Just minutes after Danica May Camacho was born last month, her mother’s small hospital room in Manila, Philippines was brimming over with dozens of reporters vying for a photo of the newborn. Danica, born at 11:58pm on October 30th, was chosen by the UN Population Fund to symbolize the 7 billionth person on our planet. But whether she can hold the true title is unclear; UN estimates indicate that the world population will reach 7 billion sometime between March 20, 2011 and April 12, 2012, as a specific date is hard to gauge. Although the actual statistic is incalculable, Danica’s title – and the UN’s designation of October 31st as the “Day of 7 Billion” – serves first and foremost to symbolize the population trend we are experiencing today, and the implications it has on the world in which we live.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the development of technologies and the way in which people conduct political, economic and domestic aspects of life have supported an increasingly large global population. Although estimates vary and depend ultimately on factors such as human choice, severity of health risks and changing social norms, predictions suggest that the population will level off somewhere around 9 billion by the year 2050. Not only do the raw numbers differ drastically, but the changing demographic representations also reflect the extremity of this population shift. Population expert and Columbia University professor Joel E. Cohen explains that the population is becoming more elderly and more urban than ever before. The ratio of people in developing to developed countries will reach an unprecedented 6:1 in coming years.
Because a growing population naturally corresponds to a growing demand for resources, this statistic is somewhat alarming from an ecological perspective. But what exactly are the environmental implications of a planet with 7 billion people? Is it a problem we can handle? This is the subject of intense international debate, which seems to be a key obstacle for instituting effective global environmental policy change. Whereas the more developed countries of the Global North generally contend that the growing population in developing countries is causing the environmental degradation we face today, those representing the Global South tend toward the position that the North’s consumption rates are the true source of the threat.
Those such as Roger Martin, environmentalist, former diplomat and Chairman of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), wish to focus efforts on curbing fertility rates rather than changing the way in which we manage our resource use. The OPT and similar organizationssuggest extending equal opportunities to women in developing countries, as well as providing increased access to family planning and reproductive health as tools to accomplish this goal. Those who believe that population growth alone creates present environmental ills say that making efforts to curb population is a more efficient way of dealing with environmental issues because they believe that the Earth simply does not have the carrying capacity to support such a vast and growing number of people.
Opponents of population control include both religious organizations—the Catholic Church—and non-religious organizations, such as the Population Research Institute, advocate a reassessment of consumption patterns, arguing that population control is cumbersome, unethical, and, most of all, unnecessary. Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, has written and given lectures citing statistics documenting resource use across the world—throughout his or her lifetime, one American’s carbon footprint will equal that of seven Chinese citizens, 46 Pakistanis, 55 Indians, or 86 Nigerians. If occupants of more developed countries curbed their consumption, they argue, the world could in fact support a population even beyond the 7 billion we see today; if we aim to develop in a sustainable way of life, we can ensure that all of the Earth’s future generations will be able to meet their needs.
In light of the recent population milestone, the UN has launched a campaign entitled “7 Billion Actions,” with a mission to combat the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that a statistic of seven billion poses. It highlights seven main issues facing our modern world: poverty, unempowered women, disengaged youth, reproductive rights, aging populations, urban growth, and an unhealthy environment. According to political science lecturer Nancy Gleason, this program is crucial for educating people about what seven billion means. “Without an awareness program like the 7 Billion Actions program, many people will remain unaware of the negative impacts an exponentially growing human population can have on the planet and our species.” She added that whether efforts should focus on decreasing population size or curbing consumption, “being aware of our impact is the first step to changing our behavior.”