It would take a cranky person to see that trend as gloomy.
SALT LAKE CITY — When babies are in the news, like Danica May Camacho of Manila was earlier this week, it's usually not associated with the end of the world. But over the last few weeks, talk of the apocalypse has been tied the fact that there are now seven billion people on the Earth, after Danica and a few others were born on October 31.
Doomsday predictions have gone hand in hand with population growth since Thomas Malthus declared in 1798 that "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." But this time around, the discussion is split: Is the world about to end because of too many babies? Or too few?
The United Nations population division announced recently that the world's seven billionth person would be born on October 31st of this year. This declaration and its ensuing coverage have brought the subject of the global population and its implications to the fore.
But has the world even reached 7 billion people yet?
That's a question that's currently under debate, as other organizations are arguing that the UN's October 31st designation is premature. BBC News reports that the US Census Bureau estimates the world reaching the seven billion mark in March or April of 2012, six months from now. The UN itself recognizes that due to a 1-2 percent margin of error, the current population could in fact be 56 million above or below seven billion.
Whether or not the exact number has in fact been surpassed, the UN's declaration has provided a venue to examine the effects of the world's changing population and demographics upon our present and future.
For some, the commemoration of the seven billionth living person is a reminder of the Malthusian challenges that come with an ever-expanding population.
According to a recent Reuters report, these challenges will include climate change, food shortages and overcrowded urban areas. About 925 million people already suffer from hunger, Reuters says, and rates of food production will need to increase by 70 percent in order to keep up with continued growth.
Robert Engelman of the The Guardian added to the list of concerns: "Fresh water is now shared so thinly that the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) projects that in just 14 years two thirds of the world's population will be living in countries facing water scarcity or stress. Half of the world's original forests have been cleared for human land use, and UNEP warns that the world's fisheries will be effectively depleted by mid-century."
But while Robert Kunzig agrees in National Geographic that "it's hard not to be alarmed," he is careful to point out that population growth is the result of true progression in quality of life, like antibiotics, better sanitation, improved nutrition, and increased life expentancy. "It would take a cranky person to see that trend as gloomy."
Others are contesting the focus of the population discussion. The Economist reports that the overall rate of population growth is in fact slowing, down from 2 to 1 percent since its peak in the 1960s. And while overpopulation in some developing countries may strain resources, the relative changes in demographics may be more significant than absolute numbers, according to the article.
Many agree that one of the most startling changes is a decline in fertility, which the Economist reports results in large imbalances in age groups within populations. As fertility has declined in many European and some East Asian nations, fewer young people are responsible for the care of elderly who both outnumber them and depend upon them. This trend will only continue as the rate of population growth slows — by 2050, according to the article, the number of Japanese dependents will be nearly equal to the number of Japanese working adults, causing these adults to shoulder serious social and economic burdens.
Joel Kotkin of the site New Geography shares similar insights: "By 2030 the weight of an aging population will strangle what's left of these economies. Germany, Japan, Italy and Portugal, for example, will all have only two workers for every retiree. The U.S. will fare somewhat better, with closer to three workers per retiree. By 2030 the median age will also be higher in China and Korea than in the U.S." Deseret News blogger Susan Roylance reported that many European nations, including Spain and Russia, face similar concerns. These nations' fertility rates (at 1.4 and 1.6 respectively) are both lower than the 2.1 necessary to maintain the existing population.
The UN's announcement has also highlighted regional demographic issues. In the world's two most populous countries, China and India, the population is growing unevenly: as a result of sex-selective abortions, both countries have far more men than women. BBC news reports that in India, female fetuses are aborted in the hundreds of thousands annually, largely as a result of culturally ingrained preferences for males.
If continued, stated the Economist, this trend could result in increased instability, crime and trafficking of women — not to mention slowed population growth.
The UN's announcement of the seven billionth baby provided an opportunity to draw global attention to this phenomenon. Plan International, an organization founded on combating child poverty, chose seven girls born Monday from the Indian state Uttar Pradesh to symbolize and celebrate passing the seven billion mark, reports The Associated Press.
Gynecologist Dr Madhu Gupta concluded: "It would be a fitting moment if the 7 billionth baby is a girl born in rural India,"
For The Deseret News' take on meeting the seven billion mark, click here