Seven Billion: What Does it Mean?

Seven Billion: What Does it Mean?
By William Ryerson, posted Nov 1, 2011:

Urban sprawl[Excerpt]  On October 31st, the UN Population Division has predicted the planet will see its 7 billionth person. In advance of that event, UN Dispatch spoke to William Ryerson about what that kind of population growth means. He’s well placed to answer the question. Mr. Ryerson is the founder and President of Population Media Center, Chairman of Population Institute (Washington DC), fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and recipient of the 2006 Nafis Sadik Prize for Courage.

UND: What happened? How did population go from a non-issue to an issue again?

Population was a huge issue in the 60s and 70s. I have been working on this for 40 years. The first earth day was largely about population growth, then it became taboo. Part of why it become taboo was human rights violations committed by India and China, and partly was because of Ronald Reagan, who said that population growth was a good thing. He was influenced by Julian Simon, who said there was no limit to how many people the planet could support. We saw a negative response to publications like The Limits to Growth, which predicted that in the early part of the current century, we’d run into resource limits.

What is clear now is that oil production has gone flat, no matter how much we spend on trying to find more. And our whole agriculture system is based on cheap oil. The oil component of the price of food is a major component. People were suddenly finding they were unable to buy food. The spike in oil and then food prices led the media to realize there really was a problem.

There was also a major effort by our organization and other organizations to start talking to the media. The Limits to Growth was basically on track in terms of their forecast. We are running into limits on all kinds of resources. Not just oil – water, minerals and metals, too. By ignoring the issue of population we have really failed to take the somewhat simple steps to address this component of what is clearly a demand and supply problem.

For example, at the Cairo population conference – which occurred at a time the US was becoming more conservative – there were great promises of investment into family planning. These promises were not kept. In fact, funding for family planning has been reduced by 50% since the conference. People have not had access to the information and services needed to control their family size. As a result, the UN population division has had to keep raising their population growth estimates because the fertility rates have not come down as fast as was projected a decade ago. That combined with high oil and food prices and growing shortages of fresh water has led to the current situation.

Many optimistic forecasts were made in 1999 based on a lot of progress that had been made, and these forecasts have not come true. The International Energy Agency didn’t expect oil to go past $28 a barrel by 2020, for example. Even with progress in providing family planning and supporting women’s rights, it’s hard to slow the momentum of population growth. This is an aircraft carrier. It’s hard to turn it around. It’s clear right now we are running into all kinds of limits…

Originally published October 31, 2011 at UN dispatch



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