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. Justin

    We'll just keep overpopulating this planet until we learn the hard way what happens when you run out of water and food or a natural disaster occurs that heavily affects food supplies. Say for example a massive drought almost akin to what occurred during the Dust-bowl happens again in the Great Plains (and that WILL happen again). You'd see mass famine across the world especially in 3rd world countries that have let themselves become overpopulated due to constant piggybacking on food from other countries. And of course the rest of this planet suffers in the meantime. I always am amused hearing about animal 'overpopulation's'. Know what? They wouldn't be 'overpopulating' if you didn't destroy half of their home every year for another condominium for the humans massively overpopulating the areas they live in.

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

    Unfortunately, a large % of the population increase comes from countries least able to support the increase.....the population can not continue unbridled.......oh, I guess it can but no one is going to like the results....."life boats can only hold so many..."

    October 26, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Bob MacKinnon

    Blame for the population increase rest squarely with the Fundamentalist Christians and the Roman Catholic Church for not allowing and working to destroy all birth control programs.

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

      Where'd you get your Ph.D.? Hitler U?

      October 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Good Stuff

    This is why the death penalty needs to be reformed and sped up. It takes some inmates 20 years on death row before being executed. Think about the next 20 years when the population continues to soar. Imagine how bloated our prisons will become.

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

    If "History, on the whole, has so far favored the optimists" it's because history has not taken into account the miserable status of the other species on the planet, the lack of clean water, the pollution of the oceans and air, etc. Stop finding cures for our diseases unless you are doing as much or more for birth control and family planning. Wars, starvation, and disease seem to be our best plans to cull the human herd, and obviously it's still not enough.

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

    "many people are trying to figure out the real importance of hitting that marker" Really ? Its not very hard. There are now too many people on the planet to properly feed or provide energy for, especially given how predatory and greedy the corporate world is.

    And unfortunately the highest rates of birth are often in the places where they are least able to care for children as well as they should be. Humanity will continue expanding until it consumes all the resources of the planet, turning ever more on each other as those resources dwindle.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. popcorn

    Latin have overpopulated hispanics women. no one wants to marry hispanic women.
    Why?!?!? Why?!?!? They are not illegals.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Will

    Where's the beef?

    October 26, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Klatu Berata Nicto

    I concur with @Gregory Faith. Nature has a way of naturally controlling a population that grows beyond it's own good. The scarcity of food, land, and resources generally cause a decline in population by themselves. Remember, only 4% of the Earth's water is fresh water, and that fact might fuel the wars of the future. Forget about wars for Oil, nope, we need water! Again, like any other animal, once it's environment is polluted, the water dries up, and the food becomes scarce, the population will begin to decline...

    October 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. jimbo

    The one word all politicians agree to use is, "GROWTH." They all use it time and time again but my opinion is we need to control population, stem growth and become more efficient with all resources. Doesn't matter much to me though cuz I am 51 my wife 47 and we chose to have no kids and just want to make it to the end of our lives comfortably. My gut tells me it is going to be a rough ride to the end.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  11. GOP

    Even thinking about over-population is an act of socialism which will not be tolerated.

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

    Food for thought: It took the western world hundreds of years to get to their current level of 'civilization', resulting in a relatively acceptable birth rate. Is the western world really helping the poor countries by providing them with medicines to keep more people alive, without those countries having the ability to feed those same people? For me this problem was driven home a few weeks ago when I read an article about some guy in Africa who proudly said "my father had 24 children, and I have only twelve, but I am doing my best to have at least 24". How many of those 24 children would have stayed alive if it wasn't for western medicine that are provided by western feel-gooders who do not care to realize that every life saved is a life that needs to be fed? Do we really help those poor countries by increasing the amount of starving people? It took western societies centuries to get where they are today. Do we really expect that we can bring the same civilization to others overnight? Think about it. I am not saying I have answers, I just have questions.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      Completely agree... I think the same thought to myself sometimes.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sasha

      I think that's a valid question, however, few people dare to ask it because (and I am surprised no one has posted this as a response to you yet) most people will call you a cold hearted racist for posing such a question.
      The reality is that while people believe it to be compassionate to provide aid it has now become clear that after sending money, food and medication to such areas for over 40 years little to no improvement has been shown. The fact is, all of the aid fuels the waring tribes and does not go to those that need it. The only reason why population still increases is because of women having 10+ children per woman.
      You'd think that we would have figured it out by now that what we are doing isn't working. So, I can't give you any answers but I stopped donating to these efforts because of me having the same questions that somehow no one seems be to having answers to. Until I get them, I am not doing anything.

      October 26, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • OneOfTheSheep

      In parts of Africa it is the custom that if you save a man's life you are responsible for them as long as they live. Think they have many "good Samaritans"?

      October 27, 2011 at 2:03 am | Report abuse |
  13. MightyMoo

    The Mark of Gideon, it's something to think about if your a Trekkie.

    October 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. popcorn

    WHITE PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE MORE KIDS!!!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. The Dude

    Yea you libs want everyone to have health care, vaccinating the poor in other countires, no don't smoke, don't drink, don't eat meat, make love not war, no death penalty, (Thumbs up on being pro abortion though) Well lthis is what you get 7B and counting.

    We need a good old fashion pandemic!!!!

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