31 October 2011
7 billion people
Posted by Callan Bentley
The root of every issue that we collectively term “environmental problems” is human overpopulation. It wouldn’t matter if everyone on Earth drove a Hummer and used incandescent light bulbs and dumped raw sewage in their local watershed — if there were only fifteen people on the Earth. But the reverse is also true: if everyone lives a low-impact lifestyle, it still has an enormous aggregate effect on the planet – if there are 7 billion of us.
And now, there are 7 billion of us.
This morning, in the Philippines, there was born a child which has been symbolically declared by the United Nations as the world’s 7,000,000,000th living human. It’s a day of great joy, one imagines, for the family that welcomed this baby into their lives. But for the rest of us, that valid, valuable individual is another straw on the camel’s back. Having seen my home area of northern Virginia get more and more crowded over the course of my life, I can attest that the quality of life decreases inversely to the number of people I share my space with. …particularly on the Beltway.
We have better nutrition now than we used to. We have better medicine now than we used to. We have easier access to information now than we used to. So people live longer, more children survive to reproductive age, and the base of our population just gets wider and wider. There are huge numbers of us procreating, and every new person adds additional stresses to the non-human ecosystem. Even if that person lives a life of positive environmental effect (a John Muir, Aldo Leopold, or Rachel Carson, for instance), we live the contradiction of knowing that our actions take something from the physical system of which we are a part. We must create waste in order to create good. We must alter the world while we seek to protect it.
Population growth estimates by the UN have recently been revised upwards from ~9 billion at 2050, to something more like 10 billion at 2100, maybe 11.5 billion. Elizabeth Kolbert has a thoughtful, pithy essay on the issue in last week’s New Yorker. You should read it to catch up with the latest: one sentence particularly struck me about the UN estimates:
If families have, on average, just half a child more than the U.N. currently projects, by 2100 there will be sixteen billion people on the planet.
Holy cow. More than twice what we already have? I’m not sure that’s a world I want to live in: I feel crowded already. Resources are strained already. Environmental impacts are being felt already. As with climate change or an epidemic disease, I don’t anticipate the tipping point being very pretty. It looks like there is a strong probability of a grim future for our species, swarming all over our finite planet. Why are we growing so fast? To me, it feels reckless rather than intentional. It feels like metastasis.
Happy Halloween to 7 billion of the scariest creatures I’ve ever met.
I wrote a poly sci paper once that argued that the planet could support 20 billion souls. I had energy being drawn from geothermal, solar, wind and wave. It was more devoted to how we would set policy than the science of feeding and clothing 3x our current numbers. The habit of humans gravitating to cities makes housing vast numbers of us more doable. A Blade Runner world may be our future.
Okay – so what’s the “ideal” number of people on the planet Earth? 20 billion people sure seems like a lot. I’d put the ideal number at something more like 1 billion. I’m sure a Mormon would answer this question differently than I would (as to them, people are “souls”).
20 billion is what I would say is the limit, my 69 Chevy would limit out at a 120 miles an hour, not a good idea ether way. I toured the highlands of Guatemala a few years back, there were at least twice the number of people living on those hill sides as the land could carry in the best of years but with land reform, the country could feed its self with no problem. Policy is as important as food science.
I am not part of the problem, proud to be 3,553,227,618!
Where’s the fence? I mean shouldn’t we have erected some sort of fence?
It is not only a question of the total amount of humans in our tiny rock, it is also how we are distributed, how our economy is organised (Who thought in UK that it was a good idea to send “down” apples for being waxed in South Africa and then back to UK for puting them in the supermarkets??)
We have become a race of wasters: We waste anything we touch. We hardly have the same cell for for longer than a couple of years, computers for longer than 3 years, and so forth. We shop chicken breast, instead buying a full chicken and eat its breast, make soup with its bones, etc. Just remember how our granparents would use and recycle anything. Growing vegetables locally, eating less meat… We don’t really need so much, but are doing it really badly.
I am totally convinced that consumism is the problem, not directly the 7.000 million we are here. As an example, I have a work colleague, rich, who doesnt’ bother with switching off his heater during the day, when he is in the office. Many people do that. Many people walk in cold winter in their homes dressing shorts and a tshirt…
The world’s population reaching 7 billion on Halloween is a reason to celebrate, not decry humanity. Yes, there are still problems of starvation and lower standards of living for many on the planet, but neither history nor mathematical logic bears out the conclusion that population pessimists reached – which, btw, only views humanity as consumers and not producers. Where there are these problems, we need to go about creating more for everyone, rather than curbing our numbers. In the Victorian times and as this article points out, the world’s population was a small fraction of what it is now, yet there were still problems of poverty etc. What changed these problems and improved our lives in the West, was not going down from 1 billion to less, but by improving sanitation infrastructure, healthcare, breakthroughs in science and improving our general standards of living. There are many reasons to celebrate 7 billion on the planet. It proves how ingenious we are, that we’re better at keeping people alive more now than ever before, more brains to solve more problems and it is a private moment of happiness. As I read somewhere else, a mother of a child born yesterday in South Africa said “where there is life, there is hope”. That is absolutely the way we should see it, humanity is a solution not the problem. I came across a brilliant spoof recently that parodies the Malthusian outlook on humanity and it’s ridiculous assumptions, it is hilarious and brilliant! http://www.worldbytes.org/get-off-my-planet-happy-birthday-7-billion/
Ps. I am not a number!
Thanks for your idealistic perspective. I just feel crowded by all you people. I need some space, ya know. Will you see 10 billion humans as a reason to celebrate? 16 billion? Would 19 billion’s celebration start feeling a bit cramped? What about a gazillion trillion flatillion billion? Where do you draw your ideal “okay, that’s enough” line?
Sure you feel crowded but both the US and Europe have increased forest cover in the last 50 years so you live daily in more crowded circumstances but have greater opportunity to get away.
The UN forecast you refer to makes some unlikely assumptions about fertility rates. On present trends world population is likely to peak at 9 billion rather than contiruing to increase. It is well known that fertility reduces dramatically once a trigger level of income is reached (about $3,000/yr). Best way to reduce population growth rates is to reduce poverty. In fact look at the fertility rates in developing countries, as wealth increase there has already been major declines in the number of children per head.
Try reading Matt Ridley’s take on this, he quotes the statistics.
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