Yesterday, October 31st, we saw the earth’s population reach 7 billion people. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel the ground shake or claustrophobia overwhelm me when I went outside. Instead, it was not until my Twitter feed started sharing all sorts of stories about what should/would/has happened and how us humans are going to face the future. I came across doomsayers as well as optimists. From those looking to the past, to cautiously looking towards what we are doing for the future. Essentially everyone is looking at the numbers: 12 years ago the count was 6 billion, while we are predicted to reach 10 billion people by 2100. How bad can all of this really be?
The first sighted doomsayer was Thomas Malthus, who argued that the inevitable population boom would lead to chaos and global unsustainability. This fear comes from recognizing that there are only a finite number of resources available for humans. Already we are not able to figure out food redistribution, resulting in exhausting arable land and stretches of famine. Similarly, we are heavily extracting from below ground while polluting the atmosphere above. With so many disparate groups calling for action and attention, could this 7 billionth birth be a factor to bring awareness towards all of our flaws? Where Jeffery Sachs does a good job explaining the strain we are putting on our future here, no solutions have been proposed.
I believe that all of this hype is a good thing for the general public. While perhaps we can ease off all of the scare tactics (after all we have gone through the “end of the world” predictions before), we can instead look at the progress that must be done to sustain all of these people. Everyone from the UN to the World Food Program to the World Bank are putting out media geared towards raising awareness promoting their ideal solution.
Instead of dreading the future, why don’t we take a second to look back to how much has been done in the past few short centuries that has led humanity to where we are today? Only a few hundred years ago, we were just starting to work with electricity and we have since made exponential strides, from going to space to harnessing the ability to use the internet from our pockets. As we continue to grow exponentially in numbers so does our knowledge and capacity to conquer our surroundings.
This stands to highlight the fundamental flaw in these doomsday arguments. Where resources on our earth are limited, knowledge is not a limited resource. It can be shared and transferred, without risk of running out or loosing it to competition. Unlike finite matters of money and food, knowledge is infinite and innovation will be the key towards humanity’s survival.
I know this sounds idealistic, but I would prefer to look at any bright side of a situation that we cannot control. Realistically, we cannot impose a one-child policy the world over, and we cannot force people to change generational family traditions over the course of the next 20 years. However, what we can do is expand educational opportunities to women and children. Theoretically this delays marriage and conception age. We can also expand agriculture technology and connect cities in an effort to improve food distribution and labor productivity. These steps coupled with medical advancements, and adapting the need for expanding urban spaces (and many other examples) will work towards limiting family size and an improved well being for our future earth.
I do not put forth these examples to suggest that the future depends on strictly helping the poor countries into development. The burden of this expanding populace relies equally on developed nations to curb our consumerism and develop more sustainable practices. Without such changes, our earth will certainly not be able to maintain us. Again, I don’t think that these challenges are impossible. Indeed, many disparate organizations have been advocating different approaches and improvements in our routines for decades. I simply hope that this Birthday event unites these movements in an effort to show how far we still must go in attaining reasonable sustainability.
I don’t believe that famine, death, and the collapse of civilization are necessarily in our immediate future. With so many great minds in existence now, we can invariably start taking steps towards a sustainable future. A future for us, and the next 7 billion to follow.–Katherine Peterson is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group focused on theories of development, globalization, and political ramifications of development work