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. jos

    phoniex this question is for you...please express the definition of the word beliademonic

    October 26, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. SW

    And if you damn redneck racists would stop your inbreeding we wouldn't have this population crisis and people like you!

    October 26, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Portland Tony

    Up a creek...that's what we are. Population needs to expand to meet the goals of capitalism ...Growth .....More houses, cars,.boats, food, stuff
    etc. Of course this will end someday and someone will have to figure out a new system! Glad I won't be worrying about it!

    October 26, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ed

    Prospects for the Future
    Thank You Obama, Bush, Clinton, Chamber of Commerce, Republicans, Democrats, Catholic Church, Baptist Church, Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, Wall Street, McDonalds, and everyone else who has benefited from the destruction of our home.

    The immigration tidal wave of the last three decades has made it impossible for Baby Boomers to ever enjoy the 1970s dream of a stabilized country — even if all immigration were stopped tomorrow. The Census Bureau states that if immigration were reduced to replacement level, the United States population would still be growing at the end of the century because of the momentum created by the last three decades of immigration.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      I find it amusing how people so quickly blame immigration for problems as ridiculous as this. Consider that without the increased tax revenue of young, working-age immigrants, it might not be possible to fund the pensions of the baby boomers. Low population growth means more rapid population aging. But I suppose you MUST have thought about that since you were so quick to blame it on immigrants.

      October 26, 2011 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ab

    You mean abstinence isn't working?!?!? What are we going to do now?

    October 26, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. James Romero

    Doesn't anyone think that maybe we are due for an epidemic, war, or world disaster. The earth is overpopulated. The government has not tried anything to eliminate people to bring down or slow down our number.

    October 26, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
  7. s kel


    October 26, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • cajuntide

      save the earth kill off the dems.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. cajuntide

    when starvation sickness and war all start cause of to many people the populatin will drop and like it or not folkes we cant stop it.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      Oh hi, Thomas Malthus,
      I didn't realize this was 1798. Positive population checks, indeed. You must've read An Essay on the Principle of Population.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. karthik

    Excessive population is a great disaster which is created by us. Please watch this video from spiritual aspect by a great spiritual guru talk:

    October 26, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Knucklehead

    Way to go humans!!! Yeah!! We are the best species ever!! I bet all the endangered species are applauding...

    October 26, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. MiMi

    It's time to drop crates of condoms over the poor overpopulated country's.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alexa

      ...and places where people misuse apostrophes.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gman Haleski

      legalize abortion?

      October 26, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • chele

      you mean countries.

      October 26, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Toxic Zebra

      Pope Benedict XVI finally initiated the process of reversing the churchs' long-standing No-Condoms Policy. The Church through her missions has reached into developing third world nations and enmeshed with those populations for generations now and interacted by providing support like schools, medical care and education, but they also bring with them from Rome afar; archaic dogma prohibiting abd displacing birth control of any type. A few drought years come along and local resources come to be scoured and imbalance sets into motion, then warlords fight for control of those diminishing resources. So, good for Pope Benedict XVI... Plus the church is now in the prime frontrunner position to "Push-Condoms" through its far reach to the N'th into the far corners of the globe.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:32 am | Report abuse |
  12. Knucklehead

    Let's not call them humans...let's call them human capital...or labor resources...

    I'll bet the next 7 billion will work for even less....cha-ching

    October 26, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sonoran99

    Wrong facts from some here. India is now the largest single country in population, but Africa is growing much faster. Within a few generations, there could potentially be more people in Nigeria than China, thanks to its one-child policy. I cannot even imagine how the African countries will cope with that kind of increase in population. Our hearts will be hardened to massive loss of life.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      I think your post is the definition of irony. China clearly has more people than india

      Also, for nigeria to grow larger than china, it would take more than 100 years at current growth rates.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Captain Obvious

      Africa isn't a country genius.

      October 26, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • dallas

      Africa is a continent, India is a country!

      October 26, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Knucklehead

    Don't worry...with all the "developing" nations coming up, learning the right way to pollute their water, ruin the air, and consume more resources, new and virulent diseases will spring up. And once our economy completely tanks, and we can't afford or acquire oil anymore, our military will be useless since we won't have the jet fuel to bomb other countries for months on end, and then the brown horde will pour over our southern border and take back what was theirs 150 years ago and we won't be able to do anything about it. Maybe they'll even call it 'globalization.' The massively overcrowded countries will lose a bunch of citizens too, but will have more to replace them. Then we'll slowly subside into a subsistence type economy....kinda like the Middle Ages...and it will no longer matter if you own an IPhone, a Droid, a plasma TV, or any of the important things Americans live and die for everyday. Might want to start learning about how to grow food and build shelter, because most other knowledge will be useless, and the "service economy" will be the first casualty.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bingo

    Funny how some people see all this land and assume more humans can be stuffed on it hand to hand. Keep in mind the resources that are needed to support us:
    1)Not that much land mass can grow food and of that land our farming practices are destroying the topsoil to keep up with current demand. We don't just grow food for ourselves, we have it to feed animals that are used for food and products like textiles.
    2) limited fresh water to split up between human, animal(food) and produce farms.
    3)human and animal waste and run off
    4)resources for utilities
    Plus all the extras like the products that go into building homes, cars and space for businesses so people can buy their necessities. So open spaces = ok for more humans is thinking small.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
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