One day soon, the 7 billionth person will be born. The UN has chosen Monday, October 31 to mark the occasion.
When I was born 45 years ago, there were only half as many people on the planet. (See the estimated population when you were born.) When Baby 7 Billion is my age, there will be more than 9 billion of us. If I’m still around, I’ll have seen the world’s population nearly triple in my lifetime.
The numbers are staggering. It’s easy to view rapid population growth as a threat to our future when you consider the loss of natural habitat, water shortages, the decline of fisheries and global warming.
But it’s time to think differently about the relationship between people and nature.
We should celebrate the progress we’ve made. Today, average fertility—the number of children born to a woman in her lifetime—is less than half of what it was in 1950.
Average fertility rates didn’t slow because people decided it was wrong to have more children. It slowed because people got more of what they wanted: families got a higher standard of living, more girls got education, more babies and children got better nutrition, and more women got the ability to plan and space their births. The net effect was that more women were in a position to choose to have fewer children.
There is a lesson here for those who care about nature. Environmentalists tend to tell people what they shouldn’t do: don’t pollute, consume, waste, or despoil. Often these limits and bans are necessary. But what if we focus instead on helping people get what they want for a happy, healthy and fulfilling life? What if instead of protecting the environment from people, we protect it for people?
What would the world look like if we harness the power of 7 billion?
It would have more nature. The world is younger than ever. Forty-three percent are under 25. The Nature Conservancy just conducted the first survey in the U.S. of young people’s attitudes toward nature. They told us that they value it more than their parents do. Eighty percent call themselves environmentalists.
But nature won’t thrive just because our children want it to. It will thrive when we recognize and capitalize on its many values:
- Water is one of the world’s most valuable commodities. Cities throughout the Americas are restoring forests to provide more of it.
- In Asia, hundreds of millions depend on the sea for their livelihood, and so governments are investing in coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds that sustain healthy fisheries.
- Burning and clearing tropical forests creates more greenhouse gases than all the world’s cars and planes combined. So developed nations are helping developing nations preserve forests to reduce emissions.
- Storms and floods are becoming more severe. States in the U.S. are restoring wetlands along their coasts and rivers to reduce the damage from extreme weather events.
A recent study in the U.S. estimates that these and other ecosystem services provide over $1 trillion annually in economic value—equivalent to some 10 percent of the nation’s GDP. Because nature provides these services essentially for free, the free market rarely invests in them. Citizens need to organize themselves—and push their governments—to secure these values by protecting and restoring natural habitat.
We also need to unleash innovation to use natural resources more productively.
Today, a billion people live in poverty. They don’t have clean water, electricity or even enough food to eat. Providing 9 billion people with a decent standard of living will put incredible pressures on Earth’s natural resources. We may need to double the production of food and energy—on the same land, with the same amount of freshwater, in a rapidly changing climate.
We will need all the innovation we can muster to get more agricultural output with less land and water, more energy with less pollution and habitat destruction, and more cities with less sprawl and energy use. To drive innovation we need to price natural resources, especially energy and water, to cover their full costs, including the environmental impact of their production and use.
As Washington debates the role of government and the proper balance of taxing and spending, the world’s largest economy has a unique opportunity. We can drive innovation by shifting to a tax on carbon-based energy. And we can step up our public investment in the world’s “natural infrastructure” – forests, grasslands, wetlands, coasts and rivers—and encourage the private sector to match it.
That would harness the power of 7 billion.
Glenn Prickett is chief external affairs officer with The Nature Conservancy.
(Image: Village children playing on the sand of a Micronesia beach. Image credit: ©Ami Vitale)