, sounds bad but it's the truth!

    October 26, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. John

    @steve, in Phoenix-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 |
  9. justacomment

    Mother nature has a way of taking care of overpopulated species that endanger her planet. Always has and always will.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • AthensGuy

      on top of it all, there is serious and publicly-funded research aimed at making us have a lifespan of more than 100 years. The question are: why? will there be enough resources (think food) to feed us all? Will this represent yet another gap between the rich and the poor? will this create two casts of human beings?

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

      yeah but wouldn't it be better if we did it ourselves. population control solves problems such as hunger and poverty which in turn would reduces crime tremdously. This saves billions on the justice system as well as the health care system by curbing STDs.

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

      Malthus must be having a great day!

      October 26, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kola Dushaj

      mother who? how does she do it? can you tell me moe of her? whats her name?

      October 26, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • pop control

      Interesting you bring him up, becuase someday we will have to make that difficult choice to curb our population. China did it and look how well it turned out for them. I propose a food and shelter for sterility program, you get food and shelter for life but have to be sterilized first.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • AthensGuy

      @popcontrl: but this could backfire in a society that is so stratified. Also, could it ultimately lead to loss of genetic variance after, say, 20-30 generations doing so? Will all countries be subject to these rules/procedures? How to deal with religious beliefs (for many, this would be a sin). As an "ultra-liberal", I believe much more in the power of "democratizing" good education over mandated sterilization...

      October 26, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  10. kendallpeak

    Hopefully, if the earth warms up enough, we will be able to fit more people in the Arctic regions. We should try to kill off most of the polar bears to make room for more people. Clearing out the useless rain forests would also help.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • AthensGuy

      even if we could do so, we would not be able to practice agriculture there, as it is rock under that snow. besides, it will take thousand of years for that snow to melt. at points it is miles deep (unlike the N Pole)

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

    Thats so many pus...ies

    October 26, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastafarian

      and yet you still can't get any! sad.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • AthensGuy

      @ fellow pastafarian LOL! good one!!!

      October 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Norm

    Oooooo! I've got an idea! how about you close you #@%#^#% Legs!? =D

    October 26, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Whome

    Gloom and doom, gloom and doom.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  14. RickeyV

    So if we each got 3 square feet to stand on, we could cover about a third of Tampa Bay FL, just sayin'

    October 26, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. John

    This not statatisic, more like a RELIGION issue, but nope the UN will not admit it.

    October 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
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