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. BG

    If you take a closer look at the demographics of our growing planet you will see that the vast majority of nations (85%) are not having children at replacement levels, which means that the world population is actually beginning to decline...The exception is in third world countries, where famine and hostilities are rampant, as is the world may have reached it's apex in population growth. The current and most immediate problem will be in the number of aged people who are retired or will be soon and how to provide for them.

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

      !Really? Click on "What's your number?" interactive link above, no apex on that curve!

      October 26, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ajgorm

    Maybe they will offer you all a ride to safety on a huge space craft–> audios. !

    October 26, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. AAA

    Looks like we need a good world war to clean up this planet.

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

    I am going down with the ship Captain ! Aye !

    October 26, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  5. pop

    If the world adapted to a vegetarian diet, these number are not a big problem,
    Even Al Gore admits to this but said he's too attached to the taste so he can't quit just yet.

    Sense enjoyment is what is destroying this earth more then anything else,
    I've been vegetarian my whole life, very fit, scratch golfer and make 80k a year... hardly seems meat is worth the trouble...

    October 26, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Weck

    What's mess up about population decline? Unmarried people. They will take human sacrifice. They saw hard working labor hours. They saw this economy is run by banks and false of God.

    Human sacrifice is suicide mission. The MAYANS, HOPI, DECEMBER 21, 2012.... You will see population decline.

    October 26, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ronald McDonald

    I like french fries.

    October 26, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ShaneB

    It'll only take 32.7 searches in a binary tree to find you. Think about that and it won't seem like such a big number.
    Or how about that we're down to 1064 sqare feet per person to fit us all in Texas, or hey 2335 square feet in Alaska (yeah it'd be cold though), 848 square feet in France.

    October 26, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. what

    I child per couple solves this problem very quickly. Problem is that goes against personal and religious beliefs and doesn't feed the economic engines. Nobody wants to give any of this up voluntarily. We're failing if we're not expanding and we'll do that until we end up fighting over the final crumbs of whats left. Its makes me sick that we make celebrities of Octotom/Kate+8/19 Kids and counting.

    October 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Old Shoe

    America's population at 312,454,000 represents less than 5% of the worlds population but is the 3rd most populous country per Wikipedia. India at 1.2 billion is second, China is first with almost 3 Billion. Some groups advocate a total world population of 500 million or less. (Google: Georgia Guidestones). Who decides who goes and who stays? And, WHO's FIRST? My best guess is that the power brokers of the world will get WW 3 going and the principal combatants will be the US, China and India and who ever is left standing gets to stay. Of course, the power brokers will be safe in their bunkers.

    October 26, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Capt. GJW

      Who decides? We decide. We are the haves with the food and the technology and good land to grow it. We have enough difficulty keeping our own food supply healthy and need to stop pretending that our food can continue to support the poor birth control decisions of the have-nots from the undeveloped world. In fact, we need to recognize that our "humanitarian" efforts are not humane at all. Unless we are "teaching them to fish" rather than simply handing them a fish, we are doomed to repeat Somalia over and over again. Also, by simply feeding the hungry who do not exercise self limitations on reproduction, we are enabling rampant reproduction in regions that, for the most part, would naturally limit that population growth without our interference.

      October 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      Capt GJW – Wow! You are so quick to dichotomize the world in to Us and them that you've completely missed the history of colonial rule and globalization of industries that MAY have played a teeny tiny part in the current inequality of resource distribution we see today. I don't know of any legal or moral precedent that gives the "haves" of the world license to make large-scale decision for the "have-nots". Perhaps you are just misinformed. I sure hope so. Because the alternative is that you honestly believe developing country populations are less valuable. And I hope that's not the case.

      October 26, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kshah

      With all the scrips available from Nostradamus, mothershipton... we are going to be seeing a reduction of population by 66%, it shall all happen from 2012-2022, we do not know what year it starts but 2022 is the end for it all, the remaining survivors rebuild and never again allow greed, war and hatred to ever be.

      Races shall all mix in and there shall then only be the human race and none other. The native people shall lead us in rebuilding it all, some nations disappear from the face of the earth.

      The most likely cause of ww3 shall be Middle east Vs west with China, India, playing in from behind the scenes.

      October 26, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • bentgeniusdotnet

      lets get as much life as we can brought into the world because when space breaks down and it explodes again and brings back every thing in its optimal state we have to make sure we didnt miss any .

      October 26, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      Kshah:
      Two possibilities
      1) you're joking: you need to do a better job selling your sarcasm
      2) you're not joking: you need to do a better job not being an idiot

      October 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Old Shoe

      My question was rhetorical. But, your logic is consistent with the thinking of the worlds eliteists aka power brokers. It is the very reason why 95% of America's wealth is in the hands of 5% of the people. The "We Have" thinking is the reason for the Occupy Wall Street protests. Withholding food should never be used as a weapon. Having grown up in poverty, I know what it's like to go hungry, to go to bed every night hungry. What happens if the bread basket of America dries up and suffers a severe drought and can no longer grow food to sustain Americans, what then? If America turns our back, so will other countries. Judge not lest ye be judged.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kshah

      Andy this is basically it, the war in libya was the start we really are not too far away from the next potential world war. lets assume that this is right just for arguments sake and a war does break out, we are most likely to see a nucleur war itself, one bomb dropped cities could be wiped out and thus higher number of deaths as compared to the past world wars...

      October 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pablo

      Who decides who stays and who goes? A very small group of people in power who know what is about to happen. That is who decides. The Earth cannot hold so many people. Sorry optimists, but you are goi8ng to lose this one. The events that are about to unfold will take care of wiping out 3/4 of the population. This very select group of people in power know about what is about to happen, but they are not going to do anything about it. Why> Simply because we are too many to save.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      kshah- I guess, though, the problem with your "assume this is true for argument's sake" is that this "assumption" is your only argument. I might agree that a large nuclear war would kill a lot of people. But I still don't think there's any evidence that a nuclear war is likely to happen soon.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      Pablo, do you realize that people have been saying things like "the earth cannot hold (X) billion people, so we are doomed" for hundreds of years, with imagine "limits" to population growth of 1-9 billion? I don't think you do, otherwise you might realize why claiming that NOW we've reached the limit sounds so crazy. People thought there was no way the world could support 1 billion people. But it did. People thought it couldn't possibly support 6 billion, but it did. Undoubtedly, resource distribution is a major issue, and one that requires plenty of collective action. But this is not simply a population pressure. This has to do with a globalized system of stratification with roots in Historical power dynamics. It seems, all too often, that "POPULATION GROWTH" is just an excuse to blame less-developed countries for their poor conditions, when more likely these conditions stem from a longstanding colonial relationship with the more-developed countries.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pablo

      It will be a natural disaster people! Did you hear about the increasing solar activity that is causing the Northern Lights to appear in places way South in the US? Fire from above.....solar flares?

      October 26, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pablo

      Andy et'all: Warning / PREPARE YOURSELVES FOR A RUDE AWAKENING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      October 26, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      Ok, now I'm convinced you're kidding, Pablo

      October 26, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ivan

    All the more reason to be Gay!

    October 26, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • cajuntide

      You can keep being gay to yourself me i got a little snip snip when we had 2 kids.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cherries

      Good for you cajuntide. You show great judement. I wish more did though.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ajgorm

    12/01/2012 not 12/21/2012

    October 26, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. MashaSobaka

    Step one: Education. Step two: Birth control. Step three: Stop telling people (women AND men) that they're worthless unless they reproduce. Okay, folks, let's get started. We might have to staple the religious crazies' mouths shut, but we'll do what we gotta do.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Trevor

    7 Billion people, and apparently they're all marathon runners.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • chele

      Haaa! Isn't that incredible? 7 million marathon runners all in one place! I too am astounded by this. How do they determine which one crosses the finish line first?

      October 26, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • chele

      Oops. I meant 7 billion marathon runners all in one place, not 7 million. Sorry, Trevor. But you get the idea.

      October 26, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  15. JohnKeynes

    Thank god for gays.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • chele

      OK, thank you God for gays. There, happy now?

      October 26, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
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