How the World Can Cope with 7 Billion Humans

Things might turn out all right if we can understand what growth really means

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Sometime in the next five months you will officially be one of 7 billion humans on this planet, up from 6 billion in 1999, finds research published in Science. That's a lot of bodies. The planet is experiencing what researcher David Bloom called an "unprecedented global demographic upheaval." That's a scary thought--too many people, not enough planet! But don't get all Malthusian quite yet: rapid population growth won't necessarily lead to the apocalypse. "The demographic picture is indeed complex, and poses some formidable challenges," Bloom said. "Those challenges are not insurmountable." You hear that? If we understand how population growth will affect our lives and our planet, and act, things might turn out alright.

Attention claustrophobes: there's more than enough room. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the world population could fit in the city of Los Angeles, explains National Geographic in this enlightening video about world demography.

Room really isn't the issue: the real problem is consumption, explains National Geographic in a series on world population reaching 7 billion. We can all physically fit on the planet. More hunger; more thirst; more bodies; more pollution--these will all stress the planet more than population growth. And this stress is already manifesting itself in increased natural disasters, argues the Los Angeles Times editorial board.

Wildfires threaten ever more people because expanding populations are moving nearer and into forests. Floods inundate more homes as populations expand into floodplains. Such extreme events are stoked by climate change, fueled by increasing carbon emissions from an expanding global population

It's not about food. It's about resources. Farming the land doesn't present as much of an issue as exhausting natural resources,which help cultivate the land and deliver food. Innovations in farming won't cut it, explain biologists Mary Ellen Harte and Anne Ehrlich, in the Los Angeles Times.

The news led some population experts to call for improvements in agriculture to feed a world with so many hungry mouths. But that is, at best, a temporary patch. No matter how efficient we become at growing food, the Earth cannot provide for an infinitely increasing population.

Producing enough food is possible, the real challenge is doing so without exhausting resources.Water is finite, thirst is not.

We need to find the right balance. Not all parts of the world are developing. Europe's population has stagnated, and places like Russia, whose population of 142 million is down from its peak of 148 million in the 1990s, want people to have more babies. To combat a low birthrate, the Russian government pays women $11,500 to have a second child. While this might signal a move toward better population control methods, Harte and Ehrlich say it's just not enough.

Sure, there's much talk and concern that birthrates are down and will result in not enough workers to support the elderly. But this argument is overblown; after all, a 70-year-old can be more economically productive than a 7-year-old. And a large, pre-working population inflicts costs on a society. Furthermore, the birthrates in developing nations remain high, and the consequences affect us all.

Meanwhile, other developed countries, like America, whose population is expected to reach 400 million by 2050, are growing. We need to find the right balance, explains RealClearScience's Alex B. Berezow. "There are many wide-open spaces for the population to expand. The trick will be to figure out a way to incentivize responsible growth, not to discourage it entirely."

Education is key. Teaching contraception will help stabilize population growth rates. Unlike other developed countries in Europe, America is experiencing population expansion in part due to a lack of sex education, believe Harte and Ehrlich. Instead governments should promote family planning education, which will reduce povery and sever climate change. Better education is a win-win, explain the Times' editors.  "In contrast, more education for girls and wider access to safe, effective family planning would serve a dual purpose, moving the world population toward sustainable levels and helping to avert famine, illness and premature death."

Understanding these causes and effects of overpopulation, will better help us combat the stresses too many bodies might have on the planet.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.