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. VinoBianco

    The bottom line is that people need to stop having so many kids, if any at all.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Klatu Berata Nicto

    I know right? It's like they're thinking "There's almost no water, and what water we do have has tadpoles and mosquito larvae in it. We live in a shack made from sheet metal, rags, mud and wood pallettes. All we have to eat is what we can find, mostly from foreign-aid handouts. I know! Lets have 6 kids!"
    Mind boggling.

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

      You got that right, By the way love the name, love that movie

      October 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • timtowdi

      They need to slip antiandrogen (testosterone killer) into the groundwater of all countries with a high population growth rate.

      October 27, 2011 at 2:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Moli

      Do you really think if a person can't afford food they can afford condoms? Until recent history humans have had multiple child families. Until the advent of affordable birth control and the legalization of abortion most families had at least 4 children not counting the ones lost to the higher infant mortality rate. Get off your high horse please, Baby Boomers are still alive and kicking some are still in the work force, and many of them are from large families.

      October 27, 2011 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  3. Muhammad babatunde

    I wish to talk to united nation government to please "catters for the citizens of your country from sufferings". This rapid development and economic growths of the country may result to some unmentionable problems.i urges mr. President to looks over his peoples.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  4. VinoBianco

    Perhaps the answer is free contraception and education for everyone.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  5. dox

    ... but I only have to fold a piece of paper in half 51 times for the stack go past the sun....

    October 26, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ronald

    There still 4 of us in my house, and no tent on my 4 acres.
    I don't believe that 7 zillion thing.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jon

    The Population Bomb was written in 1968 and the author declared (then) that the battle to feed the world's population was over. India was considered a basket case who would suffer massive famines during the 1970's and 1980's. Instead, India's population has more than doubled since that time period and her people are better fed now than they were then. This crap has been going on since Malthus. At some point, you'd think intelligent people would shrug and stop paying attention.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Layne

      I completely agree. But "Everything is Swell" makes for a lousy headline.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • TheUndead

      In 43 years we have doubled the world's population and the demand on resources has exploded. Everything isn't swell.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Max in NY

    When you have individualistic societies, its hard to convince people to do the right thing for the good of everyone having less kids. And the fact that we can't even get everyone to care about doing simple things like recycle-shows how dumb we are.

    So now we have a world full of selfish ignorant people. Thats just great.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Frank

    I think people dying is a good thing. everyone is trying to save lifes, dont smoke, dont drink, dont do drugs, dont eat bad food, i say who cares if they die faster the less people we have

    October 26, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • David


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

      Hitler only had one testicle

      October 26, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • MAVVV

      Stop trying to save those kids with ADHD and defects....gezzzus they contribute nothing. Old people over 80 as well need to go. BYE BYE grandma......

      October 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • dom625

      "People over 80 need to go" is, sadly enough, a true statement. The human body was not meant to survive much longer than menopause–biologically, we reproduce and then die, much as other animals do. Medicine has short-circuited the natural order of things by postponing death by artificial means, keeping people alive for far longer than they should be, often causing immense suffering in the process. We should back off and let nature do as it will.

      And, for those who reply "until it happens to you," my grandfather suffered from cancer for three years, enduring chemotherapy and radiation in attempts to eradicate it. He lost half of his body weight and slipped into senility. He wasn't even the same person at the end and death was a blessing for him. It hurt to think of him suffering for a few extra (miserable) years, and I hope never to endure that.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. MiddleWay14

    How do you solve all the world's problems? Easy–stop having so many damn kids.

    Our standard of living is directly tied to the carrying capacity of the land we occupy. More people to the same finite amount of land means each person gets to utilize less resources.

    It should be 2 in-2 out, meaning that 2 children replace the 2 adults that procreated them. This is pretty straightforward stuff. In fact, people who are gay or lesbian, people who can't have children, and people who elect to not have children should all be given some sort of medal for their contribution to the sustainability of the human race.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      Bnnnnk. Wrong answer. There are plenty of resources to support everyone. Some people are just too selfish to care about helping others.

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

      You're forgetting that each new person represents new ideas for getting more out of less. What if Ben Franklin or Albert Einstein had been the 3rd child in the family (which by your 2/2 formula would not have been born), and we'd have gone without electricity and other things that sustain life? Don't pretend that the earth is a zero-sum game. As the author said, history had favored the optimists who believe that humans will find a way to solve their problems.... so what we really need is more humans to solve these problems.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • dom625

      David, I'm going to have to disagree with your assertion that there are ample resources for all. As an example, look at the massive droughts and water shortages in the Midwest right now; look back just a year ago when Appalachian towns were having water trucked in from elsewhere because the local water had run out. Look at the expansive tracts of land dedicated to producing enough food to feed people; we'll only need more space for food and housing as we grow. We've definitely hit the ceiling in population size.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • MiddleWay14

      @David Are you re+ar|>ed? I'm speaking about the long term. I'm not saying there aren't enough resources to take care of the immediate future. The equitable distribution of existing resources is another conversation altogether. I'm talking about way down the road since our population growth is trending towards exponential growth. Obviously there are not infinite resources on Earth. That's why we are hitting peak oil and other fossil fuels are running out. That's why we are destroying the rainforests and other natural habitats: to plant monoculture farms to create food staples, livestock feed, and alternative fuels, in addition to creating more human settlements and infrastructure. That's why clean drinking water is dangerously close to being unavailable in the south and western parts of the U.S. Are you really questioning these things? They are simple facts. To not consider them at all is to take the "ignorance is bliss" approach, which will turn out as a disaster in the future when massive numbers of people die from drought, famine, disease, and war.

      Congratulations, you are an ignorant, inconsiderate @ss_hole.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. J.T.

    Wars, pestilence and natural disasters will take care of things. Malthus was right. Have you noticed how many more natural disasters we've been having with thousands of lives lost. That is because people are taking up more space on the planet.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Report abuse |
  12. popcorn

    What' happen to 14 trillion?? Why 7 trillion?!?!? Where is missing trillion dollars?

    October 26, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Kristal

    people r starving in some countries yet its ok 2 have more children earthlings better get a grip on reality

    October 26, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Joel

    We need another world war to kill off a few billion people

    October 26, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • kook

      yea as long as its not u right?

      October 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. popcorn

    War and Natural disaster causes population decline.

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