By Arab News
The United Nations says that the planet now has a population of seven billion people.
The baby that brings the population to that figure was supposedly born yesterday. In many countries, there were little ceremonies in maternity hospitals to celebrate the event. These, of course, were symbolic events. There is no way of knowing where the world’s seven billionth person was born, or if he or she has yet been born at all. The US Census Bureau does not expect the seven-billion figure to be reached until mid-March.
Nonetheless, there is no getting away from the fact that the world’s population is around the seven-billion mark and growing exponentially. It reached a mere two billion in 1927 — that is within the lifetime of some people living today — and then took off. It was three billion in 1960, four billion by 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1999. The speed of change is thanks to massively improved health care and nutrition the world over, resulting in much lower infant mortality and extended longevity. For all the famines and disasters which must never be ignored, the burgeoning population is testimony to the fact that we live in much better times than our forefathers.
But can we go on like this? There are different theories about whether the growth will rise at the present exponential rate and therefore about the date when we get to eight billion; it could be anytime between 2020 and 2030. But the point is we will get there. And then nine billion, ten billion, 11 billion?
That there is room for us all is not an issue. The world increasingly lives in cities. All seven billion people could be comfortably housed in a city covering just Afghanistan.
Feeding, too, should not be a problem. The world can easily feed far more than our seven billion — although we do not seem to be able or willing to make that happen. It is one of the great human scandals that in some parts of the world people starve while in others not only is food wasted on a massive scale, people so overindulge themselves that it becomes a serious health issue.
But just as advances in health care have resulted in more people living healthier and longer lives, so too advances in food production and distribution should result in reducing hunger and starvation in the world. The big issue is the damage population explosion does to the planet. More people mean more natural resources being consumed. It means continuing deforestation, loss of species, more harmful gas emission, global warming.
That is what cannot be sustained. Population growth makes environmental action not an option but an absolute imperative. There are other no less dangerous consequences. All those extra people will want jobs, homes, cars, vacations and more. Employing them and giving them access to an acceptable level of prosperity will not be easy. That is something the Arab world, where population growth exceeds the global average, well understands. There is a direct link between population growth and the Arab Spring, between growing unemployment and social unrest. Care for the environment and meeting the aspirations of the growing population. These are the necessary and urgent responses to seven billion inhabitants of this planet. They will be ignored at our peril.