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. andi

    Corporate greed, fighting for oil, combined with the major religions have brought us here. Maybe only when the world starts trusting science rather than church, when the quest for knowledge replaces blind faith in childish myths will we be able to *really* better our living on htis planet.

    October 27, 2011 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
  2. jesus

    rt5ewry

    October 27, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  3. augustghost

    keep it in your pants people

    October 27, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  4. Bridget

    Anyone who takes an honest look at the view of the world will see that outside the big cities there is no overpopulation problem. The God who made the universe and brought water out of a rock and sent bread from heaven, and made us His children, will and does provide. It is us sinners who don't head the call to take care of the earth and resources that has created this mess. Not having too many families, but small families with too much stuff. We have big homes and two cars for every home with only 2.5 children. Overuse, abuse and don't share the worlds resources in a Christ like manner. We in the developed countries and the leaders of the poor nations are so corrupted by greed and sin, we should take a look at the scritpure that tells us that it is harder for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. The poorer nations get by with so little, we have so much to learn from them about the love of life even when there is nothing but what must be very much like the manger Christ was born into. Lord have mercy on us.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:12 am | Report abuse |
    • Hasa Diga Eebowai

      2.5 children. for 2 people... that is an increase... duh

      October 27, 2011 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
    • HahaLoLFAIL

      1st, THERE IS NO GOD!

      2nd, NO GOD = NO PROVIDING FOR US!

      3rd, if you are "a person of faith", why don't you stop eating and DIE already, so you can "get back to God" as you so claim?

      Yeah, you won't do that, you will continue to live and spread your lies about a guy who WAS MADE UP BY MAN TO CONTROL OTHER PEOPLE!

      Learn "actual" history, many other religions have the EXACT SAME STORIES as Christianity, so don't demand the rest of us sane people to believe in your fairytale nonsense...

      October 27, 2011 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Leslie

      If the same story keeps cropping up in other religions, wouldn't that make it more likely to be true since most of those religions had no contact with each other in the days they were started? While I believe that God helps those who help themselves, I also believe that we need to take care of the world that he created. Which we're not doing right now...

      October 27, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Hasa Diga Eebowai

    Thanks religion.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:13 am | Report abuse |
  6. palintwit

    We need to sterilize all the Palins.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:25 am | Report abuse |
  7. hippypoet

    we all gunna die, he planet's crust will collasp in on itself and kill everything but perhaps the worms!!!! or we throw an awesome 7 billion party... everyones invited

    October 27, 2011 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  8. erich2112x

    And to think that if by some strange mutation every human being on earth became suddenly sterile, we'd all be gone in less than 100 years.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
    • AndrewNY1988

      Interesting comment. In the scope of the World and our Universe we are here for just a blink of an eye, so may as well have a good time while here.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
  9. eatme

    fossil fuels, mechanized meat industries, capitalism is what makes the current populations unsustainable. Capitalism in its current form is unsustainable for the population not the other way around! Even if nothing is done the population will peak at 9billion. The planet can easily sustain 9 billion and much more if we adapt sustainable living standards.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
    • AndrewNY1988

      The problem is, people don't believe in science, thus do not want to change their lifestyles. A lot of people, in my opinion, believe that we can deplete the resources of the Earth and nothing will happen. This is the only place that we know can support life, therefore we should all do our part in protecting and preserving it.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
    • eatme

      I think all people will adopt sustainable living. No one I know wants to keep paying high utility bills, high gas prices, wipe out forests for meat etc. Alternatives are plentiful, but the very nature of capitalism stops these alternatives from coming about. Change can occur from the bottom but it has to be a global massive phenomenon.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
  10. Mack

    For those who feel it necessary to reply with cute uneducated remarks about how much food we have, I pity you. Just look to the Horn Of Africa where thousands of children are starving daily. It's criminal. So as you sit in McDonalds stuffing your fat face with french fries and burgers, think about that. Think of just how good you have it. Check out One.org and educate yourself.

    October 27, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  11. led9

    The population is about 10 times what it should be. It's artificially inflated because of agriculture. Look at the population before the industrial age (which allowed massive use of crops through mechanization) and where it jumped to right after. The earth will find its own way of correcting things.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |
    • LetsGetReal

      "what it should be." Who says what the population "should be"?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
    • C. Smith

      What you're really saying is that you believe humanity should regress to pre-industrial technology, society, and probably moral values.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
  12. Floda

    We obviously need more genocides to save the planet. May the strongest race survive!

    October 27, 2011 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
  13. Starman

    Feed 'em to the sharks.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
  14. Naughty-Victorians

    Ignorance beyond belief of demented human specimen...Nature controls everything that happens on this planet Earth including who comes and goes,if nature chooses to push the population level high it certainly can with flying colors while you quibble about in your abyss of human ignorance,which is also given to you by nature all by design...Keep muttering fools

    October 27, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Feeble Human

      Are you human? I need to know if you're also a demented human that I should ignore or if you're a different species here to enlighten the rest of us.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Craig

      Can you actually be this stupid?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  15. SC

    The bible beaters can pray it away and deny it all the want. Evolution is the only thing that will survive.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
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