There are 7 billion humans on this planet. Well, close enough, anyway—there’s no way to know exactly when the 7 billionth person came into being. People are born and die every second, all over the world. On its own, 7 billion is just a number like any other. But when we consider what it means to have 7 billion people living on one surprisingly small, increasingly cramped planet, that the weight of this milestone becomes apparent. The declaration that October 31, 2011 was “7 Billion Day” was largely symbolic, a result of statistical aggregation. Yet, it is largely because of this symbolism that the number bears such a deep gravity, and raises so many questions about our existence on this planet and our relationship with the other living things with whom we share it.
Humans, for all our intelligence and great feats, do not seem to be very adept at managing our resources. In fact, inequality in resource distribution underscores our social structure as a species. There are rich nations, many excessively so, and there are unimaginably poor ones. We have moved into and taken over vast amounts of the world’s ecosystems, adapting and exploiting them for our own purposes. In the process we have built great civilizations and made huge advances: massive cities, buildings that stretch almost a kilometer into the sky, literally reconfiguring the face of the Earth through agriculture.
Some scientists even conjecture that we have entered a new geological age, the so-called Anthropocene, in which humanity’s effects have reached a point that we impact nearly every aspect of the geological and biological nature of the planet. We have changed countless ecosystems, eliminated and altered entire species. We dam rivers, mine mountains, cut down trees and bring in foreign species. We grow in number constantly, even though ever more humans bring ever-greater pressure upon the planet’s finite resources. Human overpopulation, in the end, underlies most of the world’s environmental problems.
The stark, unsettling truth is quite simple: the planet cannot sustain us as we currently live for very long. Our ravenous consumption has outpaced the rate at which the biosphere can adequately recover and replenish resources. The solutions are as complex and difficult as the problems themselves. Population control is simple in concept, but very, very complicated in practice.
It is widely accepted that education (particularly of women) and socioeconomic progress are the keys to stemming overpopulation and driving down the birth rate. As people rise out of poverty, they gain access to knowledge, and ultimately to family planning. Unfortunately, poverty and limited resources are still huge problems in much of the world; the areas of highest population growth are, unsurprisingly, all underdeveloped. It is easy to see how the problems compound and reinforce each other.
Economy, overpopulation and environment are inextricably linked. Each of those 7 billion people is a mouth to feed, a worker in need of a job, a person who will likely make and spend money and consume ever more resources. If we can’t manage ourselves at 7 billion, what happens when we reach 8, or 9, or the staggeringly higher projections that some population scientists are predicting? How will we provide food and water and shelter for these people? Considering the inequality that currently exists, and the desperate living conditions of nearly 1 billion people worldwide, swift and massive change is needed to avert a humanitarian and ecological disaster from which our species and our planet may be unable to recover.
Again, there are no easy solutions to these problems. The changes we need to bring about in our economies, our societies and the way we live each and every day of our lives are enormous and will not be easy to initiate. Unfortunately, we have no choice—we need to change to survive in the long run. We need to alter our consumption patterns and how we use resources like fossil fuels; we need ways to generate cleaner, less destructive energy. Above all, we need to teach reproductive health and family planning to curb our exploding numbers.
For all the importance we put on our daily lives, our jobs and our focus on making money, these things seem a little trivial when we look at the much larger picture. It’s as though we’re all in a car, hurtling towards a brick wall, yet entirely consumed in the fight over who gets to drive. Nobody’s paying attention to what’s coming at us, very quickly. Will we be able to correct our course before it’s too late?