You Choose: The Future of 7 Billion

Oct 27th, 2011 | By | Category: Family Planning, Food and Hunger/Agriculture, Water Issues

 By Suzanne York,, October 27, 2011

Graph courtesy of the Bixby Center on Population, Health & Sustainability

Demographers predict the 7 billionth child will likely be born on October 31st in India or China. No one really knows, of course, but the odds are in favor of the birth happening in one of those two countries, which between them have 2.5 billion people, or 1/3rd of all humanity.

What will the future look like for this child, who we will call “7B”?

You may recall there was much attention given to “Baby Six Billion” in 1999, when Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, posed for a photo op with Baby Six; today that child lives in poverty in Bosnia.

Will 7B escape Baby Six’s fate? The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The challenges will come from all directions and the pressure is on the world to effectively address the issues. There are two scenarios to consider: business as usual or a sustainable and just future.

If we take a business as usual stance, we had better hope that technology saves us. For if we don’t invest in education and family planning programs, and continue polluting and plundering the planet for finite resources, a few decades from now the world of 7B will not fare so well.

Or we could choose to implement sustainable policies and lifestyle changes that can create a better world for the planet and 7B‘s generation.

Here are some key areas and how our choices in the coming decades will affect the next generation.


  • Business as Usual

Life on earth is currently undergoing a sixth mass extinction event. If global warming continues as expected, it is estimated that almost a third of all flora and fauna species worldwide could become extinct. By 2080, more than 80% of genetic diversity within species may disappear in certain groups of organisms, according to researchers in the the journal Nature Climate Change.

Our system of endless economic growth based on overexploitation of natural resources is taking a heavy toll. According to scientists at England’s Royal Society, “…environmental change has always been prevalent, and has helped shape biodiversity patterns of today. In contrast, never before has a single species driven such profound changes to the habitats, composition and climate of the planet.” Today, more species disappearing at a rapid rate which could have many unintended consequences for the planet.

  • The Sustainable Path

Let’s consider just one part of the ecosystem – forests – which, if protected, can help humankind cope with climate change and other negative environmental impacts. Forests house up to 90 per cent of known terrestrial species. The UN Environment Programme reported that reducing deforestation rates by 50% by 2050 and then maintaining them there until 2100 would avoid emitting the equivalent of 12% of the emissions needed to keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations below 450ppm.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and are vital carbon sinks. Curbing deforestation and planting more trees are a highly cost-effective way to reduce emissions. In addition to the impacts on climate change, forests help to conserve soil and water, control avalanches, prevent desertification, protect coastal areas and stabilize sand dunes. Saving forests are a winning solution to many of our problems – if we ramp up protection and planting, we will have a more sustainable environment for 7B.


  • Business as Usual

Global food prices are increasing, commodity prices are rising, a growing middle-class is eating a more meat-based diet, and worldwide, almost one billion people suffer from hunger. How will the global food outlook appear for 7B in a decade or two when today chaotic climate is taking a toll on agriculture, more farmers are leaving their fields for cities, the costs of inputs keep rising, and multinationals and governments are grabbing up prime remaining agricultural land?

Climate change alone will hit agriculture hard; every one-degree Centigrade increase in temperature will reduce grain yields by 10 percent. It will be crucial that food production increase significantly to meet the future demands of an increasing and more affluent global population. In Africa, where food production per capita has been on the decline, at least twice as much food must be produced by 2050 to avoid widespread starvation in a population expected to hit 1.8 billion.

  •  The Sustainable Path

Food insecurity can be reduced by investing in programs supporting women farmers, who make up the majority of smallholder farmers in many developing countries. By investing in women farmers we can improve food security and strengthen economic conditions. Secretary of State Clinton spoke earlier this year on why investing in resources for women in agriculture makes sense: “... the incomes of women farmers would increase, which means more financial security for their families and more money circulating in local economies, which in turn will help other businesses grow. Furthermore, because women tend to devote more of their money to the health, education, and nutrition of their children, a rise in their incomes pays off over generations.

Projects that incorporate holistic approaches and work with communities, especially women, rather than traditional top-down ways, will have the most success in dealing with food security and also poverty. Part of women’s empowerment includes reproductive health, and when families choose to have smaller families, the land can support them, and fewer people will feel forced to move to urban slums to find livelihoods.


  •  Business as Usual

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, by 2025, of the expected global population of 8 billion people, one third – 2.4 billion people, spread over 40 countries – will live in countries facing absolute water scarcity, contributing to political, social and economic instability in the developing world.

As the climate changes, certain regions will be facing more frequent and prolonged periods of droughts. Water sharing will become a driving issue between countries that currently do not have the best of relations (think Pakistan and India) and could lead to regional destabilization. Water is already a critical issue in unstable countries like Yemen, where experts have warned that it could be the first country to run out of water. Yemen’s current population of 24 million people is expected to double in 20 years.

  •  The Sustainable Path

Demand for fresh water is only going to increase and smart approaches are needed to manage this most vital of resources.

First and foremost is shifting away from water intensive crops to water efficient crops wherever possible. Grow rice where it is mean to be grown, such as in southeast Asia, not arid California. Public policies should support efficiency improvements and water conservation to reduce water use.

Conservation can be achieved with improved irrigation efficiency via drip irrigation. Under drip irrigation practices, water goes directly to a crop’s root system in small doses, thereby keeping evaporation losses low. Furthermore, Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, states that drip irrigation can reduce water costs, raise yields and substantially raise incomes of small farmers.

Yet another practice is treating and reusing urban wastewater , or “brown water,” for farming. Israel probably has the most ambitious brown-water program of any country – 92 percent of the wastewater in Israel is treated and around 75 percent is used for agricultural irrigation.


  • Business as Usual

Today there are 215 million women who wish to avoid getting pregnant but lack the means of accessing or affording contraceptives. Thesewomen and their families represent roughly 1 billion of the earth’s poorest residents. If the world continues to ignore this need, populations will grow, women and children will suffer and be marginalized, the environment will be increasingly degraded, and socio-economic development will be stagnated.

If we don’t commit to policies that support women, expect to see continued disempowerment in terms of land rights, poverty, lower female literacy, higher rates of fertility in poor and marginalized communities and countries, more women dying in childbirth and more unwanted/unplanned pregnancies.

  •  The Sustainable Path

Investing in women and girls, especially women’s education and health, can significantly slow population growth and improve lives. Additionally, investing in programs to alleviate poverty, when combined with empowering women to make their own choices in family planning, will help stabilize population growth, which has often contributed to rapid improvements in per capita economic conditions and overall quality of life. And it will reduce detrimental impacts on the ecosystem.

Joel Cohen of Rockefeller and Columbia Universities recently wrote that providing modern family planning methods to those who need it would cost about $6.7 billion a year. That might sound like a lot, but it’s all in your perspective; according to Cohen, Americans will spend $6.9 billion on Halloween this year. And hedge fund managers make almost $1 billion annually. Priorities, right? Explain that to 7B

7B and Beyond

Assuming current generations ― especially in the “developed” countries ― don’t change how we live and consume for the better, then 7B’s generation will pay a high price for our inaction.

The hope for 7B’s future will be found in diverse sectors and initiatives, from clean energy to managing unsustainable economic growth to reducing global ecological footprints. Yet ultimately recognizing the importance of empowering women — through better health care and access to family planning services, reproductive freedom, education, improved economic opportunities, and supporting gender equality — is key. A little investment in these areas will go a long way.

Business as usual won’t get us anywhere. It is time to get serious about changing the direction of our society for the better and protecting communities and the environment. We have been complacent far too long and the future of 7 billion is at stake.

What kind of world will 7B inherit? You choose.

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