IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Seven big problems for 7 billion people

A U.N. report says the world faces a myriad of challenges as the population reaches 7 billion. Seven experts contacted by identify seven problems exacerbated by a planet with 7 billion inhabitants.
Image: Residents crowd in a swimming pool to escape the summer heat during a hot weather spell in Daying county of Suining
Residents crowd in a swimming pool to escape the summer heat during a hot spell in Daying county of Suining, Sichuan province. China is the world's most populous nation with more than 1.3 billion people.Reuters
/ Source:

Sometime on Monday, Oct. 31, the world's population is projected to hit 7 billion. Is that numerical milestone a cause for celebration or concern?

A little bit of both, according to the . The organization, an international development agency that promotes the right of every person to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity, on Wednesday released a report detailing the achievements and setbacks faced by an ever-crowded world.

How we respond now will determine whether we have a healthy, sustainable and prosperous future or one that is marked by inequalities, environmental decline and economic setbacks, according to " " report.

The report notes that the record population can be viewed as a success because it means people are living longer — average life expectancy has increased from about 48 years in the early 1950s to about 68 in the first decade of the 21st century — and more children are surviving worldwide. But not everyone has benefited from a higher quality of life.

In some of the poorest countries women are having more babies, stymieing development and perpetuating poverty; in some of the wealthier countries low fertility rates and a shortage of workers are raising concerns about the sustainability of economic growth and social programs.

"This report makes the case that with planning and the right investments in people now — to empower them to make choices that are not only good for themselves but for our global commons — our world of 7 billion can have thriving, sustainable cities, productive labor forces that can fuel economic growth, youth populations that contribute to the well-being of economies and societies, and a generation of older people who are healthy and actively engaged in the social and economic affairs of their communities," writes Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UNFPA.

The 7 billion milestone “is a challenge, an opportunity and a call to action,” Osotimehin said.

In response to the report, asked seven notable figures to identify some major problems — and potential remedies — confronting a world with 7 billion inhabitants. Here's what they had to say:

Paul R. Ehrlich

Problem: Food shortage, damage to environment Seven billion is already facing us with horrendous problems, including almost 1 billion people hungry and contributing greatly to the chances of catastrophic climate disruption.  But the next 2 billion people the demographers expect by 2050 will cause much more environmental damage than did the last 2 billion added to our population — a classic nonlinearity.  That is because human beings are smart, and picked the low-hanging fruit first. Thus each added individual, on average, must now be fed from more marginal land, supplied with water from more distant or more polluted sources, obtain the metals required to make the products he or she consumes from poorer ores, etc. 

Many past human societies have collapsed, with overpopulation playing a significant role.  But today, for the first time, a global civilization is in peril, and nothing significant is being done about it in societies insane enough to believe that growth can be perpetual.

Image: Paul R. Ehrlich
Paul R. Ehrlich

Solution: Women in every country should be given equal rights and opportunities with men, and every sexually active human being should be given access to excellent birth control methods, and, in case they fail, backup abortion. Governments should all adopt the slogan "patriotic citizens stop at two children" and adjust tax and other policies to discourage over-reproducers and those unethical elements in society that are pronatalist. 

The current redistribution of wealth from poor to rich must be halted, and overconsumption by the rich must be controlled with programs such as those that transformed consumption patterns in the United States when it entered World War II.  A rapid transition away from the use of fossil fuels should be started immediately, as should rebuilding of human water-handling infrastructure with much more attention to resilience.  Leaders should be taught enough arithmetic to allow them to grasp the consequences of the growth rates recommended by economists — 3.5 percent per year.

Alfred SpectorVice president of research and special initiatives at Google

Problem: Access to information technology, educationIn the developed world technology has transformed our lives, allowing us to access information at any time from an ever growing number of devices. Tasks once performed by many have been reduced to a single click or tap. However, as the world population exceeds 7 billion people, we must ensure that all are armed with the skills to leverage the vast powers of information technology to improve their lives. Furthermore, we must increase the level of education for all residents of our planet for the mutual benefit of our global society. According to the over 70 million children receive no education and most of them are girls.

Alfred Spector
Alfred Spector

Solution:The good news is that information technology itself is a major part of the solution. With the decreasing costs of smartphones and tablets in the developing world we are seeing a whole new population accessing the Internet. Today, a teacher in India can purchase a $38 Android tablet and bring unprecedented amounts of information into the classroom. Whether through more prevalent network connections like the fiber-optic links connecting Africa, ever more creative software connecting people online, or the vast amounts of Web-based content now accessible to millions, technology is getting into a position to help educate the world.

And learning is increasingly possible online: there are vast amounts of free information on the Web, from Wikipedia to millions of books accessible to all. Or middle- and high school-level YouTube classes like those from the . And the interest is there. At Stanford’s recent online course about artificial intelligence taught by Googlers Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun nearly 50,000 people turned in the first assignment.  

So in ways that were inconceivable only a few years ago, useful educational materials are spreading across the planet — and the cost of access is declining markedly. However, there is still much work ahead of us and great opportunities to accelerate this access to information.

Actress (best known for her role as Lt. Stephanie Holden in TV series "Baywatch") and

Problem: Women's rights and gender inequalityI believe we must work to lower the world population to 2 billion people, which was the human population of this planet only 80 years ago.

When the planet is overpopulated, the weakest in society are hurt the most because strained resources go to those with more power.  In many countries, women have very low social status and few rights, but ironically, one of the most efficient ways to stabilize and lower population is to empower women. Today, the biggest barrier to lowering birth rates is gender inequality.  Where girls and women are second-class citizens, where they are taken out of school early, where violence against females is accepted and where women have no say in family planning, birth rates are highest.  When women have no place in society other than to have children and take care of the home, they begin having children at young ages and have larger families.

Actress Alexandra Paul
Actress Alexandra Paul

For every year a girl stays in school she’ll increase her income by at least 10 percent. She’ll get married later. She is more likely to use birth control and will have fewer children, who in turn will be more likely to attend school.  

Solution:A woman’s status in a society is deeply embedded in its culture; therefore, it is vital that we support programs that influence attitudes toward women.  It is important not to force change, which doesn’t stick in the long run, but to instead transform ingrained belief systems.  The best way to do that is through entertainment — specifically, the soap opera. uses serialized dramas on radio and television to .

These , which often run weekly for several years, allow time for the audience to form bonds with the characters, who are evolving in their thinking and behavior at a gradual, believable pace.  Each program is first and foremost riveting drama, often taking 60 episodes before messaging storyline is subtly introduced.  For example, Radio Tanzania broadcast a serial drama that attracted 58 percent of the 15- to 45-year-olds in the region. Because of the birth control issues the characters in the program tackled during the course of the show, there was a marked increase in the percentage of Tanzanians in the region who discussed family planning with their spouses and who began to use birth control themselves.  Not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to.

As an actress, I appreciate the power of the media.  But I especially love that soap operas are proving to be one of the most effective tools in lowering birth rates around the world, as Americans have long snickered over this form of entertainment.  Now, however, the lowly telenovela is gaining respect.  "All My Children" may have been canceled, but there's worthy work for Susan Lucci over in Bangladesh.  

John CarrExecutive director of justice, peace and human development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Image: John Carr

Problem: Climate changeGlobal climate change offers a cruel paradox: The poorest people on earth contribute least to climate change but are likely to suffer its worst consequences since they have the fewest resources to adapt and respond. Climate change with increasing water scarcity, food insecurity, frequency and intensity of natural disasters, migration and conflict over declining resources will exacerbate the challenges felt by people in poverty and a growing world population.

Solution:A central moral measure of our response to climate change is how it touches poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad. The U.S. Catholic Bishops encourage Catholics to care for creation and the poor by reducing their carbon footprint, taking the , and advocating for climate policies that bring together care for creation and for “the least of these.”

Robert Engelman and the author of the 2008 book "

Robert Engelman
Robert Engelman

Problem: AgingWith 7 billion people of all ages in the world this month and a median age of about 30 we're likely to have several billion people older than 65 late in the century. We have no experience with a vast population of older people like this one will be, and by that time climate change will have advanced significantly — and possibly catastrophically — and fossil fuels are likely to be far more expensive than they are today. The challenge of keeping these people alive and healthy will be vast.

Solution:What we should NOT do is try vainly to keep the ratio of young to old constant by attempting to convince women to have more children [than] they want to have. That will just postpone the day of reckoning and make the problem worse by continually enlarging the population of all ages. Better to prepare for this likely future with a focus on preventive health, finding better ways to take advantage of the productive and other assets of older populations, and moving toward simpler and less energy- and resource-intensive lifestyles than today's.

Patrick Tucker , a magazine about social and technological trends, and director of communications for the

Problem: EnergyExperts predict that energy demand will double by 2050 and that's a very conservative estimate. As we've reported in THE FUTURIST, petroleum alternatives now comprise less than 20 percent of global energy use and are growing at just 30 percent per year.  By 2020, only 30 percent of global energy is likely to come from alternative energy sources.

Image: Patrick Tucker

Solution:As a replacement for oil, halophyte or salt-water alga is abundant, cheap, and has the potential to reduce global carbon-dioxide levels tremendously. Halophyte algae do not compete with food stocks for freshwater (unlike corn). At present, algae need too much nitrogen to be practical as a replacement for oil, but a genetically engineered species of salt-water algae, capable of surviving and growing on less nitrogen than conventional algae, could provide both abundant energy and food.

As covered previously in THE FUTURIST magazine, when the cost of pumping ocean water into so-called "wasteland" regions such as the Sahara is factored in, the cost of halophytic algae biofuel is less than the cost of petroleum trading at $70 per barrel or higher. Desert areas receive a lot of sunlight. That means that halophyte algae farmers could use solar-powered pumps to move water up from sea level. Many of today's water-stressed regions in Libya, Chad, Sudan, western Australia, the Middle East, eastern Africa, the American southwest, and west Texas can become productive real estate.

NASA scientist Dennis Bushnell, (also writing for THE FUTURIST magazine) has pointed out that genetically-engineered halophytic algae could lessen the world's food and water shortages as well. Some 68 percent of the freshwater that is now tied up in agriculture could instead go to growing populations. Even better, algae require only a fraction of the land area of many other crops and can provide an excellent source of protein.

Aklog Birara

Image: Aklog Birara
Aklog Birara

Problem: WaterI believe that rapid population growth in many poorer countries in South Asia, almost all of Africa and Central America is a time bomb. Just take Ethiopia, one of the most emergency food aid countries in the world. Its population today is 90 million and is projected to grow to 278 million by 2050. One least-understood problem about such insane growth is the potential for regional wars to control water resources, for example, war between Egypt and Ethiopia. This will lead to intracountry and regional instability that will in turn reinforce extremist forces and perpetuate poverty and lack of security. Poor and repressive governance in the region and in others aggravates both insecurity and poverty.

SolutionThe most important solution that will avert a disaster is for the world community [to] channel most of its aid and intellectual resources in support of smallholder farming revolutions. Poor people will be owners of their own destiny; they will reduce the propensity to have more children as security and will reduce size. Rural girls and women will be more empowered and will choose their family size.

I also like to suggest that the world can no longer afford to follow the same economic and social model of insatiable demand and consumption and concentration of consumption and wealth in a few hands — a phenomenon that is now spreading in developing countries. I cannot imagine that the rest of the world would tolerate continuation of 20 percent of humanity consuming 80 percent of the world's goods and services, while one-fifth of the poorest consume only 1.3 percent. Is this not what triggered the Arab Spring and is likely to trigger Springs in the rest of, at least the poorer and most repressed countries?

Vijay Mahajan

Image: Vijay Mahajan
Vijay Mahajan

Problem: Consumer innovationMy perspective has not changed much since the publication of my last two books (" " and " " and the new one that I will finish in the next two weeks, "The Arab World Unbound"). I continue to believe that consumers are going to be in the 86% of the world — where the GDP per capita is less than $10,000. Since 1948, other than Japan, very few countries have managed to be a part of the 14% World (GDP per capita more than $10,000). Some examples include Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Singapore, Taiwan, Israel, South Korea, Slovenia and other Eastern European countries. Brazil and Russia just hit that mark but there are no guarantees that they will continue to be part of the 14%. In fact, since 1948, other than Japan, less than 200-300 million people have managed to be part of 14% World. I do not think this situation is going to change in my lifetime including for China and India — though certain parts may look like 14% there).

SolutionRather than looking at the 86% World as Charity (like Africa with more than 1 billion consumers), entrepreneurs and companies need to focus on 86% solutions — be that toilets, housing, diseases, education, women hygiene products, transportation, energy, infrastructure, banking, media, etc. I wish, like COMDEX, where high-tech industry used to showcase its state-of-art products, there would an annual global exhibition where entrepreneurs and companies  from all over the world (both 14% and 86%) showcase their leapfrog 86% Solutions (such exhibitions can be done in the individual countries also). This will accelerate the diffusion of ideas and may even provide an opportunity to investors to bring to the market products and services to meet the aspirations of 7 billion consumers. I believe that many of the 86% solutions will also be good for the 14% world. This will also help us in the U.S. to move away from what I call the "2,400-square-feet mindset" — the average size of the house in the U.S. is 2,400 square feet so our innovation and marketing processes are focused on [a] 2,400-square-foot house with about 1.8 to two persons, on the average, living  in the houses — throw in some pets like a dog or cat. This can also make U.S. companies more competitive and give access to the 86% markets.