The Seven Billion Quandary

11/11/2011 11:07 am ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

Is the recent announcement of the world's population reaching the seven billion mark a cause for celebration or concern?

Those who exult are apt to embrace the philosophy "the more, the merrier". Those who have grave reservations worry that the human race is in danger of overrunning the planet's natural resource carrying capacity, especially with 4.5 billion people having been added to the world's population in just the last 60 years.

The individuals who applaud the seven billion figure contend that civilization needs more young people to support their elders. But there are not nearly enough jobs to put the burgeoning numbers of youths to work, particularly in developing countries where the greatest population growth is concentrated. More than 200 million working age youngsters are unemployed world wide, and their overall jobless rate is 13.4 percent.

Another argument of "the more, the merrier" crowd was popularized by the late Julian Simon, an economist who argued that the earth's greatest resource was human ingenuity. That premise led him to conclude that the larger the pool of humanity, the more extensive the source of brain power and the greater the odds of more geniuses being born.

But the most prolific population growth is occurring in developing countries that are in the grip of widespread poverty. A potential Einstein or other genius raised in these nations' urban slums would be unlikely to recognize, much less fully realize, his or her innate cognitive talents in the midst of a brutal struggle for daily survival.

Simon and his modern day acolytes have failed to take account of the relationship between humanity and the earth's natural resource life support system, and the pressures the former exert on the latter. These demographic cheerleaders seem oblivious to the reality that at the current rate of growth, human population is outpacing food production. On a per capita basis, global cropland, grain production and availability of potable water is in decline. No surprise then that according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, some 3 billion people are malnourished and approximately 2.5 billion lack access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Statistical analyses suggest that rapid population growth can often be a detrimental catalyst, given that developing countries with this demographic trend have the worst levels of poverty.
Slowing population growth not only will put people and the planet's natural resource base in better balance. The Population Action Institute, a Washington-based think tank, calculates that if humanity were to limit its expansion to 8 billion rather than the high estimate of 9.2 billion by 2050, several billion fewer tons of carbon emissions would be produced, thereby mitigating the acceleration of global warming.

How could the human race slow its growth and degradation of the global environment? Most population experts agree on the solutions -- universal family planning and gender equity by providing schooling for all women where basic compulsory education does not now exist, a reduction in conspicuous consumption, restructuring of the economy to make it more labor intensive and sustainable, and elimination of the enormous waste of food.

So back to the question of whether crossing the 7 billion population threshold is reason for jubilation or apprehension. Considering the dizzying unsustainable rate at which mankind is proliferating, the answer is obvious.