Seven Billion Reasons to Talk About Our Future: The Ticker

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By David Henry

It's official. There are now 7 billion of us. Today, the world reached this population milestone with little fanfare and no poster child to show for it. The United Nations marked Oct. 31 on its calendar for the arrival of the anonymous baby somewhere in the world, although the U.S. Census Bureau has said a date of March 2012 is more accurate.

The actual day doesn't really matter. What's more striking is the mainstream debate taking place about a once-taboo topic: overpopulation.``The biggest elephant'' in the room -- as Alan Weisman said of human numbers in his  best-seller ``The World Without Us'' -- has too often been avoided. But last week alone, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal confronted the subject while acknowledging the latest population landmark, only 12 years after the last round billion was recorded.

Joel E. Cohen's op-ed in the New York Times lambasted the mismatch between limited resources and prosperity driven by gross-domestic-product and population growth. Juliet Eilperin blamed ``rising economic aspirations and lifestyle choices'' in her Washington Post article ``Population Growth Taxing Planet's Resources.'' And William McGurn presented a contrarian argument in the Wall Street Journal, saying that human minds trump human mouths (to be fed) in the race for sustainability.

Are we seeing the death of economic rationalism in favor of a new environmental consciousness? Unlikely: As advanced economies skirt recession, they will be more focused than ever on increasing gross domestic product -- underpinned by a growing population. Will renewable sources of energy render the doomsayers irrelevant? Probably not: It will be decades before solar, geothermal and wind energy replace fossil fuels, so the debate on whether fewer people would solve the environmental crisis is only likely to intensify.

Thomas Malthus warned about the pitfalls of overpopulation back in the 18th century, and Paul R. Ehrlich did the same in his 1968 book ``The Population Bomb,'' but their arguments were largely ignored by policy makers. Politicians in countries with growing populations have more recently been making some attempts to address the issue. China's one-child policy, imposed in 1978, was drastic.  Australia may have set a more promising example when it appointed a minister in charge of population last year. Tony Burke's job is developing a strategy for managing Australia's growing population, which is expected to expand by 60 percent to reach 35 million in the next 40 years. ``These issues have never previously been coordinated at a government level, and they require a high level of cooperation,'' he said after his appointment.

One of the few advanced economies to reverse its declining birthrate, Australia is expected to lower immigrant numbers as a first line of defense against overpopulation in a country with scarce water resources. In contrast, Population Matters, a U.K.-based group whose patron is legendary broadcaster David Attenborough has lobbied to reduce Britain's population by almost half before the year 2130 both by encouraging people to have fewer children and by stabilizing immigration. ``All environmental problems become harder -- and ultimately impossible -- to solve with ever more people," the group's website quotes Attenborough as saying.

As we push toward a world of 10 billion people by the end of the century, a political discussion of sustainable human numbers  will be unavoidable.

(David Henry is a Bloomberg View editor.)







-0- Oct/31/2011 15:18 GMT