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Eating ourselves to death: population in 2011

By Venetia Caine - posted Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Monday, 31st October 2011, is ‘7 billion Day’, the day chosen by the U.N. to represent symbolically the current passing of the world's human population to 7 billion.

Around the year 1800, world population was around 1 billion. We ‘achieved’ 2 billion in 1927, 3 billion in 1960, double that in 1999, and it has taken just another 12 years to reach 7 billion. By the middle of the century the best estimates are that it will be around 10 billion, give or take a billion or so, possibly a peak, possibly not.

What has caused these extraordinary changes in human population over just these two centuries? Fantastic medical advances and excellent public health measures have led to lower infant mortality, and greater longevity.


Industrialisation and technology have enabled the earth’s resources to be exploited with much greater efficiency, but at the same time obliging us to live much closer together. More than half the world's population now lives in towns and mega-cities.

But our poor Earth cannot sustain even our present population. Already the average citizen of the planet consumes its renewable resources at a rate of about one and a half times the rate they can be replaced. That is to say the average citizen, let’s say a Chinese farmer. But if everyone in the world consumed resources at the rate of the average Westerner, we would need three and a half planet Earths: at the rate of the average North American, and by some authorities Australians, some 5 planets.

Already there are parts of the world where water is a very serious issue. We see the result of drought and consequent crop failure and famine daily on our television screens. By 2025, according to the U.N. two-thirds of the world's people will be living in water-stressed countries. As far is food is concerned, China and other fast developing countries, and developed countries, are ‘land-grabbing’, buying up vast tracts of Africa so that they can produce food for their own use rather than leaving it to the Africans so that they can feed themselves.

Petrol, copper, and other minerals, formed over hundreds of millions of years by infinitesimally slow geological processes, are being gobbled up today as if there is no tomorrow. Which there will not be, for us or for the rest of life on this Earth, unless we take steps now to make ourselves sustainable. That means taking steps now to ensure that we are numerically no more than the earth can sustain. It means thinking medium and long-term immediately. 

‘All environmental problems become harder, and ultimately impossible, to solve with ever more people.’ We recycle to a lesser or greater extent, we use low energy light bulbs and we do various other things to reduce our footprints. These are important but comparatively tiny gestures.

Do you know the most important environmental decision we each take in our lives? It is how many consumers we produce, for the next generation, and the next, and so on. That is, how many children will we have.


There are organisations in several countries which are seeking to tackle this problem of over-population, not as some would have you believe by coercive means, but by just getting this message out to those who are in a position to decide how many children to have: two maximum, one, or none are the recommended figures, and to leave child-bearing later rather than earlier and by doing everything possible to get contraception to those 215 million women in the world who at present have no means of taking that decision, because they cannot afford, do not even know about, or for other reasons are prohibited from using contraception. Forty per cent of pregnancies in the world are unintended.

I apologise for the length of this, but 7 Billion Day will come only once. Unfortunately 8 Billion Day is inevitable, the demographers will tell you that. But may it be as far away as possible, by the pursuit of the policies in the previous paragraph. 

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About the Author

Venetia Caine is a trustee of the UK-based charity Population Matters

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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