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. SweetOrange

    I would think that a method combining population education/control with new technology resulting in more effective use of this planet's resources can take all of us, peacefully, into the next century. However, our planet is a living organism, and as such it could die, but it could, of course, also develop new means of survival – think viral outbreaks that before being contained might remove much of the population. Anyone remembers reading about the Black Death in high school history class? Whatever man does not destroy through war and hatred , and bacteria polish off in one way or another. Let's face it: the human animal hasnt changed much since it began walking upright.

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

    Over population is the single biggest problem on the planet. all other issues stem from over population. That is why no one is talking about how to resolve this. Too scary.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mr. Know How

    Time for Earth to give us a cleansing never seen before. This will make Hitler look like a humanitarian

    October 26, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Chuck

    Don't worry.. peak oil will take care of our population problem.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Kris

    So much racism brought out by this issue. "What about the Jews"? "Blame China and India"? Are you people really that narrow minded? The problem lies with every race and every nation (with a few notable exceptions where high percentages of the population are dying of disease and starvation). I don't care what your ethnicity is I guarentee I can find a family with the same ethnic background who has five or more kids. You should be ashamed of yourselves for trying to pin it on a single race or nation.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ronald

    New number, same story. Been hearing that since the 70s...

    October 26, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Georgia guidestones

    Seriously if you don't know what they are google it. Probably funded by Ted Turner which makes it curious (brave?) of CNN to carry some of these articles. Some people apparently want to limit the world population to 500 million (which would obviously requires some "depopulation").

    October 26, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. IronRider

    The fact is humans only populate 10% of the earth, however, this generation is on a course of self destruction and has been since the 1940's. I wouldn't worry about population control. I have a hunch some major natural desasters are headed our way in the near future that will take its toll on the worlds population.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • steve


      October 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Lord of Excess

      I agree with you in a sense that things will likely balance themselves out ... we'll just run out of food ... clean air ... whatever and the population will either plummet and we'll go extinct or it will level out and we'll figure out a way to come to something of a balance. Either we figure it out and we start living as one species and realize that in order for us to survive and thrive our little life raft floating through the vastness of space also needs to be able to thrive and survive ... or not ... and we ruin it and die. Its as simple as that always has been always will be.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      That's for sure. Mother nature has a way of purging herself of irritants. If we haven’t yet crossed the point of no return environmentally , we must be very close to it, and greed over green will tip the scales toward our own demise.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • dox

      Is that 10% of the total surface area or just 10% of the 29% that is land? Let's see – we'll give every human an acre of land, that is 19% of the total land area, habitable or not.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  9. TheUndead

    7 Billion will become 10 Billion which will eventually become 20 Billion. The future will be people living short brutal lives and killing each other over resources. Packed like rats living quarters, healthy natural food won't be affordable to the majority of people. There will be an explosion of bugs spreading disease and uncontrollable viruses wiping out millions. I love all my friends and their kids but thank god I didn't have any so I don't have to worry about their futures.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Georgia guidestones

      As the population explodes it implodes into anarchy and riots where Mad Max Men rule a planet of ape-like creatures that are really ourselves. Or something.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • boyamidumb

      I agree – no kids, fewer worries. We made the same choice because someone has to. And I'll be long gone from the planet, but oh what a waste. This beautiful gift we have been allowed to experience. I am always amazed by this amazing planet we inhabit, and only wish people would learn and preserve. But it won't happen.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • dox

      Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!

      October 26, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Layne

      40 years ago we were told if the U.S. population ever hit 250 million it would mean mass starvation. 50 million people later our biggest health concern isn't malnutrition – it's obesity. So much for expert predictions.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mr Focus

      You obviously have never heard about how 'the market will sort this out'
      People can't afford good food? Hogwash, as long as we funnel some more money upwards to the "jobs creators" everything will trickle down, the resulting 'rising tide' will 'raise all boats'

      Unless what is trickling down is the 21st century equivalent of the wealthy shouting "Garde Loo" as they toss their night soil out of their windows.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      people need to STOP BREEDING and START THINKING.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • TheUndead

      Look at the cost of organic produce today vs regular produce. In the future with less healthy soil to grow food and more demand, the costs will go way up. Only the well off will have fresh food.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • dox

      Think about this John – when us civilized people stop breeding and the terrorists don't, the world will be overrun with terrorists!

      October 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
  10. JohnnyYuma61

    Just think.....if everyone alive on earth were to send $2,000 to the US Government....we could pay off our debt!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      I paid over 30K last year in income tax just to the feds. The more they take, the more they spend. There is no payoff date.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • dox

      Hey, that's just the USA! We should do the same for every other government! But then the people would have no money and the governments would have it all? Wait, how does that work? It's because people are the true capital and governments are just capital management!

      October 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. j.t.


    October 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Agreed! Everytime I see an ad on TV asking for money for these starving children...usually a single mother with at least half a dozen kids that all look like skeletons, I want to send them a message. Yes, here is some food, but please...STOP HAVING BABIES. Condoms, sterilization, whatever, just stop it!

      October 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. amac

    Darn that Octomom! She's partly to blame!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  13. boyamidumb

    All governments and "leaders" seem to be avoiding the question of overpopulation, and the churches need to keep their mouths shut on the issue.

    TOO MANY OF US. ONLY China has even begun to address the situation, and even they are getting weaker on it. The Indians are totally irresponsible. BUT, not to worry, nature has its way of dealing with any population that explodes. We just won't like what is going to happen.

    I thought we were the intelligent creatures. NO proof of that. Remember there is no guarantee that we as a species will not go away just like the other big eaters.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • AcclaimedMan

      Don't worry, after your demise the world will be less one person, and after mine it would be two !!!

      October 26, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Maty

    Just stay off my porch.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. RKY84

    It's only a matter of time.

    "Soylent Green is People!!!"

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