November 07, 2011
If the United Nations can be trusted, planet Earth welcomed its seven billionth living human on October 31. As if it were currently possible to pinpoint such a landmark, nations jostled one another in staking their claim to having birthed the world’s “seven billionth baby.” Hoisted before the media flashbulbs by their proud parents as potential candidates were a li’l Filipina squirt named Danica May Camacho and a tiny Russian seedlin’ named Pyotr Nikolayeva, shown here being coddled by a rather uncomfortable looking Vladimir Putin.
No one really knows whether we’ve even reached seven billion yet, but we eclipsed six billion only a dozen years ago. In 1927, there were only two billion…in 1800, a mere billion or so. According to UN projections, we’ll be up to nine billion in less than 40 years.
If you happen to dislike people as much as I do, this is not good news. There are already far more people than I care to know on a first-name basis.
Over two hundred years ago, British doomsayer Thomas Malthus prognosticated a demographic apocalypse caused by an exponentially ballooning population that suddenly found itself starved to death by a lagging food supply. But though Malthus was correct about the population upswing, he was wrong about the endless fields of starved cadavers. His foggy isle now hosts about five times as many people as it did when he was writing his alarmist screeds, only they’re much fatter now and their life expectancy is twice as long. For the time being—at least in the UK—the technology to keep humans alive is outpacing the ominously swelling numbers.
Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 eschatological scare tract The Population Bomb sold millions of copies by making seemingly billions of terrifying predictions about imminent demographic catastrophe, none of which have come true.
Some will say the fear of overpopulation is unwarranted, that it’s just a “green myth” propagated by a sociopathically snobby flaky upper crust of elites grasping at global power to cull the peasant herd by vicious and uncaring methods based on discredited and shameful notions of eugenics and, well, you know, Hitler and all that. They say there’s enough land and sufficient technology for the world to host a trillion people without too much discomfort. They say you could give Manhattan-sized apartments to everyone on Earth and squeeze them all together in a land mass the size of Texas. If people didn’t mind being crammed together shoulder-to-shoulder as if they were at a rock concert, you could fit the entire planet’s population in Rhode Island—assuming that being shoved together with seven billion people in Rhode Island is your idea of a good time. I tend to recall that Rhode Island has had problems with overcrowding before.
Others will say there are too many rats in the cage already, that we’ve exceeded our carrying capacity as a species and are in for one bleeding, shrieking, flame-engulfed global migraine of behavioral sink, with all the violence, famine, collective mania, and infant cannibalism attendant thereto. They say we’ve reached peak oil and peak food and peak soil and peak ocean and peak air—in short, we’ve reached the peak, and this roller coaster is headed straight down no matter how loudly we scream about it.
What’s rarely discussed is the notion that we may soon also be reaching peak population. According to some estimates, the global head count will top off at around nine billion at some point later in this century, then start an inexorable decline. Experts differ on whether the decline will be gradual or swift, peaceful or calamitous.