Welcome to Earth

There are now 7 billion people living on the planet. If it weren’t so scary, it would be hilarious.

Nobody really knows the exact moment when the Earth will reach a population of 7 billion human beings. We accept the United Nations as the arbiter of such things, and those comedians say it’s this month—Halloween, to be exact. That symbolism is too easy, though; we’re supposed to be afraid. But to be perfectly honest, can anyone really tell the difference—with their own senses—between the 7 billion of today and the 6 billion of October 12, 1999?

So let’s not be afraid; let’s crunch some numbers.

Let’s tell a nice tale that emphasizes the positive side of 7 billion; a story that celebrates the pure productivity that results in 7 billion people. Really, when you think about it, 7 billion represents a lot of sex. And from a purely anecdotal standpoint, at least some of that sex was good. Another bright side? If someone is looking for that one-in-a-million soulmate, there are 7,000 of them on the planet at this exact moment—shoot, 312 of them in the United States alone.

Picture a factory, the very image of productivity. How many babies must come out of the baby factory every moment to go from 6 billion to 7 billion people in 12 years? Let’s use round dates: October 1999 to October 2011.

Strangely, the most important number for this calculation is the number of people who died in the last 12 years. According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, the death rate worldwide, as of July, was 8.12 deaths per 1,000 people. That, if this was serious statistics instead of fun with numbers, would have to be adjusted on a regular basis for the 12-year period. But anyway, 8.12 divided by 1,000 equals .00812. Multiply that by 7 billion, and you’ve got an approximation of the number of people who died every year since the world hit 6 billion: 56,840,000. Multiply that by 12, and that’s 682,080,000. So that means—plus or minus a gazillion or so—that 1,682,080,000 people have been born since October 1999.

Now, go back to that baby-factory image. That’s 140,173,333 per year. That’s 384,036 a day. Annnnd … big finish … that’s about 4.4 per second. Since babies aren’t born in pieces, let’s call it five children born every second.

And if that doesn’t make humanity’s collective vajayjay hurt, it’s hard to imagine what would.

As that indigestible exercise illustrates, it is virtually impossible to fit the idea of 7 billion into the mind—even when the number is broken down to its smallest parts.

Seven billion pennies would weigh 19,250 tons. But that doesn’t really help with the visualization; it seems kind of small, doesn’t it?

The average newborn’s chest circumference is 13 inches, which would, assuming an approximate roundness, make the average newborn infant 4.1 inches tall at the chest. If someone were to stack 7 billion newborns, they’d be jailed for a very long time. But the stack would be 452,967 miles tall. That’s not one, but two stacks of babies to the moon at the closest point in its orbit around the Earth.

Incomprehensible.

If every human on Earth were to pose shoulder to shoulder for a family photo, says Nigel Holmes in National Geographic’s great series about the population marker, Los Angeles’ 500 square miles would be sufficient.

And that would suggest that not only is 7 billion an incredibly large number, it’s also an incredibly small number, at least in comparison to surface area on this planet. So, in truth, it’s not the number of people or the area they occupy, it’s the impact of those people on the planet.

The World Wildlife Fund says in its Living Planet Report 2010: “Natural resources are being consumed faster than the Earth is replenishing them. We are currently consuming the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support human activities. If current trends continue, by 2030 we will need the capacity of two planets to meet natural resource consumption needs and absorb CO2 waste.”

In the history of the planet, there has never been a creature as large and as numerous as human beings. There has also never been a creature that interacts so intensely with its environment, sending entire species to extinction.

But the final irony is that our success at proliferation may be the very thing that causes our own annihilation. We’re just too damned sexy. And not quite smart enough.

Billions upon billions of stars

Apologies to Carl Sagan, but most of these babies are not stars. Most are simple organisms that will leave little mark upon the planet except the detritus of their consumption, excretion and reproduction.

Many estimates have human beings achieving 1 billion in 1804. That means it took homo sapiens about 150,000 years to hit the first billion.

Note that the population grows faster the longer it reproduces. It’s called exponential growth, which probably sounds like more complex mathematical equations, but it’s simpler to imagine than that: Put one Hershey’s Kiss on the first square of the chess board; put two on the second; four on the third; eight on the fourth, and continue. By the time you get to the 41st square on the chess board, you’d have a trillion Kisses. And all those kisses would explain how we got to 7 billion in the first place.

OK, let’s state it for the purists: Exponential growth is where the rate of growth is proportional to its present size.

So, again from the United Nations: 2 billion people in 1927; 3 billion in 1960; 4 billion in 1974; 5 billion in 1987; and 6 billion in 1999. And if the organization’s estimates are to be believed, 8 billion in 2028; 9 billion in 2054; 10.1 billion by 2100.

Those last three estimates suggest something important. The world’s population growth rate appears to be leveling off. And some of the world’s leading demographers predict that 9.5 billion to 10.1 billion is the top-end number when the planet’s population will begin to drop.

At 10.1 billion by 2100, most of the projected increase will be in the regions of Asia and Africa—with Asia reaching 4.6 billion and Africa reaching 3.57 billion. China, contrary to popular opinion, is expected to lose population, dropping to less than 1 billion.

There are many reasons that the being counters, like those at the U.S. Census and United Nations, cite this as theoretical top number. For one, women in developed countries—wealthier and more educated people—tend to have fewer children because they have access to birth control. The world is rapidly industrializing. And, as humans have eliminated or decreased diseases like smallpox and cholera, families need fewer children to run the family enterprise, like the family farm. Nobody wants to feed extra mouths. People in developed nations also tend to be less religious; therefore some religious faiths’ tenets against birth control have less effect.

According to an ABC News report: “Already in parts of Europe and East Asia, they worry about the opposite of a population explosion: not enough young people to support the growing number of retirees. Demographers say the average couple needs to have 2.1 children to keep the population steady. In western Europe, the actual number had dropped to 1.4 by the late 1990s.”

Some in the United States predict similar underpopulation issues with Social Security and Medicare as 80 million baby boomers hit retirement age, beginning this year. Social Security is expected to begin paying out more than it collects in payroll taxes, interest and income taxes on benefits by 2017. While there is a surplus now, the Congressional Budget Office says unless measures are taken, the system will begin a slow, inexorable march toward collapse: “The number of workers for each Social Security beneficiary fell from 4.9 in 1960 to 2.8 in 2010. CBO predicts that by 2035, there will be 1.9 workers for each Social Security beneficiary.” In 2038, the two trust funds that pay Social Security benefits will be exhausted.

Bad news about population is relative, isn’t it? Not everyone believes that people are going to stop having reproductive sex just because some government demographers say they will.

Carl Haub, a former senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, a U.S.-based nonprofit that studies population and environmental issues, wrote in an article for Yale Environment 360: “We must face facts. The assumption that all developing countries will see their birth rates decline to the low levels now prevalent in Europe is very far from certain. We can also expect the large majority of population growth to be in countries and areas with the highest poverty and lowest levels of education. Today, the challenge to improve living conditions is often not being met, even as the numbers in need continue to grow.”

It’s the end of the world

There are many possibly limiting factors to unrestrained human population growth. They boil down to the global environment and resource management. The pursuit of consumables—food, water, forests, petroleum—both enables population growth and will likely spell the end of it.

Did you ever wake up hoping for a pandemic?

Food

The population-explosion hysteria has been a long time coming. Thomas Malthus, a pessimistic English economist, said in 1798 in his famous “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” that starvation and disease would eventually kill people more quickly than the baby factories could replace them. His basic theory was that humans reproduce faster than they can develop land for crops.

Back in the pre-1 billion days, Malthus could not have imagined modern internal combustion farming equipment, chemical pesticides or herbicides, or genetically modified food. Today’s farming techniques have increased food production until, according to the World Health Organization, at least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

According to the U.N. World Food Programme, hunger is the world’s No. 1 health risk, killing more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. But in 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said that progress in reducing world hunger has virtually come to a halt.

The FAO says 25,000 people die every day from hunger and poverty, but that information is from 2000, when the population was barely more than 6 billion. “The estimate is a relatively conservative estimate, amounting to a little over 9 million deaths per year, of whom 6 million are children under the age of five who die prematurely, as a direct or indirect result of hunger.”

But our baby factories are pumping out 148 million bundles of joy a year, so even 9 million starvation deaths wouldn’t have the shop foreman questioning our productivity.

Water

According to BBC News, “The world’s supply of fresh water is running out. Already one person in five has no access to safe drinking water.” There are three major reasons for this: Increasing population, inefficient irrigation and pollution.

About 70 percent of the world’s available fresh water goes to agriculture. The World Water Council says by 2020, the planet’s population will need 17 percent more water than is available for the planet’s crops.

The BBC proclaimed, “In 1999 the United Nations Environment Programme reported that 200 scientists in 50 countries had identified water shortage as one of the two most worrying problems for the new millennium”—the other was global warming.

Don’t worry, we’ll get to global warming.

This thinking is sort of like one of those drunken party games: “Would you rather die of hunger or die of thirst?” Scratch that. It’s exactly like one of those drunken party games.

Yes, it’s humor, but it’s a dry humor.

Climate change

Can we accept as a given that the planet is warming, and human beings are causing it?

There are many things humans make just as well as we make babies: disposable diapers, paper clips, digital clocks, Ziploc bags, books and book markers, cellphones, Twinkies, whozits, whatsits, and geegaws. One of our chief skills is our ability to generate carbon dioxide. In very simple terms, Mother Earth is dependent upon CO2 to regulate her temperature. Too much CO2 in the atmosphere is like a lovely goose-down comforter, holding in the heat, raising the temperature. Things like forests help regulate the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere; a single mature tree can absorb 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two people.

But in our pursuit of land on which to grow crops to feed 7 billion mouths, people have been removing unimaginable tracts of forests, particularly in the developing world. According to the FAO, the result was a net loss of some 180 million hectares of forest between 1980 and 1995, or an average annual loss of 12 million hectares. How much is a 12 million hectares? About 46,332 square miles, an area about the size of Pennsylvania. Every year. The organization says despite a greater public awareness, the rate of deforestation has not slowed appreciably.

Mother Nature’s snug goose-down comforter has begun to feel like a winding sheet.

Population growth is a double-edged sword of Damocles: The more successful the human race is reproductively, the more carbon dioxide we produce but the less we allow to be removed from the atmosphere.

And the problem is too much greenhouse gas causes unpredictable climate change: Drought in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia; longer and shorter crop-growing seasons in the American West; melting ice in the polar regions, rising ocean levels around the world. The bottom line is that global climate change has already caused regional overpopulation. Those millions of people faced with starvation in East Africa no longer belong there. And the really exciting news? As Africa develops, it’s expected to be a global hot spot for population growth, going from its current population of 1 billion to 3.6 billion by 2100.

Get it? Hot spot?

One more piece of gallows humor: For years, scientists predicted that global warming would allow malaria mosquitoes to spread to former cool areas of the planet, thus killing a lot more people. Malaria currently kills a million a year. GlaxoSmithKline recently announced that testing of a new malaria vaccine in seven African countries has cut the number of cases in young children in half. Yippee.

Peak oil

Peak oil is the moment when the maximum rate of global oil extraction is reached. You’ve probably heard the rumors: Once the easy oil is pumped from the ground, corporations will go after the hard-to-reach oil that’s located in more remote areas of the world and ever greater depths of oceans—potentially resulting in environmental degradation like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Some say we’ve already reached this point.

And, guess what? Difficult oil is expensive oil.

The success humanity has had in the daily feeding of 7 billion people is reliant on inexpensive (dollarwise) oil products. All those bulldozers for deforestation, tractors for tilling fields, computers for calculating yields, diesel fuel for shipments, nitrogen for fertilizer—all of it, everything—called “modern agricultural techniques” are utterly dependent on cheap petroleum products.

Not to alarm anyone, but food that’s expensive to produce and ship is even more expensive to put on the table. The concept of peak oil is so apocalyptic, and the starvation it will engender is so profound, it’s difficult to find credentialed government sources to describe the full range of horror. Four billion people starve to death after peak oil and during the course of the 21st century? That’s what Peter Goodchild wrote in his oft-cited article for www.countercurrents.org in 2007. (While we’re at it, does anyone want to talk about the looming phosphorus crisis?)

The U.S. Department of Energy denied for years that peak oil is at hand, but officials have been sidling up to the possibility more recently, and in a widely reported interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Glen Sweetnam, former director of the International, Economic and Greenhouse Gas division of the DOE’s Energy Information Administration, said, “If the investment is not there, a chance exists that we may experience a decline [by 2011].”

How soon is now, anyway?

You’ve really got to hand it to those jokers over at the United Nations: Halloween is truly a great day to predict the baby factories of Earth will hit the magic number of 7 billion.

If it weren’t so scary, it would be hilarious.