The Power of 7 Billion

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)

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Comments

  1. Excellent article, and on a topic that gets far too little attention in public discourse. It is nothing less than tragic from a societal point of view that any issue having to do with human procreation gets highjacked by right-wing extremist views on abortion. And reproductive women’s rights and freedoms are continually being eroded as well, esp. for the poor, with the attacks on Planned Parenthood being a case in point. Even the Presidential Science Advisor, John Holdren, is continually being attacked by the media for coauthoring a book with Paul Ehrlich called “Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment” in which,
    the crazies say, Holdren called for forced sterilization, this was even reported by Fox news around the time Holdren was confirmed: http://tinyurl.com/holdren-population If we are to survive as a species, this madness must stop, we must sanely address the need for better and more effective birth control, improved family planning, and better education for women across the globe, as education is the best prevention of unwanted pregnancies. Tying in the population problem with ecosystem services is definitely on the right track. This is a fabulous first blog, Glenn, keep ‘em coming! ~ Anne P.

  2. Well said, Old Son!

    Here in flyover land we cherish and protect our ample fresh water and the spaces between settlers and their families.

    For addressing the demands of the expanding world population, principally in Africa and South Asia, we must lead the way, IMHO, in energy conservation, water conservation and reuse, and reduced consumption and recycling.

    Before every journey let us ask, “Is this trip realy necessary?” Oh yes, and scale back weapons production and early resort to warfare.

  3. And I really, really can spell “really,” as in really necessary. 8-)

  4. This article was NOT excellent. Instead it appears to be attempting to put the best face possible on an unfolding planetary calamity.

    Speaking as a biologist, earth’s planetary carrying capacity for a modern industrialized humanity with everyone on earth enjoying a U.S. / Western European standard of living is on the order of TWO billion on less and the U.N.’s most recent medium-fertility population projections show humankind to be on-track toward ten billion by the end of this century. We know that humanity was already inflicting damage on earth’s ecosystems, biota, and planetary life support machinery back in 1987 with five billion and 1999 with six billion – when less than half of us were industrialized. Now we are at SEVEN billion and ocean dead zones are spreading, bluefin tuna and shark populations are plunging, deforestation in Sumatra reached rates of 61% over a period of twelve years in the 1980s, and on and on.

    The truth is, Mr. Prickett is either in a state of denial or is attempting to soft-sell the calamity that is unfolding around us. Graphs depicting human population growth over the past 10,000 years are accessible at http://www.flickr.com/photos./pali_nalu and readers will notice that they are not JUST J-curves (like those J-curve events the world witnessed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki), but they are extreme and pronounced J-curves.

    What was missing from the above article? Carrying capacity? Limiting factors? Overshoot? Climb-and-collapse? Tipping points? (All missing! Is that being honest with one’s self and one’s readers?) Nothing about J-curves? Nothing about real-world mammalian climb-and-collapse outcomes? Nothing about delayed feedbacks? And all of the rest of the “great unmentionables.” (What happened to the great and forthright honesty of the population-environment statements of Nobel Laureates, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the officers of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London less than two decades ago?) It might have helped, for example, if the policymakers, journalists, and conservationists aboard the passenger liner Titanic had refused to permit a cover-up of inconvenient topic of icebergs.

    The U.N.s high-fertility projections (which may well be real-world numbers that actually emerge) show us adding not just billions eight, nine, and ten by century’s end, but continuing onward to numbers eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and 15.8 by 2100. (Population is not just affected by birth rates – think about mortality reductions; biologists have already achieved SIX-FOLD life-extensions in laboratory organisms – that would be a 500-year extension in humans – and even a tiny, tiny fractional such increase in humans would send us careening toward 15.8 billion.

    The truth is, 15.8 billion is the demographic equivalent of a collision trajectory with a near-earth asteroid – and conservation efforts have no chance whatsoever of success in the face of such numbers. (And, by the way, if astronomers were to discover a near-earth asteroid on a collision trajectory with our planet, NASA and international space agencies would IMMEDIATELY initiate efforts to “nudge” the object out of its collisions trajectory, but that “nudging” effort would have to BEGIN when the object is still far enough way for the efforts to have an effect. If we are to avoid the 15.8 billion humanitarian, civilizational, and biospheric outcomes, the emergency demographic efforts that are needed now are NOT articles like the one above, but immediate steps to ensure that voluntary and ethical family planning programs are universally accessible in the world’s poorest and highest-fertility LDCs – for with every hour, day, and week that current high-fertility rates persist have the effect, due to population momentum, of locking the entirety of humankind, civilization, and the biosphere more and more inescapably into the collision trajectory.)

    For a short freely-downloadable downloadable PDF on Conservation – “Why 10% conservation goals are not enough” – readers are invited to visit http://www.scribd.com/TheWecskaopProject (What Every Citizen Should Know About Our Planet).

  5. For the natual world, it means a veritable Holocaust — the continuing extermination of species, more sprawl, more pressure on water resources, less habitat. For us, it means societies so large that they increasingly are hard to govern. Population is an inevitable catastrophe, and –given ignorance, some people’s lame belief that God wants them to procreate, the general human failure to anticipate consequences of one’s selfish actions (oh, it’s so cute to have a little baby), this is not going to get better. Sorry, it’s not. The world is going to be totally human. Ironically, what could be worse for our grandchildren?

  6. I am just a plain person. I don’t have any further education than high school. I read the article and saw good in the words. I read your comments and saw good in them as well. I think that educating people is a solution. I am about to be married and WAS considering converting to Catholicism as to follow in my family’s tradition. One of the reasons I am choosing not to is because I think it is socially irresponsible for us as a society to procreate without thought to the natural resources each one of us consumes in a life time. We are leaving future generations to clean up our mess. I have in my life time seen the coming of recycling and suggestive ways on reducing water consumption. I was raised by my grandparents who caught water for the garden plants, and who smashed cans and brought them to a recycling facility before they were picked up weekly. Ironically they don’t recognize global warming as a threat and don’t understand that they were green! What can a few degrees do? We as humans may be able to survive a few degrees difference, but generally speaking I think that most people don’t understand that the organisms below us on the food chain can’t. They don’t “see the big picture” in the way that the environment is interconnected on a global level.

    I have also argued with those who say corporations are posers for all the new green ads. I can see where it is hypocritical for them to campaign these words. I think corporations care more about the bottom line: MONEY than they do the environment. The reason I argued is for the sake of progress. They have a voice that reaches millions of people. They effect change, because they produce what we want. The reason that the big corporations are changing there attitudes has to DIRECTLY with the fact more people are demanding it.

    I hope in my lifetime I see a global shift in views on how to ethically sustain ourselves and the other life here on Earth, because WE NEED those species as well.

  7. Glenn, and fellow commenters — love this take on such an improtant issue!

    I hope this adds to the discussion — blog.metrotrends.org/2011/11/7-billion-isn%e2%80%99t/

    It’s a post from the Urban Institute’s Richard Johnson about why 7 billion people is actually not enough.

    His final conclusion: “…if more young people aren’t on the horizon, we’re going to have to push back the start of old age to keep more adults in their sixties and seventies productively employed, paying taxes, and off the pension rolls.”

    Interesting stuff!

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