You are living in an extraordinary time — the planet Earth is, at this very moment, experiencing an incredible human population rise. It is estimated that the world population reached one billion in 1804. It was another 123 years before it reached two billion in 1927, but took only 33 years to reach three billion in 1960. Thereafter, the global population reached four billion in 1974 (14 years), five billion in 1987 (13 years), six billion in 1999 (12 years) and seven billion in 2011 (12 years).
This rapid increase is no longer due to a high growth rate acting on a relatively small population base. For example, as recently as the year 1967, a population growth rate of 2.11% acted on a total population of 3.4 billion to produce annual global population growth of 73 million people.
Now, the situation is the opposite. The global growth has fallen by 50% — a good thing, to be sure. But, this lower growth rate of 1.1% is acting on an enormous total population of 7.3 billion. Counter intuitively, this is resulting in even larger annual population growth than in 1967 — over 80 million additional people per year. This enormous total growth works out to eye-popping numbers: 1.5 million more people added to the planet every week. Over 220,00 people per day. That is 9,000 more people every hour, or 150 more people per minute. Almost 3 more people every second. And we expect the Earth to automatically and easily provide land, food, shelter and other resources for these fellow people, plus all of us already here. This is a very tall order for a finite planet to handle. In fact, based on global extinction rates, destroyed habitats, altered chemistry of oceans and sky, changing climate, and toxification and pollution of the environment, it is clear we are already asking way too much of the Earth. The addition of billions more people by century’s end — that is what most experts expect will happen — bodes ill for life on Earth.
How large a number is represented by a “billion”? It helps to understand the intense pressure human population is putting on the Earth’s ecosystems and other species if we try to grasp the size of this number. For example, if you were fined one million dollars ($1,000,000) and paid $100 per minute towards this fine, it would take you just seven days to pay off your debt. Painful to your pocketbook, sure, but ultimately just one week of handing over a $100 dollar bill every minute.
But what would happen if you were fined one billion dollars ($1,000,000,000) and paid $100 per minute towards this fine?
It would take you 19 years to pay off your debt, that’s what. Imagine it: handing over a $100 dollar bill every minute for 19 years to reach $1 billion dollars. It should be clear that any time you are talking about a billion of anything, you are talking about an extremely large number. When you are talking about more than seven billion of the large, environmentally impactful, mammalian bipedal-primates known as human beings, you are talking about a very heavy burden on the planet — and all the other species who try and live here too.
Interestingly, the United Nations projects that human population could be anywhere between 6.7 and 16 billion people by the end of this century. That is a huge variance which presents an opportunity. The future depends largely on the investments made right now in providing family planning information and services globally, and battling against human-rights violations such as gender-based violence, rape, genital mutilation, fistula-based ostracism, forced-prostitution, slavery, and child marriage. It should be obvious which future would likely be more sustainable, and it should be obvious these injustices need to be eradicated anyway.
That is why is it is legitimate to carry a great deal of hope on the population issue. Good population activists know that the United Nations’ lowest population projections show a possible global stabilization as soon as the year 2049. The United Nations estimates that it would cost an additional $3.5 billion per year to provide contraceptive information and services to the more than 225 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy but who are not using a modern method of contraception. (That’s less than 4% of what Americans spend on beer each year!) That’s a very small price to pay for a more sustainable world. Combine those investments with efforts through entertainment mass media and other means to improve attitudes and behavior towards girls and women in the developing world, and we can stabilize world population at 8.3 billion and then begin a gradual reduction in the total number of humans on the planet as soon as the year 2050. That is just 35 years from now. This would be a wonderful moment in the evolution of human-kind — and would power the movement to solve other crucial social and environmental challenges.
If we can achieve the United Nations’ low variant projection, by 2100 global population would be back down to the 6.7 billion level —more than 4 billion fewer than can be expected in the business-as-usual, medium variant projection of 10.9 billion! Put another way, a population difference of 4 billion—the result of either staying complacent or working hard to realize human rights, fight for women’s self-determination and share family planning tools and information around the globe — is more than the current combined populations of North America, Central America, South America, Oceania, Europe, Africa, and India!