State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

7 Billion: Not the World We Remember

Liberia's capital city, Monrovia. United Nations Photo/Christopher Herwig

This is not the world we grew up in. We may not see it directly in our daily lives, in many places buffered by the comforts of home, electronic distractions and reliable sustenance. But if you’re 12 years old, the world’s population has grown a billion in your lifetime. If you’re 24, by 2 billion. If you were born in 1960, the world around you has grown from 3 billion to 7 billion people.

The UN estimates we will hit that target by the end of this month. We may already be there.

The numbers are boggling. They come with good and bad news, as Professor Joel E. Cohen outlined in his presentation Monday at the Earth Institute conference, “The World at 7 Billion: Sustaining Our Future” (watch for the video of Cohen’s talk and the panel discussion that followed). For example, we produce enough food to more than feed our growing population. But more people are hungry now than at any time in the past 40 years, in part because we use a lot of that food inefficiently.

Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs wrote about the challenges we face, and how to face them, in an op-ed piece on the CNN website.

“Two centuries ago, the British thinker Thomas Robert Malthus famously warned that excessive population growth would cut short economic progress,” he writes. “That is a threat still with us today, but it is a warning, not an inevitable outcome.”


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