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FW: 6 Billion
SIX BILLION OF US: BOO? HOORAY?
Many months ago the United Nations decided to make an event out of the fact
that the human population meter would register six billion for the first
in earth history shortly before the year 2000. They guessed at a day for
arrival of the six billionth person -- October 12 -- probably accurate
week or two -- and cranked up the publicity machine.
It makes much more sense to mark the coming of the six billionth person than
the coming of the year 2000. For one thing, 6,000,000,000 has six more
than 2000. And those zeroes count something real, something the whole world
agrees upon, which is not the case for years on a calendar that has little
meaning for the non-Christian majority of the six billion and that doesn't
count correctly from the year of the birth of Christ.
There is a problem, however, in figuring out what kind of event this Day of
Billion should be. Is it ominous? A day of fasting and repentance? Or is
a celebration of an achievement? Especially in a world where the media want
quick, clear, soundbite-level take on things, what's the right tone here?
Billion, oh woe? Six Billion, yippee?
My guess is that "oh woe" will win hands down. That's how the press is used
talking about our soaring numbers. Overpopulation, population bomb,
explosion, the population problem. No reason to celebrate the arrival of
more of what quite a few of us feel there's already too much of.
Part of me agrees with that view, and I'm going to start out here by
that part. But I do have another more celebratory side, which I'll release
bit later. The news at the time of six billion is not all bad. There are
amazing successes on the population front. Furthermore the population
situation is not the same the world over. It's complex. If we could manage
greet the Day of Six Billion with the full combination of seriousness, hope,
contrition, inspiration and love the occasion deserves, we might actually
to demonstrate our capability to handle the challenges of our six billion.
So, to start with the bad news, the size of our population is scary, and the
fact that it is still increasing is even scarier. We are growing at the
of roughly 78 million per year, the equivalent of a new Mexico City every
months, or a new Bangkok or Lima or Cairo every month, or a new Philadelphia
Guatemala City every week. Virtually all that growth is happening in the
countries we delicately call "developing" because we don't like to call them
From the point of view of the planet, we must indeed look like an explosion.
Back in 1800 there were just one billion of us, barely beginning, in a few
dawning industrial cities, to light up the night and smog up the day. We
three billion in 1960 and have doubled since then in the blink of a
Not only are there many more of us, but each of us is literally bigger, as
measured by the space we and our stuff take up, the energy and material we
from the earth, the pollutants and wastes we return to the earth. We now
the globe with our lights and buildings and farms and roads and cars and
and ships. We have global-scale impact; we have spewed out enough
chlorofluorocarbons to eat away the ozone layer and enough greenhouse gases
change the climate; we are moving into the space and resources of other
and wiping them out in an extinction spasm greater than anything the earth
seen since the fall of the dinosaurs.
But we are, as far as we know, the first creature on this planet evolved
to realize consciously that there are grave penalties for exceed our
capacity. While we were growing from our fourth to our sixth billion, many
our scientific types began to calculate how many of us, at what standard of
living, the earth can support.
The answers they are coming up with are not comforting. In a nutshell, with
regard to many of the resources we depend on, we are already beyond
Our major ocean fisheries are fully exploited or overfished and crashing.
Whatever its size, our future population is going to have less fish to eat,
fish of less desirable size and quality.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a coalition of thousands of
scientists, says that if we want to have any hope of stabilizing our
increasingly crazy climate, we will have to cut back our fossil fuel burning
60 to 80 percent.
Farmers managed to keep up with population growth until 1984; since then
production per capita has fallen by about nine percent.
Dropping water tables and dried-up rivers are clear signs that we are using
fresh water beyond the capacity of the planet to replenish it. Huge rivers
the Colorado, Yellow, Nile, Ganges, Indus, Chao Phraya, Syr Darya and Amu
-- are so drained by irrigation and cities that their channels run dry for
or all of the year. In India's agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana
tables are going down by more than a foot per year. North China overpumps
wells by 30 billion cubic meters a year. The Ogalalla aquifer that waters
one-fifth of the irrigated land in the United States is overdrawn by 12
cubic meters per year. Its depletion has so far caused more than two
acres of farmland to be taken out of irrigation. California's Central
which grows half the nation's fruits and vegetables, averages a groundwater
overdraft of 1 billion cubic meters per year.
The World Commission on Forests has just released a report that says, "There
has been a clear global trend toward a massive loss of forested areas. ...
of the forest that remains is being progressively impoverished and all is
Two researchers at the University of British Columbia, Mathis Wackernagel
William Rees, have calculated the "ecological footprint" -- the amount of
need to produce the resources and absorb the wastes of the world population
a sustainable basis. Their calculation is subject to much refinement, but
is the best effort I've seen yet to relate the human impact on the earth to
earth's ability to sustain that impact.
Wackernagel and Rees calculate that the present human population living its
present lifestyle already has a footprint roughly 20 percent greater than
total productive land base of the planet. If every one of the present six
billion lived the way present North Americans do, we would need TWO MORE
EARTHS to support us.
We can get away for awhile with a footprint bigger than the space to support
it, because we are drawing down stocks of forest, fish, soils and waters.
can't do that forever. Even assuming we leave no resources for wild
in the long run (meaning over the next few decades, as the stocks run out)
will have to cut back our draw on the planet by at least twenty percent.
We don't get a choice about that. The earth can only support what it can
support. If we don't reduce our draw voluntarily, the planet will do it for
us, by running dry. That will then solve our population problem.
Are we ever going to come to the good news here?
Sure. Here's the first bit of it. We will not double our numbers again.
One way or another, we are getting the message. Birth rates are plummeting
nearly every part of the world. In the 1950s the average woman on earth
about six children. In the 1990s that fertility fell to 2.9 children and is
still going down. Every single industrialized nation has a fertility rate
below replacement level (2.06 children per woman). Some rich countries,
as the United States, are still growing because of immigration and/or
baby-boom cohorts from past higher birth rates are still moving through
reproductive years. But if fertility rates hold at or near present levels,
will stabilize, and the population of Europe is projected to decline very
slowly from 728 million in 1998 to 715 million in 2025.
The latest U.N. projection says that the world population is likely to reach
9.4 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in 2100. These projections have
repeatedly come down, and my guess is that this one will be revised further
downward. I don't think the population will ever get that high. I don't
the earth can support it. And I don't think humanity will choose it.
I hope and assume that we will ride the wave of our present youth-dominated
structure up to a global population of 7 billion, 8 billion at the most, and
then come down gracefully, gradually, over a century or two. I have been
convinced by several people's calculations that a good target to aim for,
assuming everyone on earth should live a comfortable, full life, and
we want to leave room for the evolution of the other species, is two
The Day of Two Billion. THAT will be a time for celebration!
To get there we do NOT have to regard ourselves, especially not the poorer
among us, and most especially not the poor mothers of many children, as a
cancer upon the earth. Quite the contrary. What is bringing down birth
in Thailand, in Costa Rica, in Malaysia, in Kerala state in India, is the
empowerment and enrichment of these poor women. Education, basic health
decent jobs, family planning programs, wherever these are generously
birth rates come down.
The other thing that has to come down is consumption. The number of people
not what degrades the earth; it's the number of people times the flow of
and material each person commands. The ecological footprint of the average
American is 13 times larger than the footprint of the average inhabitant of
India. So the 4 million babies born in the U.S. this year will have about
twice the earthly impact of the 26 million babies born in India.
That doesn't mean we should feel guilty for consuming any more than we
feel guilty for having babies. We all want to live, and to live well, and
there's no reason why we shouldn't. But there is no room for anyone to live
wastefully, mindlessly, excessively. There's lot of good news here. We in
rich world are so amazingly wasteful that we could cut most of our resource
flows (energy, paper, food, chemicals) in half, or even by three-fourths, or
even, some experts say, nine-tenths without even slightly compromising our
quality of life -- actually improving our quality of life, because doing so
would save money and let us live in less of a pollution haze.
If you know where to look, you can already see efficient, elegant,
consumption patterns emerging. Thousands of organic farmers are producing
yields of good foods without chemicals. "Green" architects are designing
buildings and retrofitting old ones so they use less than one-half the
per square foot but are more comfortable. Drip irrigation grows crops with
higher yields using much less water. Renewable energy sources, from
and photovoltaic collectors to fuel cells, are the coming technologies for
The day I'm looking forward to celebrating is the Day of Two Billion, all of
them living wonderful, beautiful, comfortable, exciting lives on about five
percent of the resource flow we each use now, allowing us to turn 95 percent
the planet back to the other species, so they can evolve in whatever
they're going and we can be delighted by their beauty and complexity as they
so. I won't live to see that day, but I see no reason why our children or
Whatever the media do with the Day of Six Billion, I'd suggest that we
individual folks, each of us an infinitesimal drop in that huge sea, refuse
simplify or trivialize it -- refuse to caricature each other as either the
scourges or the conquerors of the earth, refuse to despair, refuse to
We know better. We know of the tremendous problems we cause each other and
millions of other creatures that co-inhabit our finite planet. We also know
the incredible accomplishments we've already pulled off and hundreds of
just waiting in the wings. What I hope we will have the greatness to do is
respect each other, encourage each other, reach out to each other, create
commit to the vision of all of us having enough to develop our talents and
participate and contribute to the great turning toward a diverse,
equitable, joyful, sustainable future.
All of us, however many billion that turns out to be.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at
Dartmouth College and director of the Sustainability Institute, a think/do
that promotes sustainable systems.)
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