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. marcia

    Guess it's time for the Rockefellers, the Rothchilds and the rest of the Illuminati to start eliminating the rest of us!

    October 26, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. scott h

    miranda, are you serious??? how many jewish people are there on this planet compared to the billions of indians and chinese?? what a stupid comment you made, you should be ashamed of yourself.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tod Rutherfordminskin

    This is an outrage I say! Its all those damn liberals with their free love agenda! Get a haircut hippies!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. popcorn

    I've learn that our population isn't growing fast in recession. It's decline rapidly due to wars, earthquakes, and deaths. I saw china real estate bubble crisis. Half of buildings and street went ghost town due to one child policy. They start moving big cities and trying to keep the population stable and reduce hardworking labor force.

    Shortage population become expensive. Unmarried workers will get discouraged. Because there's no jobs to fill in. If they unmarried couple don't have children. Factories and Cities will turn abandon, liquidated, and chapter 11 selling outside world. China can't get rid off is One Child Policy. Many Chinese want 1 daughter and 1 son. They don't want one overpopulated boys. It shrinks population soo fast. China building went boom and now bust.

    It's empty.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • popcorn

      One thing that mess up the world's economy.... children of disability. They saw men and women need healthy adults to in fill labor jobs. They will get discourage and not marrying people.

      It's frustrating and scary. If population decline. It becomes moral hazard. Economy will collapse.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jason

    I think there will be a population threshold breech. Many areas around the world have poor soil quality. Their growth has diminished their ability to support themselves. Population growth should be a regional event. If your region can't support an abundant population, it will let you know.

    Additionally, modern medicine has prolonged life beyond the average person's purpose. It may be sad, but it is imperically true. The working age needs increase in proportion to one's abilities. Retiring at 55 or 60 and living another 30 years makes little sense. At 55, make many people teachers so that younger generations can advance instead of sitting idle and losing motivation waiting for something to open up.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Muhammad babatunde

    How sure you are that UNITED NATIONs has reaches the population of 7billions people without census.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • deedee

      How Stuipd!.....7 Billion Day. That number is so big, who really knows how many there are. We populate faster than we die, so it's no surprise.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  7. "Literal" footprint

    Am I the only one who is bugged when someone (including this article) says "literal" when they're really speaking figuratively. "Literally" does not just give something emphasis, it literally means literally.

    Person X: "He's so funny, I literally crapped my pants!"
    Me: "Really? What'd you do with your poopy pants?"

    October 26, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • RKY84

      Completely and Literally agree!!

      October 26, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jeopardy

    How about first kid eligible for govt aid? If a family want add'l ones, they have to provide their own support.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • cmkc

      Exactly. And no tax credits.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ben James

    if your gonna be racist don't forget Mormons!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • FedUPwithFEDS

      Mormons are now a race? Wow, massive progress over night I assume?

      October 27, 2011 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
  10. Saffy

    where is the link at population.org where you can enter your birthday? i can't find that, or the link to Randi Kaye's site where the link is supposed to be. This site is terrible.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. GreedMeansBreed

    Goverment and Corporate elites want endless economic growth which in turn requires endless population growth. This means more shopping malls, more houses, more parking lots, more more more. It will not stop until the world is hugely overpopulated - at which point the laws of nature will hold sway and the population will collapse through war, disease, and economic scarcity. No society in history has been able to pre-emptively restrain its own over-population.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • ab

      Actually that's not true – there are many instances and examples of societies, both modern and ancient, that were able to restrain population growth due to limited resources. Jared Diamond's book 'Collapse', while mainly about the societies that did fail, does list several examples of those successes.

      But yes, there are plenty more that failed than succeeded.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Saffy

    how about we stop sending jesus freaks as missionairies and start encouraging people in the developing world to use family planning not bibles!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. cathchic

    not true about catholics

    is rare to see families with more than 3 kids...
    do you think with economy ppl will actually start breeding
    like rabbits? no way jose
    now BACK in the day there will be 10 plus, by now these children
    are old and perhaps dead.

    because we are "catholics" it dont mean we follow our church
    rules... OH no,...we dont.

    i dont know bout 3rd world countries with STRICT religions
    cant speak for them

    October 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • cathchic2

      Agreed...we have only 1 and maybe will have 2...dont use man-made contraception...NFP

      October 26, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • lroy

      Catholic or not, since you brought up the past, there was a very practical reason why large families were very good especially in the rural areas. The more sons you have, the less hired hands you have to pay. If you own your own business, this should be just as true today.

      October 26, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      If you do not follow the teachings of the Catholic (Universal) Church, then you are NOT Catholic...you are a protestant!

      October 26, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Red Dragon

      Don't breed.

      October 27, 2011 at 8:27 am | Report abuse |
    • cathchic is wrong

      Then you aren't a Catholic. I'm not a Catholic, but I can tell you that membership in the Catholic church is not your decision–it is the Pope's decision. And he says that the only way you can be a true Catholic is to follow the church's rules. End of story no discussion necessary.

      October 27, 2011 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  14. BKS

    Nice article : ) Celebrate Earth and make green a way of life :)) Human resources can for sure make a dream world for future generations to learn from and be proud to carry on that green flame. Thats the opposite of Uncertainty.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  15. 2/8

    ....be good to the planet, and it will be good to us. How hard is that to understand?

    October 26, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
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