8 billion

A milestone around our necks

We have a thing for celebrating big round numbers. Birthdays, anniversaries, jubilees, millennia… and the bigger the number, the greater the cause for celebration, right? But we’re about to reach a milestone that’s too big. Obscenely and disturbingly huge, in fact.

On 15th November 2022, according to United Nations data, the population of human beings on Earth will officially reach 8 billion. It’s a milestone that certainly doesn’t warrant celebration, and I suspect it’s one that will be widely ignored, despite its massive implications for each and every one of us.

Big numbers

Part of the problem is that 8,000,000,000 is a number that’s too big to have any real meaning for most of us. We can’t even imagine it. So let’s try to give it a bit of context. It’s nearly 11 times the entire population of the whole of Europe. It’s more than 24 times the entire population of the United States. It’s the entire population of the UK, multiplied by about 120. In short, it’s too many people.

Even so, it’s not just the sheer number of humans that’s really going to catch us out; it’s the fact that our population has been growing exponentially, on a rapidly steepening curve.

References in popular culture have brought this home to me recently. I borrowed a book from my dad last year, written in the 1940s, which mentioned there were 2 billion people on the planet. The population has quadrupled within my dad’s lifetime. That’s pretty scary. And I was watching a much more up-to-date movie this week from the early 2000s which mentioned world population at 6 billion. So now, at 8 billion, we’ve increased our numbers by a third within the past 20 years or so. Or, to put it another way, it took all of history for total world population to reach 2 billion by the 1940s, and we’ve added that same number of people to our planet in the space of just a couple of decades.

When I finished writing 10:59 in 2018, world population was under 7.6 billion. By the time the book was published just two years later, it was almost 7.8 billion. And now, another two years on, the number I used in my novel already looks outdated and has been surpassed by another half a billion people.

Pick any year you like, and the speed of this runaway train we’re all riding becomes evident. 50 years ago, in 1972, the number was 3.8 billion, so there are more than double the number of people in the world now.

The modern plague

These are the words of Martin Luther King Jr:

“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.”

He wrote that in 1966, when the population was 3.4 billion – well below half of today’s figure – and already being highlighted (albeit to no avail) as a cause for very serious concern and urgent action.

So why should we care?

There’s evidence all around us of the myriad problems caused by our uncontrolled numbers and the consumption and demands that go with them. With every day that passes, we hear more references to the global food crisis, climate crisis, healthcare crisis, housing crisis, fuel crisis, pollution, waste, pandemics, crime. It’s more and more difficult to find a parking space, to get a doctor’s appointment, to get to work (or anywhere) on time because of all the traffic, to get through to customer service on the phone. All of our systems are starting to come apart at the seams. Yet we still refuse to even acknowledge – let alone discuss or address – the 8 billion reasons that lie at the root of all these problems.

Whilst it’s true that big businesses and the wealthiest people on the planet contribute disproportionately to overconsumption, if we use that as an excuse not to do anything as individuals, then we really are doomed. The cumulative effect of 8 billion small differences would be spectacular, and we can only challenge the corporates and the super-rich if we do it together. One thing’s for sure: if we keep ignoring this increasingly blatant truth and carry on like there’s no tomorrow… well, there won’t be.

One last little frightening fact is that, even today, nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned. We are accidentally overpopulating ourselves into a self-inflicted apocalypse.

Posted by N R Baker