World population set to tip seven billion

The world population has doubled over the past 50 years, and on Monday it is set to reach a phenomenal seven billion. How will the planet deal with this unprecedented number of people?

Over 200 years ago, in 1798, a scholar named Thomas Malthus outlined a bleak scenario for the human race. Population levels, he wrote, would quickly outgrow Earth’s resources, and an increase in people would result in famine, disease and poverty all over the world.

Two years later, the world’s population reached one billion for the first time. 170 years after that the figure had nearly quadrupled. And this Monday, the global population will reach an unprecedented high of seven billion.

Statistically, the seven billionth global citizen is likely to live in urban Africa or India, probably in one of the overcrowded slums which, by 2030, will house one third of the world’s population.

For many, his or her birth is a terrifying prospect. It means more people will be battling for the world’s finite resources, from the land that generates our food, to the oil and gas fuelling our light and heating, and the water that is so essential to life.

Half the world’s forests have already been cleared for human use, and global warming is exacting a heavy toll on the ecosystems we depend on to survive. As living standards improve, the average ecological footprint of each global citizen will expand. Our planet will need to provide not just for basic needs, but billions of cars, hot showers and mobile phones.

The major burden of the extra mouths, however, will be felt in the developing world. The poor account for a stunning 97% of population growth, and already struggle with food shortages, poor sanitation, and disease. Even more people could seriously inhibit their development toward a better quality of life.

In the 1970s the global population was half its current level. Even then, doom-mongers like the academic Paul Ehrlich were telling us the world would not be able to cope. According to the estimates of this modern-day Malthus, there is now a 90% likelihood of global civilisation collapsing thanks to disease, war, or famine.

How much is too much?

For some, population growth is an opportunity. Technology, in fields like farming and medicine, has solved innumerable problems and improved our lives enormously, even as population has soared. More people means more friends, more hands and brains, and more ideas to solve the challenges of the human race. By thinking creatively about sustainability, and sharing our resources equally, we can offer everyone a better quality of life.

A vision like this has lost touch with reality, say critics. The stark reality is that our planet has limited room and resources – and as the prevalence of war, disease and starvation show, even 7 billion is too much. Both the planet and humanity are already struggling and the exploding world population is rapidly emerging as a threat to our future.

You Decide

  1. ‘The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race’ Thomas Malthus.
  2. What do you think this means? Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Create a short imaginary profile of one of the children who will be born on the 31st October. Where will they live? What will their life chances be? Will they have access to nutritious food and clean water? Work individually, then put each profile together to create a map of the seven billion.
  2. Draw out a proposal for, or against, the restriction of population growth. Make the case to the class. Can you agree with placing restrictions on population?

Some People Say...

“It’s not the number of people that matters, it’s learning to be less selfish.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Just how big is the planet’s population going to get?
Predictions for the end of this century, when it is set to peak and start to decline, range between six billion and 15 billion. The rate of growth, or how fast the increase is happening, is already much slower than in the 1980s.
Why is it slowing?
As countries become more prosperous, fertility rates decline: in poorer countries, infant mortality is high, children are needed to work, and women may not have access to contraception. Women have fewer children in the increasing areas where these issues are not a problem.
How many children need to be born to keep the population rate stable?
Just over two children need to be born per woman to keep population at equilibrium . Any more, and population will increase; less, and it will decline.

Word Watch

Slums
Settlements, usually in the suburbs of big cities, that have been built gradually by their inhabitants. They are usually overcrowded with poor sanitation, and can be magnets for crime an disease. But slums are also hubs for small industry, with industrious populations developing their own localised livelihoods.
Finite
When resources are limited. The opposite of infinite, meaning limitless.
Ecological Footprint
The impact on the wider world, in terms of resources consumed, and emissions and waste produced. An ecological footprint can apply to individuals, companies, or even products.
Equilibrium
A system which is balanced, with equal inputs and outputs.
Exponential
In mathematical terms, when the growth rate is proportional to a current value. In simpler terms, when the rate of growth increases – creating a graph with a line that gets steeper.

Subjects

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