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7 Billion and Counting: Welcome to a Planet With Population Overload and Resources in Crisis [With Photos From National Geographic]

The definition of overpopulation has less to do with raw numbers of people than their relationship with the planet's sustainable resources.
 
 
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Editor's Note:View a photo slideshow at the end of this article from National Geographic magazine's new "7 Billion" app for iPad, based on its year-long series on world population.

Here's some freaky news: According to United Nations, Earth's seventh-billionth person could be born by Halloween, even though "the fire marshal only certified Earth for 6,999,999," according to a recent tweet from "The Daily Show." It's a clever joke hiding a tragicomic dimension of the uncertain achievement: The planet's increasingly inhospitable climate and depleted resources mean we have little room for more humans, especially the 10 billion or more expected to stress the planet's already overweight system by 2100.

"Let's assume the average weight, or mass, of a human is 50 kilograms, or 120 pounds," University of Washington paleontologist and The Flooded Earth author Peter Ward told AlterNet. "That takes into account all the fat men, and all the kids, so it's a ballpark figure. That means 350 billion kilograms, or 770 billion pounds, of humanity on the planet. I wonder if this is the highest mass of any chordate on Earth. Only rats might weigh more of all natural populations."

But even rats have the good sense to abandon a sinking ship. Not so for humanity, whose resource wars have created a hyperreal dragnet that has caught up everything from mass-media distractions like Herman Cain and Mommar Gaddafi to worthy insurgencies like Occupy Wall Street. As those stories, for better or worse, dominated the news cycle, British Petroleum was quietly freed to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after turning it into a marine nightmare since 2010. Exxon Mobil posted a $31 billion profit on the year thanks to billions in groundless government subsidies. American rivers and streams have become hypersaturated with carbon dioxide, and Arctic sea ice has become as thin as the United States is fat in the gut and head. Environmentalists and other concerned parties can be forgiven for not breaking out the bubbly because the planet has managed to spawn seven billion souls with increased life expectancy, thanks to miracles of science and industry. Because in the scariest scenario, that same science and industry could doom most, and perhaps even all, of us.

"Seven billion is not a time for unbridled celebration," cautioned Bill Ryerson, fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and president of Population Media Center and The Population Institute. "It must be a catalyst for people, leaders and advocates regarding the steps we need to take to achieve sustainability."

Sustainability is key, because even rats can tell you that our expansive, singular planet has more than enough actual room to fit the 10 billion and more that humanity is expected to create over the next few centuries. After all, the definition of overpopulation has less to do with raw numbers of people than their relationship with the planet's sustainable resources. Yet population control remains a controversial topic, for everyone from real-time worriers like the Roman Catholic church and anti-choice Republicans to sci-fi dystopias like Logan's Run and In Time, which topically opened the Friday before Earth was scheduled to reach its seven-billion benchmark.

"The world is much more interconnected now than any time in history," Center for Environment & Population director Vicky Markham told AlterNet. "This is not only because of technology, but also because our per-capita energy, water, land, forest and other natural resource use is linked around the globe. America is particularly important: While we represent just five percent of the global population, we contribute 25 percent of the planet's energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. So our role in global climate change is disproportionately large; so should be our responsibilities for curbing it."

If you drill deeper into that data, you find even more reasons for the global Occupy movement to be pissed at their one-percent overlords. Because it is that infinitesimal but filthy rich minority that funds and defends the polluting corporations, like British Petroleum and Exxon Mobil. Same goes for the enablers in collusive governments, whose trillions in exploits at home and abroad are screwing the billions of us still desperately trying to downsize our nuclear families and carbon footprints, with the exponentially shrinking resources available.

Further, the seven-billion benchmark is less of a warning call for antifeminist population control than it is a passionate plea to empower the women who give birth to Earth's babies with the agency and aid they need to take charge of their lives. On this less glamorous but indispensable front, the science is in: When women are healthy, educated and employed, births and deaths drop. Done deal.

"Slowing population growth would not only help to avert these challenges, but also aligns with women's own wishes," explained UC Berkeley School of Public Health lecturer Martha Campbell, "Globally, there are about 80 million unintended pregnancies each year, and 40 million induced abortions, most conducted in unsafe, painful and dangerous ways. Surveys have shown that over 200 million women do not want to become pregnant, but are not using modern contraception."

Giving women what they need to break our new century's population cycles would save the planet millions of consumers annually. And that could help save us all, although it ironically remains controversial to anachronists crowing about the sanctity of life. Their protestations ring logically hollow: Under the ridiculously deregulated economies of Reagan, Clinton, Bush and now Obama, the ongoing Holocene extinction has proceeded unopposed, permanently ending lives and species of all sorts. If life, and not just human life, is the benchmark, then we've lost the ruler. And we'll wake to that unfurling security nightmare as carbon emissions increase, resources further deplete, and Earth's unsustainable billions aggressively chafe beneath the stratagems of corporatists and politicians.

Freshwater use has already blown past world population. That means the sprawling web of life and consumption dependent upon that water's availability now has even less to share as their numbers increase. Food, energy and other necessary commodities have been thrown into the shark tanks of the speculator predators that already shredded FDR's New Deal down to its carcass, resulting in escalating prices and starvation worldwide.

"When the prices of basic foodstuffs like wheat, corn, rice or cooking oil double or triple as they have in recent years, the urban poor have to tighten their belts," explained Population Institute vice-president Robert Walker. "What happens if, as many project, we see continued volatility in food prices and another doubling or tripling of food prices for basic commodities in the next couple of decades? We could be facing a famine without borders."

And worse. Global warming has unleashed intensified weather events -- and unintended consequences like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown -- that are altering the habitable geography and the planet, and costing its people more money and health than they have on hand. Seven billion people, or more, will not help.

"Emission of carbon dioxide per year is equal to the product of four quantities: population, wealth per person, amount of energy required per year to generate this wealth and the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of energy generated," Michael Schlesinger, atmospheric sciences professor and director of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Climate Research Group, told AlterNet. "Although the latter two quantities are projected to decrease during this century, the carbon dioxide emission per year is projected to increase. The cause of this increase is the projected increase in human population from seven billion now, to nine billion in 2050 and perhaps 12 billion in 2100. Reducing this carbon dioxide emission would be greatly enabled by reducing population growth, help safeguard Earth's climate and reduce the level of poverty in the world. A win-win solution."

Schlesinger and colleagues Michael Ring, Daniela Linder and Emily Cross have submitted a plan to the journal Climatic Change to mitigate, reduce and zero out greenhouse-gas emissions by 2065. They are hoping that COP 17, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban this November, takes notice. But their plan, and all of those from similarly concerned scientists around the world, simply cannot be efficiently executed if population growth continues to exponentially replicate. Solutions are everything this late in the game, and there are no solutions if increasing billions whittle the planet's natural bounty and biodiversity down to the bone.

"If we don't reduce our collective resource use, move concretely towards environmentally sustainable practices both in our households and countries, and pay serious attention to global population stabilization, we will have an imbalance," said Ryerson. "We've already crossed the threshold." 

Click below to view a photo slideshow from National Geographic magazine's new"7 Billion" appfor iPad, based on itsyear-long series on world population.

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Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
 
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