Zero to Seven Billion

When I heard the seven billionth person is due to be born Monday, I thought I must have made a mistake a few years back.  “Didn’t I just write a commentary on the six billionth person?  Was my math wrong?”

My math was not wrong.  I wrote that commentary the first week of October 1999.  What was faulty was my memory or my credulity.  Have I really been writing these damned things since there were fewer than six billion people?  Guess so.  (Hello, new readers!)

I did a bit of surfing on the subject and found this BBC site that lets one evaluate world population in personal terms.  It claims I was the 3,086,987,341st person on Earth when I was born (extrapolate yourself to find out when) and the 76,783,189,538th person alive on Earth since history began (I’m guessing the BBC starts history with the emergence of writing, around 5,000 years ago).

(Note this: when I wrote in 1999, projections were that we would have 12 billion people on Earth by 2050.  The BBC piece predicts 10 billion by 2083, so the growth curve seems to be flattening out.  Or we just can’t agree on our predictions.)

Clicking through the site reveals Qatar is the fastest-growing nation, adding 514 per day and Moldova is the fastest shrinking, losing 106 people per day.  While both numbers reflect respective birth/death rates, they are turbocharged by immigration.

Moldova, with a population of three million, is already a contender for World’s Worst Nation.  Crime-ridden, corrupt and unstable, it is best known these days for sending young women into the global sex trade.  Before world population reaches eight billion, Moldova will inevitably undergo a momentous change.  Not likely to be a change for the better, but how much worse can things get?  Maybe a rich guy will just buy the whole country.

Qatar, however, is an oil-rich Gulf state with a population of about 850,000, but a citizen population of 300,000.  Watch this trend.  Global migration, spurred not only by an another billion people here or there, but economic dislocation and changing climates will not only push people from the Moldovas to the Qatars, but we’ll increasingly see the establishment of legally-separated castes.  If you listen to the Republican presidential debates, you can hear the seeds being planted in North American soil.  I don’t expect to see the bloom this election cycle, but I’ll be surprised if I don’t see it in the 2016 cycle.

As we approach seven billion, there is the usual overpopulation hand wringing.  I see the merit in it; it’s hard for seven billion people to live lightly on the Earth.  As I wrote in an even earlier commentary, “The most burning population question we face today is not the rate at which world population is growing, but the speed with which a small percentage of that population is consuming the earth’s resources.”

The important number here is zero.  Not zero population growth (worthy goal that it is) but zero sum.  In a world of finite resources, every gain for one person is a loss for someone else.  Manish Bapna of the World Resources Institute makes the case better than I can.

It’s bad enough when the resources the first world claims are about energy and wealth, but that’s not the story any more.  Now we’re down to food and water and thus we’ll see Moldovas collapsing, Qatars getting feudal and both trends spreading.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *