Monday, October 31, 2011

7 Billion

Last night a fascinating thing happened.  There is a counter on a website, ticking upwards at a very impressive pace, and tonight it crossed the number 7,000,000,000.  Seven Billion.

The counter is at the website for Population Action International, and this ticker is counting the number of human beings on the planet.

Seven Billion.

Here's video of the cross over that I recorded at about 12:12 AM central daylight time.

For thousands of years, the global human population was in the millions, perhaps a few hundreds of millions.  We reached one billion in the year 1800 and haven't looked back since, crossing each billion in fewer years than the one before.  Our exponential growth has been staggering!

Image from wikipedia
The details of global population have been discussed a number of places.  National Geographic has been running a year-long series on it, including an impressive photo gallery and this video on the subject that is well worth watching.  

Also at the New York Times Dot Earth blog last January, Andrew Revkin wrote up a great piece on the matter as well.  The wikipedia article for this issue is also quite good in my opinion with lots of useful and good quality information, with details on birth rates, projections of future population, and other things.

Now some might argue that we don't really know if that ticker is right, and in fact the U.S. Census Bureau isn't projecting we cross 7 billion until next March, 2012.  But both of these tickers are models of global population, they aren't of course actual counts of people.  But that's really beside the point.  It doesn't really matter if we crossed 7 billion today, in 5 months, or 5 months ago.  It's kind of like Christmas in this regard - sure, baby Jesus may not have been born on Dec. 25th, but that's irrelevant to the spirit of celebrating Christmas.  The significance of these events in terms of the impact they have on our world is more important than the actual date on which they happen.

A few facts are clear: most of the world's population lives in Asia, and the highest growing area of population is in Africa.  The question is simply how will our world cope with these numbers.  How will all of these people get clean water, and get enough food to eat?  How will these numbers of people affect natural resources, such as metals, energy, and other industrial materials?  The challenges are daunting, but I'm hopeful about it.  I think humanity is able to solve these crises, but we need hearts that value our fellow human beings, our brightest minds to be active at solving these problems, and many hands active in the work.  Perhaps we can all find some kind of role to play in this.

I believe geoscientists have a crucial role to play in this crisis.  Our natural resources, including the essentials of food and water, come from the Earth.  Geoscientists already invest themselves in the study of soils, water, and other natural resources, and it isn't a dramatic adjustment to apply this knowledge to aid areas of the world that are in great need.  Further, we have knowledge about these issues that others need to be informed about; all geoscientists can be educators of those around them on these issues.  We are in a unique position to use our profession to help solve some of the biggest problems the world is currently facing.  A few weeks ago at the annual meeting for the Geological Society of America, there were several sessions focused on the intersection between geoscience and the developing world.  I'll have another post on that topic in the coming days.