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. Evan Almighty

    I read a study once, based solely on resources, that said a good, sustainable and healthy population (one where everyone was provided for) would be around 3 billion. I think that puts into perspective what we're up against over the next century to try and provide for 9-10 billion. Forget steak dinners and big houses, how about enough water to grow grain to feed Asia!
    My honest and somewhat cynical take is that overpopulation itself is not the real problem, its that with modern medicine and the Green Revolution, far too many people are alive and reproducing that otherwise, well, would have died young, or starved. I know it sounds sick, but disease and famine are natural occurrences that, up until the 20th century curbed population growth.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
    • cruzie

      Those were actually my thoughts exactly. Because of the medicine and technology we have, those who would have died a hundred years ago due to illness are alive and well now, because we've nearly eliminated natural selection. While I'm thankful that medicine has certain saved the lives of my family members many times, when you look at the big picture of 7 billion people....you start to wonder.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
    • dont be a sucker

      Yep...How dastardly of us to grow, learn, and expand our greatness by doing things like curing disease

      I'm sure 'God' is going to have a bone to pick with us for that

      October 27, 2011 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Reason & Logic

      Sorry but disease and famine were not natural occurrences. They were brought on mostly by wars and invasions.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Boop

      Disease and famine are natural. Humans have had wars and invasions since the beginning of time, it's human nature. All animals fight over territory.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Reason & Logic

      To Boop: let me educate you – wars and invasions are NOT natural occurrences unless you are of the belief that it is moral and just to kill and conquer those who are weaker than yourself. If so they you need to see a therapist.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
    • C. Smith

      Evan, that estimate was made with what is now vastly outdated technological assumptions. That number was valid about 100 years ago, but agricultural technology/techniques has improved massively since then. With current technology/techniques, the Earth can sustain a much larger number of people than we currently have, without any more damage to the ecosystem. The problem, then, is that we aren't applying current technology/techniques across the board, but rather applying the old, easy, stupid technology/techniques in most of the world. Oh, and we aren't properly distributing the excess that we do have.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Boop

      Please enlighten me and tell me when in human history has wars, invasions, disease and famine not occurred?

      October 27, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • dom625

      To Reason: Disease and famine are indeed natural occurrences. Droughts and weather patterns create cyclical growing seasons. Even before the advent of mass agriculture, if the rains did not come, there would be no food. And disease itself is found in nature.

      I do agree that with modern medicine, we keep far too many people alive past their time. We are not meant to live into our eighties and nineties. Here in the US, there are far more elderly people than babies and children. There simply are not enough people dying to make room for the ones being born. We should let nature do as it will and cease interfering with how things are meant to be.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  2. dont be a sucker

    7 billion; Is that all ? ? ?....Hell, you could give each and every single 1 of them their own 1000 square feet of land, and they would all fit into our 4 largest States; leaving the rest of the planet completely empty.

    We're 'Over Crowded' –Not–'Over Populated'

    Now all you sick little ignorant, genocidal, eco-fascist, pawns hurry along now and check my numbers in a vain effort to try and discredit the facts above...We all know there is NO WAY your Dogma of Death could be wrong, and you will fight tooth-and-nail to protect it, instead of turning your rage towards the proper evil people........

    The control freak megalomaniac 'Elite"

    October 27, 2011 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Carlito

      Because every individual on earth can and will want to live on a 100 foot by 100 foot plot. That makes perfect sense. Hypothetically, we could get everyone on earth into Rhode Island using a giant blender and a trash compactor. That doesn't mean they would survive.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
    • really?

      that 1000 square feet of land isnt enough to produce food/energy/and whatever otgher resources you need for one person. think of the wood metal and all other natural resources you as a single person use in a single day. and all these resources need facilities to procure them. and land that has the capacity to produce it. some land is completely arid and has none of these resources while there is not enough fertile land for everyone to go around.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
    • BillryBob

      If you do the math the 7 billion with 1071sqft would all fit into Texas.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Boop

      I know most people are gullible but what right wing group is promoting the everyone can have an acre in Texas ignorance?

      October 27, 2011 at 11:20 am | Report abuse |
    • hikertom

      Overpopulation has nothing to do wtih how much space there is. It is about resources, including air, water, food, and other things that we consume. If you build high enough buildings you could squeeze everyone into Rhode Island; but the world would still be overpopulated.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike US Navy

      The best post I have read about this article *thumbs up*

      October 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. ThinkLessDoMore

    Georgia Guide Stones <--- look it up

    October 27, 2011 at 10:44 am | Report abuse |
  4. ThinkLessDoMore

    Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.

    Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.

    Unite humanity with a living new language.

    Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.

    Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.

    Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.

    Avoid petty laws and useless officials.

    Balance personal rights with social duties.

    Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.

    Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • dont be a sucker

      i've promised myself to destroy those evil stones

      October 27, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • mm.. how about not?

      diversity?
      you mean like interracial mixing?...
      yeah... i dont think so

      October 27, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Imabadman

      Acutally, sorry to say this but interracial mixing is inevitable. You should wake up and smell the coffee. Only a matter of time before there is no "Black" or "White" or "Latino," everyone will be mixed in the next 40-50 years.... LOL!

      October 27, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Reason & Logic

    There are vast areas of this planet that are unpopulated. Even in the western United States, there are wide open spaces and plenty of water. The problem is that many of those tracts of land and water resources are used for cattle raising. What needs to happen is for us to transition to an agricultural society and eschew meat. It has been proven that we can grow crops in a vertical-type construction. We also need to build underground cities to conserve resources (less heat and cooling required). The theories are there for creating a society that can accommodate billions more people, we just need to enact them.

    October 27, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  6. That Black Guy

    There's white people everywhere!!!! :O

    October 27, 2011 at 11:33 am | Report abuse |
  7. That Black Guy

    There's white people everywhere! :O

    October 27, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
  8. Mike

    You can take the current WORLD population put them all in Texas and it would be no more crowded then New York city is currently. The U.S. is only using 4% of thier land. We produce enough food to feed the world but certian contries will not let people disburse food to who needs it because there is no money in it for them. 7 billion is a very sustainable if everyone would work together to achieve a comman goal of providing for all.

    October 27, 2011 at 11:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Boop

      Land does not = arable land, only 10% of the land in the world is arable.

      October 27, 2011 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  9. Kyle

    This is simply the most recent cause to be disgusted by the human animal. Anyone thinking population management isn't a good idea is naive and short-sighted. The quality of life for everyone is diminished by the addition of each new mouth. We should be intelligent enough to dispense of the requirement for superior numbers to ensure the perpetuation of the species. When it takes more credentials to adopt a stray cat than it does to have a child really points to a problem. This is not genocide, holocaust, or lack of faith in Jesus...it is pragmatism. There are perfectly humane methods to change the trajectory of the population and protect the sustainability of the finite resouces available. Minimum suffering for the most amount of people.

    October 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Duder

    Ever hear of the game Fallout? I suggest we all play and get skilled with the game. This is what life will be like...if there is even life left on Earth.

    October 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bankster

    Easy solution....

    legalize cannabilism. I'd love to go down to my local Mcdonalds and order a human McRib !!!

    October 27, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • CL

      that's crazy.... I don't want to be eaten by anyone!!(If cannabalism legalize, do we have to breed humans too??)

      October 28, 2011 at 6:57 am | Report abuse |
    • CaptainKirk

      there are too many people on this planet. mainly in china and india as well.

      i think the major nations need to conduct a population "Blowback" where we intentionally and directly reduce the world population mostly of rather unstable nations.

      unstable nations: mexico, india, china, philippines, middle africa.

      it's either us or them, and helping them survive at our expense does no one good.

      October 29, 2011 at 5:11 am | Report abuse |
    • mantis9998

      Cannibals should be eliminated to make room for others.

      October 29, 2011 at 5:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Jon

      Captain Kirk I think that is called "Genocide"

      October 29, 2011 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  12. JJ in CT

    We need real educatation on proper familiy planning. Absitence only programs cannot prevent humans from what their biological makeup pushes them to do – reproduce and multiply. Religious organizations need to stop blocking proper education on family planning throughout the world.

    October 27, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Terry

      Thank you JJ. Is Christian Fundamentalism esp. the repeated erroneous interpretations of Revelationin Americaa a major political barrier/influence in preventing better family planning in our society as a whole. What Western Instiitutions should be entrusted to articulate, or incentivize, a family size ethic for this century?

      October 27, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Terry

    Can any of you angry wisecracks offer up a civil, humane policy concept to actually bring down overpopulation–gradually–without a major flu epidemic, mass murder, etc.? (War is not the Answer)

    October 27, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • OneOfTheSheep

      No problem!

      The answer isn't "just say no" or abstinence. Get the word out to young people that mysteriously haven't "figured it out".

      My wife and I made the decision not to have children before we were married. That was in '64, and we never did. In looking back, that was a decision wise beyond our years. Given the choice in hindsight, would not change it.

      But over the years, we definitely did it like bunnnies...without the fear of pregnancy. First with the pill, then after my vasectomy. "Real men" need to get over the fear of that procedure, any maybe they'll even neuter their pets responsibly in a "someday" future.

      October 27, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • mantis9998

      Nature will take care of the problem.

      October 29, 2011 at 5:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Another David

      Terry, you are now 1 in 7,000,000,000. Do you really think that your question merits a response? Sorry just being another wisecrack. I believe that we should utilize a policy somewhat like China's one child policy. Of course we would have our own version, but it did reduce China's explosive growth by around 1.3 billion. I would never recommend becoming a communist country, but I think having our tax dollars support your 12 kids is a bit ridiculous.

      October 31, 2011 at 12:17 am | Report abuse |
  14. yada

    Lots of hate in this blog today. There's a bigger issue at hand then population control.

    October 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • sakes

      THAN************ Its annoying when people mix up the use of then and than!!!!!!

      October 29, 2011 at 6:31 am | Report abuse |
  15. Adele

    Although higher populations bring more challenges to bash people for having children is cruel. Granted I don't think you should have more children than you can afford to provide for – but once they are in this world – they are a life just like yours and deserving of respect. I don't think population is our biggest issue – the planet can support a high population; the problem lies in how we allocate our resources. Instead of using the earth we abuse it. You can't tell me that we cannot find earth-friendly ways to make products or grow food or find alternative energy that doesn't cause pollution. We can make a phone smaller than our finger – we can certainly create real life viable solutions to keep our planet green and our lives sustainable. The problem goes back to the carnal nature of greed. It drives me nuts that Washington won't admit global warming exists and attempt to figure out better ways to curb consumption and take us off oil. The question is not population, but how we use our resources and brainpower as we move forward. Population only plays a part in this if we don't come up with constructive solutions. Our population density in the U.S. is very low compared to other countries – where I live in Montana has less than a 1,000,000 people and lots of it is viable land – people just don't want the cold. We need to work together not bash one another. Then we will surely have a dark future.

    October 29, 2011 at 5:07 am | Report abuse |
    • CaptainKirk

      yes i have been to montana. it is a lovely place, but what if the entire population of south africa landed on your doorstep? they would bring all their wars too. just like muslims in great britain.

      we need to stop helpling them.

      October 29, 2011 at 5:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Terry

      I just heard that the Bangadesh government–with a very poor population– has managed a family planning policy for thirty years with some success. Wheareas Pakistan and the slums of India are not yet empowering their young women to plan families. Here in the US it is very easy to start have kids, married or not, and pass probably 1/3- 1/2- 4/5 of the early parenting financial costs to human services...In short both hemisphere's– East and West– have not come to grips with population, resources, and religious tradition and expectation at the household level.
      I've been an organic farmer for 25 years running in S MN and would say Americans can do alot better on diet makeup, but organic practices and diet are not more than 10%? of the total policy answer to hunger and misery.

      October 29, 2011 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
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