The Halloween of 7 Billion

There’s almost a celebratory air surrounding the world population reaching seven billion on October 31. At least the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) seems to be treating the event as celebration-worthy, with the release of a world anthem called “United” performed by 50 musicians from around the globe. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed the coming population milestone as an opportunity for individuals to make a difference, expressed in the movement 7 Billion Actions, although there are no specific goals regarding these actions, and there are currently less than 200 people who have shared their stories, which range from “I am helping women choose life in Liberia” to “I am a rebel artist.”

“Some say our planet is too crowded. I say we are seven billion strong,” says Ban Ki-moon. “In our increasingly interconnected world, we all have something to give and something to gain by working together. Let us unite, seven billion strong, in the name of the global common good.”

But rising population numbers, and their unequal distribution, throw a harsh light on the global need for women’s health care, adequate medical services and the growing problems of resource depletion and dependence on dirty energy.

New births are not being distributed evenly across the globe. Instead, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to both the highest birthrates in the world and the worst poverty. According to MSNBC, “The regional population [in sub-Saharan Africa] of nearly 900 million could reach 2 billion in 40 years at current rates, accounting for about half of the projected global population growth over that span.” Birthrates will be highest in Africa’s cities, bringing more children into terrible slum conditions. Meanwhile, Western Europe, Japan and Russia are more concerned with low birth rates and aging populations. In fact, according to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2009 World Population Data Sheet, 97% of global growth over the next 40 years is expected to happen in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

And while the increase in population numbers may spell more possibilities for positive change, environmental groups are focused on the increasing energy and resource demands, and increasing waste, pollution and global warming emissions that come with such extraordinary numbers. In the short-term, large, impoverished families will run into food and water shortages that in turn will destabilize developing countries. According to the International Water Management Institute, by 2025 some 1.8 billion people will live in places suffering from severe water scarcity. In China and India, which hold the largest populations, rising economic prosperity has meant growing demand for resources, rapidly increasing energy and transportation use and driving up greenhouse gases in the process. By 2050, India is expected to lead the world in population with 1.7 billion, with China moving from first to second place with 1.4 billion. The U.S. is expected follow in third place with 439 million.

The impact of so many people and their increasing demands has already been felt. Half the world’s forests have already been cleared, world fisheries are likely to be nearly depleted by the middle of the century, and the doubling of world population since 1961 “means that each of us can count on just half as much land as in 1961 to produce the food we eat.” Mass extinctions and unchecked, increasing global emissions have meant we are changing the planet in ways that are making it more unstable and less productive and less able to support our swelling numbers across the globe.

Seven billion is a call to action, in particular in regard to family planning support worldwide and environmental responsibility. That means both supporting policies that provide options and education to women in the developing world, specifically nonprofits such as Pathfinder International, and legislation such as the United Nations Population Fund, which the House recently voted to defund; and also immediately transitioning to more reduced energy use and more sustainable energy production.