The Meaning of Seven Billion

This Halloween will mark a milestone in the course of human history, and one unrelated to costumes or candy, as that is the date the United Nations Population Fund predicts that the human population will reach 7 billion.  As large as that number may be, it seems even more incredible when you consider that there were only 2 billion of us in 1927 and 3.5 billion in 1960.  The world population has doubled in the past fifty years and almost quadrupled within the past hundred.

Given these figures, it would be easy to indulge in dire Malthusian predictions of overcrowding and want, but these numbers belie the fact that the growth in the world’s population is actually slowing.  Whereas the world’s population growth peaked in the late 1960s at almost 2% per year, the current rate is half that, such that the United Nations predicts that it will take fourteen years for the world to reach eight billion—two years longer than it took to go from six into a seven and marking the first time in our history that it took longer to reach the next milestone than the one before.

More people leads to a greater demand for food and resources and greater pollution and environmental damage, but the relationship between the world population and global impact is not strictly linear, as birth rates and population growth tend to be concentrated in poorer countries, where per capita resource and energy consumption and their related greenhouse gas emissions, are only a fraction of those of Australia and the United States.  A recent UN report cites the research of Paul Murtaugh of Oregon State University to predict that a child born in the US today will produce a carbon footprint seven times that of a child born in China, fifty-five times that of an Indian child, or 86 times that of a child in Nigeria.

In fact, the fertility rate (the amount of children a woman can expect to have) within the most developed countries has fallen below the replacement rate (which marks the rate at which the population eventually stops growing).  As different countries shift from having high fertility rates to lower ones, this has led to the formation of generational population “bubbles” in which a shrinking labor pool is called upon to support an increasingly growing pool of elderly and retired people.  This is the situation that exists in Japan today, with estimates showing that by 2050, half of the entire Japanese population will be above the age of fifty.  The United States and Europe face similar, though less dire, problems with the impending retirement of the “Baby Boomer” generation, as does China in the wake of its “One Child” policy.

Faced with this problem, many governments, most notably Japan, responded by passing laws to relax previously strict immigration standards and allow an influx of young, foreign-born workers.  However, this has in turn led to a cultural backlash against immigration and multiculturalism from the native populations of these countries, as well as resentment and disaffection from the immigrant communities, who face widespread discrimination and gross inequitable treatment that may lead to violence, as seen in France in 2005 and which may have been a contributing factor in the London riots earlier this year.

In poorer and more fertile regions, such as the African sub-continent, high fertility rates have helped inflame existing problems such as land, water, and resource scarcity and high unemployment, and have been linked by some scholars to the genocidal conflicts of Rwanda, Sudan, and Darfur.

The increased population growth may have its greatest impact in terms of food, and the World Bank has predicted that agricultural productivity will have to increase by two-thirds in the fifty years from 2005 to 2055 to keep pace with the world’s growing populations and changing diets.  This, in turn, threatens to place increased pressure upon the natural habitats which remain, given current trends that show that farm productivity may be leveling out and the water shortages (about two-thirds of fresh water consumed today is used for agriculture) that already exist in many parts of the world today.

It is possible that societal pressures will force governments to take legislative solutions to these problems.   In recent years, Iran has successfully reduced its birth rate by heavily promoting the use of contraception, and it is the only country in which both males and females are required to take mandatory contraception courses before a marriage license may be obtained.  The government in India, in turn, has resisted passing laws mandating a solution but has turned instead to promotional campaigns to encourage family planning.  Such legislative efforts can have an impact even in poorer countries with weaker central governments, as shown by the example of Rwanda.  Following the genocide, the Rwandan government made family planning a priority and the fertility rate has accordingly fallen from 6.0 in 1995 to a current estimated rate of 4.9.

It took humanity a quarter of a million years to reach a population of 1 billion, over a century to reach 2 billion, and just twelve years to grow from six billion to the cusp of the seven billion we face today.  As we face this great milestone of human fertility, it is important that we take a moment to consider just what that means for us and for our world.

Related sources:

1. A Tale of Three Islands, The Economist (Oct. 22, 2011), http://www.economist.com/node/21533364

2. Additional Investments in Youth Needed as World Population Tops 7 Billion, States UNFPA Report, UNFPA (Oct. 26, 2011), http://www.unfpa.org/public/cache/offonce/home/news/pid/8709;jsessionid=03E109D06305BABF1DA906FC235D10BC.jahia01.

3. Tom Ashbrook, Seven Billion and Counting, On Point: National Public Radio (Oct 27, 2011), http://onpoint.wbur.org/2011/10/27/seven-billion.

4. Joel E. Cohen, Seven Billion, The New York Times (Oct. 23, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/24/opinion/seven-billion.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&sq=seven%20billion&st=cse&scp=1.

5. The State of World Population 2011, United Nations Population Fund (2011), http://foweb.unfpa.org/SWP2011/reports/EN-SWOP2011-FINAL.pdf.

6. Kenneth Strzepek and Brent Boehlert, Competition for Water for the Food System, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences (Sept. 27, 2011), http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1554/2927.full.

6. Kofi A. Annan, Why Europe Needs an Immigration Strategy (Jan. 29, 2004), http://www.un.org/News/ossg/sg/stories/sg-29jan2004.htm.

7. Chico Harlan, Strict Immigration Rules May Threaten Japan’s Future (July 28, 201), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/27/AR2010072706053.html.

8. Julie Solo, Family Planning in Rwanda: How a Taboo Topic Became Priority Number One (June 2008), http://www.intrahealth.org/files/media/5/fp_in_Rwanda.pdf.

9. United Nations Children’s Fund, Rwanda, Basic Statistics (2011), http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/rwanda_statistics.html.

Written by: Jae Yong Shin, GIELR Staff

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