A Mosaic of Challenges and Hopes: Humans at the 7 Billion Mark

| November 15, 2011 | 0 Comments


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

By Carlos Schmidt
Aid & Development Columnist

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report on the State of the World Population 2011, human population surpassed the seven billion mark this past October.[1] Although some consider it a crowning achievement of human reproductive success, more people equate it to more challenges in food security, environmental sustainability, and development.

Today, industrialized nations, such as the United States and South Korea, might feel comfortable with their high agricultural yields due to genetically modified crops and industrial methods of farming. Nevertheless, unless they find ways to curve population growth, their advances in farming will prove futile.

Lately it seems that “food is [becoming] the new oil. The ability to grow food is fast becoming a new form of geopolitical leverage,” says author and thinker Lester Brown.[2] Humans place too much stress on nature; their high demand on food and natural resources depletes the environment faster than it can regenerate.

Ironically, the rising wealth of developing nations adds to this problem. According to Brown, “with population levels booming and 3 billion people worldwide trying to enter the middle class, the demand for meat is skyrocketing,” adding pressure to the agricultural sector.[2] Indeed, producing meat involves the feeding of more cows with food crops that could otherwise be feeding starving children in Africa and Latin America.[2]

On top of creating a more food competitive future, a larger population leads to a faster degradation of the environment and a decrease in essential biodiversity. For example, in order to accommodate more soil for farming, humans have to deforest. Recently, China and Brazil have been in the international spotlight due to their respective mismanagement of their natural land endowments.[3]

When humans deforest or open-up new areas to mining, they are displacing countless species out of their natural habitat. In some cases, the species can migrate to new areas, but, in most cases, if humans destroy their natural niche, they have a high probability of becoming extinct.[3] Although some might cite natural selection as a cause of species’ extinction, human exploitation of the environment is far more rapid than gradual natural forces. The biosphere is dependent on each population of species living in it; an unbalance can prove catastrophic.

We do not have to look far to find examples of the drastic effects of human population growth. China, for example, had to institute a one-child policy in order to reduce the stress on its environment. Nevertheless, the Chinese government still finds it difficult to provide adequate water and food resources to its population.

The growing population provides a profound geopolitical challenge for nation states. Nevertheless, as the UNFPA warned, “As the world population expands, the concerns of the poor should not be ignored.”[4] More or less, citizens of developed nations have more financial and political resources to combat soaring food prices and lack of natural resources. They can afford to spend more of their income on foods. On the other hand, members of developing nations can barely survive with their current incomes and they will not be able to adjust to drastic changes in food prices.

“Be prepared for a World of 7 Billion,”[4] a world increasingly at odds with its environment, but also a world “with 7 billion possibilities.”[1]


[1] Crossette, Barbara et al. State of the World Population 2011. United Nations Population Fund. 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2011 <http://foweb.unfpa.org/SWP2011/reports/EN-SWOP2011-FINAL.pdf>.

[2] Brown, Lester. “The New Geopolitics of Food.” Foreign Policy. May 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2011 <http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/25/the_new_geopolitics_of_food?page=full>.

[3] Seroa da Motta, Ronaldo. “The Economics of Biodiversity in Brazil: The case of Forest Conversion.” Environmental Studies Research Institute of Applied Economics. 1998. Web. 12 Nov. 2011 <http://www.ipea.gov.br/pub/td/td0433.pdf>.

[4] Osotimehin, Babatunde. “Be Prepared.” Financial Times. 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Nov. 2011 <http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/documents/news/2011/FT-ED-Column-2011.pdf>.


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Category: Development, Online

About the Author ()

Hailing from El Salvador, Carlos is a freshman thinking of concentrating in Environmental Science and Public Policy. Aside from writing for the HCGHR, Carlos is avidly involved with the different Latin@ organizations on campus and is an intern at both ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America and the Center for European Studies. When he is not jogging along the Charles or spending his afternoons among the stacks of Lamont, Carlos loves receiving e-mails at cschmidt@college.harvard.edu.

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