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. atroy

    No baby born around 10-31-11 of this year would be the 7 billionth person to enter this world. Considering the millions who actually leave the world each year, the 7 billionth person entered this planet, i'm guessing, at least a couple of decades ago.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:28 am | Report abuse |
  2. AesopsRetreat_Com

    All 7 billion people on earth can fit into the State of Texas.

    DO THE MATH YOURSELF !!! Here is the Educational Portion:
    1 square mile = 27,878,400 square ft

    Texas has = 261,914 "Square miles" of dry land. (Water lands (lakes et al) not included here.)

    Calculate:
    27,878,400 square ft per mile x 261,914 square miles of Texas: = 7,301,743,257,600 sq ft (7.301 trillion) square ft of "dry land" within its borders. Thats Square feet of dry surface.

    The Population of the world is nearing 7,000,000,000 (7 billion)

    Dividing the number of square feet for Texas by the Population means:

    Every human on the face of the earth, packed into Texas would able to stand firmly on 1,000 sq ft of dry land.

    (7.301 trillion sqf divided by 7 billion) = 1003.10 sq ft

    What does that Mean?:
    1000 sq ft is the size of a rather comfy apartment. However, if families were in units of 4 (mom, pop and 2 kids), their allotment would be 4000sq ft, Yet they could live rather comfortably in 2000 sq ft leaving a surplus of 2000 sq ft per.

    By creating side-by-side and three levels high apartments to house families of four and adjusting for the 2000 sq ft additional left over for those families of 4, you'd be able to house the entire population of earth within the borders of Texas PLUS have sufficient roadways for travel in and out of Texas in any direction as well as small roadways and driveways to supply all households.

    BTW, I never said it would be pretty, only that it can be done.

    Also, You could add 10 times of the worlds population (ten times) into Texas and still be standing in a very uncomfortable 4×4 foot square area. But they would still fit into the State of Texas. On dry land.

    You could also ask: How could these people, who are able to fit into one small area of the planet, be able to supposedly cause so much havoc to it?

    Answer: It appears less and less possible when viewed from that angle.

    Bring up Google Earth and view Texas, then imagine all the population of the world fitting in that one small area and realize that ten times more could fit. Then ask yourself those questions that Al Gore and other global alarmists don't want you to ask.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:44 am | Report abuse |
    • zoundsman

      That image is starting to make me thirsty.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:59 am | Report abuse |
    • mike

      Nicely done!

      October 27, 2011 at 5:46 am | Report abuse |
    • iluv2dance

      smartest person i've heard in a while

      October 27, 2011 at 6:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Oom

      Good lord this is stupid, humans physically on the planet is not the issue. Resources are the issue. In this Texas utopia I hope they don't experience extreme heat and drought like they do in reality. Can't grow food or have fresh water in those conditions.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:51 am | Report abuse |
    • bosmonkey

      That was way too much effort to make a meaningless point. Ok, fine, all people can fit in a small area of the planet. I can't believe so many people have such a narrow view and responded about the amoutn of physical space for people! :/ Sad. You should read more science journals. They are the people who research this and know more than anyone, not politicans and corporations with their heads up their a** and not thinking about the future.

      It has nothing to do with space and everything to do with 1) waste/pollution and 2) resource usage (fossil fules, drinkable water,...) of a growing population; of which there will be far too much of (1) (as it already is) and not nearly enough of (2)

      October 27, 2011 at 7:52 am | Report abuse |
  3. OneOfTheSheep

    Darwin was right, just backwards. Mankind is not progressing forward towards an inevitable and glorious future. It is instead perfectly clear that mankind is racing ever faster down the path to becoming pond... that stuff that floats on top of the water.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:55 am | Report abuse |
  4. zoundsman

    Regarding the photo: You've given me my idea for my business: People need more baseball caps!

    October 27, 2011 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
  5. pat

    u guys most think we create ourselfs and everything else you see around you, what a bunch of idoits

    October 27, 2011 at 4:00 am | Report abuse |
  6. jc

    ffs, if you do not have the resources to support children then ffs dont have one! its really as simple as that and then we will not be faced with this situation. does it have to get to a point where welfare is taken away because some people are so lazy?

    October 27, 2011 at 4:09 am | Report abuse |
  7. Slick

    How many tons of excrement are produced each day by all these people?

    October 27, 2011 at 6:14 am | Report abuse |
  8. GJM

    Overpopulated in deed – 7 Billion – Darn!
    Time to Invest in Virgin galactic and/or other space co's to offload that heavy weight of Earth.
    The planet is tooo small and the way humans are – Is bound for something nasty to happend.

    October 27, 2011 at 6:47 am | Report abuse |
  9. 600000001stOne

    There's plenty of space on this earth for 7 Billion people. If you only take 5 countries: USA, Canada, Mexico, England, and Australia – those alone you have enough land for every single person to have 1 acre each with 10,000,000 acres to spare. And then there's the entire rest of the world! People just need to spread out!

    October 27, 2011 at 6:52 am | Report abuse |
    • JQ

      however you need to factor in a lot of land for farms, roads, etc. and there does need to be some uncultivated areas so that our ecosystem doesnt die.

      October 27, 2011 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Oom

      Why are people bringing up acre per person? That is nutty. Think about the resources it takes maintain the lifestyle of ONE American. Growing food, getting fresh water, utilities, clothing, our waste then all the products in our lives including cars. At the same time we need trees for fresh air. Think about it.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:06 am | Report abuse |
  10. carol

    Why is our mindset being put in this place? Why do who want to have less population and why?After seeing the math...what is who up to in telling us this garbage?

    October 27, 2011 at 7:09 am | Report abuse |
  11. DerDicht

    Space for bodies is not the issue. Also space exploration is not the solution. The number of humans is the problem and it will resolve naturally via disease and starvation. The zoning boards in the US that allowed good farmland to become housing and factory locations has adversely affected our ability to feed ourselves. The government aiding companies in moving jobs overseas and outside our borders further compounded the problems. I believe the term critical mass is applicable here and one day we will reach it, allowing the evolutionary aberration that is mankind to indeed perish from this earth. Nature can and will recover.

    October 27, 2011 at 7:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      What are you talking about?? You sound a little giddy about the prospect of mankind dying off. Don't you realize the only creature that even appreciates the beauty of nature is man in the first place. No ape sits around marveling at sunsets. It is humans that ascribe beauty to nature and without our species Earth would just be an unrecognized chunk of dirt floating around in space. If you are so anxious (as many people seem to be) for humans to die off and let Earth float about on its own, you first, homie.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
    • dave

      Do a little research, the US actually makes too much food. Some farmers are paid to NOT grow crops while others are told to grow food just for animal feed, bio-fuel, or sugar alternatives. The rest we give away.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
    • anonymous

      I don't know about apes, but my dog sits and watches the sunset. And whether or not we can keep feeding and housing people shouldn't be the only issue, there is the issue of wildlife habitat and other residents of the planet having space to live and food to eat. It's not ALL about us.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
  12. Peter

    We just hit six billion a few years ago, it is time to slow down people!

    October 27, 2011 at 7:54 am | Report abuse |
  13. HIH

    Trojan has dropped the ball is all i can say

    October 27, 2011 at 7:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Lol

      THATS HILARIOUS!! LOL!

      October 27, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
  14. jOHNNY 5

    There is plenty of uncharted land on earth to fit billions more but resources to sustain life are whats in question. We will have to leave this rock eventually.

    October 27, 2011 at 8:15 am | Report abuse |
  15. john anon

    This is a major issue that will most likely have a natural solution. Disease, famine, and war will eventually solve the problem. What was that Darwin guy talking about? Oh yeah only the strongest survive. With the way this world is overpopulating the next big war will not be over oil but food and water. People will have to fight to live.

    October 27, 2011 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28