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. Common F****** sense

    we have 7 billion people on this earth because of Hydrocarbon energy! OIL! Look at any population chart, once the start of the indutstrial revolution, and oil, the population has increased exponentially! Its Common sense!

    October 26, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • frank

      That does not make any sense or maybe I am misunderstanding you. Do you mean ever since we (America) became an industrialized nation, that we developed technologies to help us live longer? You should thank science not oil for the rise of life expectancy in the world.

      October 26, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Boom

    As long as they don't all flush at the same time I think we'll be alright.

    October 26, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chaiah

      Yes, but what if the northern hemisphere flushes and the southern doesn't. That could knock us all off kilter...

      October 26, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tyhouston

    Ok...not a problem.

    China whom is most the problem already set themselves to fail in 60 years due to lack of women. If they war, that thins the herd to.

    Africa? Well 2 of their 12 kids only live anyway so not to worried about it.

    What we need... and everyone hates it, more war. Or a plague to wipe the people out... it is how nature thins the herd.

    October 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Kinyanjui

    The lady interviewing nvr lets people answer. She asks " what should we do? use our technology blah blah" shes self interviewing.

    October 26, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  5. horsesmouth

    does that image make anyone else dizzy?

    October 26, 2011 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ZaeP

    seems like we NEED zombie apocalypse to help this population control 😮

    October 26, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Chairman

    Google World sustainability...Eugenics is coming, Bill Gates approved & endorses!

    October 26, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Toxic Zebra

    ...There will be some seizmic or volcanic activities here o Earth and some of these numbers will get sloshed skaken or similar. Pope Benedict -16th finally has begun setting in motion the reversal of the churchs' No-Condoms policy. The church tends to enmesh into developing nations where communities grow around them, the primary source of food, medication nd schooling: the church missions – bringing from Rome afar; an arcaic "no birth control policy," No-Condoms also contributes to expanding AIDS. As population expands – the natural resources of those areas come to be stripped and imbalance sets in, usually then ruled by warlords with guns... The church is though a frontrunner in the war on AIDS by Pushing Condoms in their far reach, a salvation to generations to come...

    October 26, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Chairman

    Blankets for Africa, smallpox is free =)

    October 26, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. D

    Don't blame me. I read the article on cnn and flamed the nessage board so I'm no longer part of the problem.

    October 26, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Chairman

    I guess when we "go solar" that will kill plenty, since carbon has raised so many healthy people! Go green Kill a teen! Kill those farting cows, sheep, & sheeple! Tax the energy companies till the poor & elderly can't afford heat! God Damn those selfish oil companies that keep heating, cooling & making us mobile!!! I bet if we kill ALL the oil companies we can all go down & Occupy Wall Street & live in tents.Fun Times I say! Mad Max is the future of Liberalism & "Progressive Socialism"!

    October 26, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • sharath

      This scare around population is silly and uninformed at best. The truth is the earth can support 100 billion people without any problems, may be may times that.
      Here is a fact, the entire agricultural product(food) of US can be grown in a single place the size of a very large city. All you need is water and minerals (yes not soil). Now imagine multiplying this.

      October 26, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastmorm

      What we need to do is make it law that every other person (man or woman) is sterilized. Breeders are no longer wanted on this crowded little planet. Anyone selfish enough to have more than two children should be prosectued and sued, possibly put in prison. If you think that's dramatic, wait until you or your selfish children no longer have water, food or fresh air to breath.

      October 26, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastmorm

      sharath...you are so out of touch that you need to be put in a psych ward and given meds.

      October 26, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • nimrod

      Sharath, you are a COMPLETE loon. Speaking as a trained terrestrial ecologist I can tell you that you have been seriously misinformed.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Flipider.com

    We need to occupy Mars.

    October 26, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Bob

    This is not something to celebrate. This is really a sad day that could have been prevented had it not been for the anti birth control and anti abortion groups. Shame on you.

    October 26, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Benjamin

      If it is so sad, go jump off a bridge. Oh yeah, you like your existence. Well guess what? So do other people.

      October 26, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • pastmorm

      I agree...anti-abortion groups should be even more ashamed of themselves for trying to preserve life that doesn't even count...doesnlt even exist while the rest of us struggle to eat, breath and get jobs. Anti-abortionists are morons.

      October 26, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • OneWay

      This is not something to celebrate. This is really a sad day that could have been prevented had it not been for the anti birth control and anti abortion groups. Shame on you.

      I agree that this is not something to celebrate but....do you honestly think that this would have never happened if it wasn't for those "terrible, no good" Anti-Birth Control and Anti-Abortion Groups. Your saying this whole thing could have been avoided if those groups never existed. Please tell me that you were just being sarcastic!!

      October 26, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. DD

    Here's my marker. It's too many people. Too many die needlessly everyday. I'd rather celebrate 3 billion healthy people.

    October 26, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Deep North

    1. There is plenty of room, just spread out some. Vast wide open spaces all over the planet.

    2. There is plenty of food, Just check behind any, I repeat any fast food joint in America and see how much is wasted on an hourly basis!

    October 26, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Em

      Yes, there is land for us to spread out to and fast food chains to supply us with food, but an increase in people means an increase need for food and water. Food doesn't just appear out of thin air, it requires land as well. That land is not only for us to spread out to, but for us to use to grow the crops or raise our cattle needed to supply us with food. That is where the issue lies

      October 26, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • nimrod

      Expanding on EM's thoughts. there is only so much arable land and I for one don't want to have to exterminate all the animals that currently call these vast spaces about which you speak. You also need to know that many of the undeveloped areas are not suitable for agriculture. The soils in most rain-forests are very poor and not productive. Many other areas simply don't have the water or temperature regimen needed to produce crops. We are already too many. clearly virtually all the problems we now face would be ameliorated by a lower population.

      October 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
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