Posted by: Ed Darrell | October 25, 2011

7 billion and counting

Exponential growth’s potential to rapidly change the numbers of a situation tends to fall out of the thoughts of most people, who don’t see such things occur in daily life.

You should stop and think about this one for a minute: World population will tip to over 7 billion people soon, maybe in the next week, but most assuredly by next spring.

A very large crowd in a stadium

Seven billion people? Really? Are the concessions adequate? The restrooms?

Joel E. Cohen wrote about the event in Sunday’s New York Times:

ONE week from today, the United Nations estimates, the world’s population will reach seven billion. Because censuses are infrequent and incomplete, no one knows the precise date — the Census Bureau puts it somewhere next March — but there can be no doubt that humanity is approaching a milestone.

The first billion people accumulated over a leisurely interval, from the origins of humans hundreds of thousands of years ago to the early 1800s. Adding the second took another 120 or so years. Then, in the last 50 years, humanity more than doubled, surging from three billion in 1959 to four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1998. This rate of population increase has no historical precedent.

Can the earth support seven billion now, and the three billion people who are expected to be added by the end of this century? Are the enormous increases in households, cities, material consumption and waste compatible with dignity, health, environmental quality and freedom from poverty?

(Joel E. Cohen, a mathematical biologist and the head of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University and Columbia University, is the author of “How Many People Can the Earth Support?”)

We’re in for some dramatic shifts in concentrations of people, if not shifts in how we think of the world (thinking is always slower than reality).

While the bulge in younger people, if they are educated, presents a potential “demographic dividend” for countries like Bangladesh and Brazil, the shrinking proportion of working-age people elsewhere may place a strain on governments and lead them to raise retirement ages and to encourage alternative job opportunities for older workers.

Even in the United States, the proportion of the gross domestic product spent on Social Security and Medicare is projected to rise to 14.5 percent in 2050, from 8.4 percent this year.

The Population Reference Bureau said that by 2050, Russia and Japan would be bumped from the 10 most populous countries by Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Are you ready?


Borrowed with express permission from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.


  1. Wow! That is a lot of people! What’s going to happen to the economy!? It’s already bad enough as it is!

    • Bad? Generally a booming population means more work to do, hence, more jobs. There is an entire wing of the political spectrum who claim we need to have a lot more people than 7 billion.

  2. Wow! More people are going to need more jobs

  3. Mr. Darrell.. What do you think of this issue? Do you think the planet can cope with it? I believe it can. More than 80% of the land on Earth is either undiscovered or unoccupied. This leads me to believe that if over population occurs in a city, the people can always move out to unoccupied land.

    Or what’s your opinion on this issue, MR. DARREELLLLL?!

  4. wow!!! thats alot…they look like ants

  5. Richard,

    80% of the land is unoccupied? (Not “undiscovered” in this era of satellite mapping — maybe unexplored, but generally for a good reason.)

    Yeah, the Gobi Desert and the Taklamakan are unoccupied. So is the Atacama and Namib — with good reason.

    It’s a question of resource utilization. We’ve overfished the oceans, and some of our formerly most-productive fisheries have collapsed, and others are on the verge. That drives up prices in places like Japan, but it probably dooms a few tens of thousands of people to starvation in other places. Fresh water is probably the biggest issue over the next decade. There’s not enough to go around, and redistribution is difficult.

    At four billion, many ecologists thought we’d passed through the gateway to doom. Then Norman Borlaug’s work kicked in.

    Norman Borlaug is dead, now. There is no one like him on the horizon, and he may have achieved all that was achievable in multiplying food supplies.

    We can’t continue to grow without big changes like another Green Revolution, or a revolution in clean energy. What are the limits? We don’t know. We’ll know too late, probably.

    We need a lot more wise land stewardship, and a lot more careful water stewardship, and generally a much higher regard for the Earth that allows us to live on its crust.

    What are the odds we’ll get that?

What do you think about this little point of history?

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