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. mantis9998

    Time to start shipping folks off to the moon I guess.

    October 29, 2011 at 5:50 am | Report abuse |
  2. Solomon

    Nuff said...

    October 29, 2011 at 7:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Willowspring

      Thank you, Solomon, for the Demographic Winter video. It should be a wake up call for all the naysayers. True, with the science, the resources and technology, and the aggregate wealth of nations, humankind should be able to help less fortunate nations improve their health, education and living conditions. However, the talking heads have only a few weak proposals, population control and climate change. The climate is changing, has changed and will continue to change as it has for eons whether we talk about it or not (research the MVP, a period in history that is barely noted in the climate debate) Population is controlled by a natural disasters, attrition (people dying) and disease, which is a part of life and death. When one virus is controlled, another will mutate. Our scientists can contain one or eliminate another, but viruses and bacteria continue their cycles of evolving. Scientists think they can conquer each and every one if only they had more time or more money for research, but they are not God. We can and should work toward a greener way of life, but it does not discount the use of the natural resources in and of this earth. The difference is accessing and using those resources and doing it in an environmentally sound way. God created the earth, the whole earth and said
      " it is good." He didn't say, it's good except for the oil I provided for your use. The crux of the matter is to use the earth's resources and live lightly on the land, and enjoy the gifts of creation.

      October 29, 2011 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
  3. oldbones24

    I just wonder how many people can be supported by our planet? The land all over the earth is dying and losing the nutrients necessary to produce plant life, Africa comes to mind and Europe as well. If something happens to the food production in the USA everybody will be up the creak, not just us. The lack of birth control and religions that insist on reproduction are wrong and I point my finger at them to blame. Do we all have a Global famine in our future?

    October 29, 2011 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Willowspring

      How many people can this planet support? You cite Africa as an example of the land not being able to support it's people. Think about what happened in the time of the "dust bowl" as settlers plowed the land to plant their crops. The droughts and the plowing in areas that were fragile, but stable due to the tall grass that grew and supported huge herds of buffalo, caused a disaster in our not too distant history. It's not, will the land support the people. It's how!

      October 29, 2011 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |

      If we do its our own fault.

      October 30, 2011 at 7:00 am | Report abuse |
  4. jak9295

    Every country should be required to dedicated a percentage of their annual revenue to a collective, international space programme. Sure, slow down the population growth for the short-run. But colonisation of other planets ought to be the new long-term goal of our international community. That and eliminating fossil fuel pollution. Humanity must expand to the stars if we are to beat the clock to our inevitable extinction. There is a beginning and end for everything. Science will be the key to ensuring the immortality of our species.

    October 29, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |

    Gene Roddenberry knew the answers, but he's dead now.....

    October 29, 2011 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  6. beau

    We grow enough food to feed the whole planet 2 times over, but it doesn't get to people who need it. If we can do that, there is enough land for people to live on. Too bad we have not been keeping up our birth/death rate or our ecnonomy would be in better shape.

    October 29, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Willowspring

      Right on, Beau! If millions of babies had not been aborted since Roe vs Wade there would be enough people in the work force to finance the most efficient ponzi scheme ever devised , our social security program. Who's to ever know how many scientists, doctors, philosophers, engineers, humanitarians, architects, musicians and artists have been lost?

      October 29, 2011 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  7. abyzm

    The solution is ultimately population sustenance via intelligent use of our resources and clever solutions to comfortably live in a limited space. Things we don't see as a problem now, or even as a small problem will only become compounded by complacency of the current generation to become a major one in the future. Humanity's hope lies in realizing that no matter how different we all are, we are still acting and living as a whole. It is time for everyone to rise up and stand up for the future. We cannot be content with the way things are or we will manifest our own destruction.

    October 29, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
  8. Bills Cat

    Hey, guess what. Ain't a damned thing anybody can do about it - nothing, zip, zilch, nada. Talk out your necks, get all intellectual, suggest bombs and condoms, and it's till going to happen. If not by 2050 then eventually anyhow. How ya like them apples?

    October 29, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |

    So what do you want us to do? Just 'POOF" and disappear??
    Everyone has a place on this world. Don't try and scare everyone with this article.
    Divine synchronistic order is perfect.

    October 30, 2011 at 6:56 am | Report abuse |
  10. G Michael Leonard

    Wall Street ponders "how do you get 7 billion people?" The answer is simple- "too many people with no hobbies."

    October 30, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Report abuse |
  11. r.bowman

    personally, i think that if we were to eliminate the prisoners that are sitting behind bars for murder or what not, we could solve alot. the population in general would drop, the prisons wouldnt be so over crowded as states like to claim, and all the states would have extra money to use for other things that are needed. i feel that if you are sentenced to die, then you should be taken out back and shot. we shouldnt have to keep them up with the 74 dollar a day price tag on them. if everyone done this, maybe the global economy could improve as well.

    October 31, 2011 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
    • HannahMontana

      That is a good point. I like that idea.

      October 31, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  12. justin

    "but some of you wont survive the changes the earth makes/
    swallowd by tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes/
    and thats just the first stage if you can not reverse ways/
    and realize that we are one regardless of our birthplace/"

    October 31, 2011 at 2:32 am | Report abuse |
  13. Eminem?

    Seriously 7 billion people is not a good thing. Stop celebrating it ya fugging morons.

    November 1, 2011 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
  14. Jean

    In 1999,when the population hit 6 billion, it made the same headlines and comments that we are seeing now. But does anyone ever do anything about it? In 2025, it likely will be at 8 billion and still nothing different being done. Eventually, it will take some big epidemic or catastrophe to actually make the change for us. Because most people are too stupid and ignorant to make a change.

    November 1, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Malthus

      Nothing more to be said.

      November 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jean

    I have an aunt who believes in big families. My dad (her brother) told her that there are too many people and her response was that "they all die". Now how stupid and ignorant is that?

    November 1, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
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