Looking towards the future as we hit seven billion

On Oct. 31st, humanity symbolically welcomed its seven-billionth member into the world. While the exact date the population did or will hit seven billion cannot be known – and may not even happen until sometime in 2014 – experts chose this past Halloween as the day to recognize this event, and reflect on what it means for the future.

Depending on your perspective, it has taken the human race either a very long time to reach this landmark, or essentially no time whatsoever. Though it is believed anatomically-modern humans have been around up to 200,000 years, 10,000 years ago the global population was just five million. At the dawn of the modern era and the birth of Jesus Christ, it had only climbed to about two hundred million.

It would take until the beginning of the 19th century before humanity reached one billion, but since then growth has taken off. The population doubled over the next 130 years, hitting two billion in 1927, and then three billion in 1960. In less than a lifetime, between U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and the end of the millennium, it doubled further to six billion, and we have added an additional one thousand million people since.

This rapid increase is seen by many as a positive indicator of our ability to care for our fellow men and women. Science and technology have provided increased agricultural yields and medical knowledge that allow more of us to remain healthier longer – certainly, an achievement to be applauded.

Yet there is a potential downside to a huge human presence. While the scale of consumption varies immensely between the wealthy and the poor, every person on Earth consumes some portion of the planet’s resources. As the population grows further, it is possible we will face difficulties in accessing the supplies we need.

Scientists estimate, for example, that two-thirds of humanity will live in countries facing water scarcity or stress by 2025. Meanwhile, half the world’s forests – essential for providing clean air – have already been cut down for human land use.

Across the globe, people aspire to lead the lives of those in wealthy, urbanized nations. Within 30 years, two in every three people will be city dwellers. As they leave the countryside, new urbanites are demanding cars, larger homes, and other western comforts. Many experts believe, however, that it is just not possible for seven billion people to consume and discard in the same excess to which those living in developed countries have become accustomed.

After all, the typical North American requires 9.7 hectares of land to provide their resources and absorb their waste, yet calculations show the planet only has 1.9 hectares of productive land available per person.

Nobody can be blamed for the desire to lead a life of comfort and satisfaction, but we must consider how best to ensure that everyone might enjoy an acceptable standard of living on an increasingly crowded planet in the future.

Firstly, we should recognize the benefits of curbing humanity’s growth. While some may be initially hesitant, it is worth noting such a proposition does not mean imposing limits on the right to reproduce or any similar measures; in fact, just the opposite is true.

Today over 40% of pregnancies are unintended by the mothers involved. If women everywhere had the right to choose for themselves when they became pregnant, surveys show average global childbearing would actually fall below the replacement fertility rate of about 2.33 children per woman – leading to a gradual leveling-off and decline.

Secondly, it is worth exploring how we can use fewer resources in ways that meet our needs more efficiently. To take just one illustration, we ought to envision the cities of tomorrow not merely as collections of buildings, but as truly holistic communities. Such an approach would allow for features like increased vertical construction to cut wasteful sprawl, and greater mixed-use developments to reduce our reliance on cars.

The challenge we currently face is that of a massive population too often using scarce resources inefficiently. As we celebrate the birth of our seven-billionth baby, it is time we redoubled efforts to free women everywhere from coercion while providing access to education and affordable contraception, and worked towards greater efficiency in our own consumption habits.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba. He works as a downtown development consultant in Winnipeg.