As of this week (Nov. 15) there are officially more than eight billion people on this planet.
Of course, there is no way of knowing the exact number or when precisely the eight-billionth person was born, but the best estimates are we have surpassed that remarkable milestone.
The first thing that occurs to me, is how big a number that is. I have written before about how bad humans are at appreciating big numbers. I’m not even really sure how to put it in context, but I usually go back to money.
When it comes to money, most of us can almost appreciate what a million dollars looks like. We know that it would take us 10 or 15 or 20 years to earn that amount of money. We know that if we won a million it would be life-changing, buy us a nice house if we didn’t already have one or pay off all our debts with a nice nest egg to spare.
But after that, it gets more and more nebulous what it means. For example, while I may be able to extrapolate what I know about a million dollars to appreciate what three, four or maybe even five million would mean to me, I can’t really fathom eighty million.
But eighty million is now just one per cent of the living human population on Earth.
Eight billion is a really, really, really big number.
One billion is one thousand million so eight billion is eight thousand times as much as one million.
That’s a hell of a lot of people.
And we’re not just numbers, we are consumers. Every single one of us, every single day of every year is eating and eliminating, using fresh water, driving the expansion of agricultural land, driving the increased production of consumer goods, driving the exploration for more resources, driving the construction of bigger and bigger cities and putting more and more strain on our ecosystems.
I’m by no means an environmentalist — mainly because I’m generally pessimistic about the long-term survivability of our species anyway — but that number of people should be cause for concern.
While U.N. secretary-general António Guterres remarked that reaching that milestone is “a testament to scientific breakthroughs and improvements in nutrition, public health and sanitation,” he also noted the wealth that made it possible has become more and more concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
“Unless we bridge the yawning chasm between the global haves and have-nots, we are setting ourselves up for an 8-billion-strong world filled with tensions and mistrust, crisis and conflict,” he said.
Only one of those global haves, the notorious Elon Musk, someone so out of touch with reality because he has way too many billions of dollars himself, could see the world as having an underpopulation problem.
If there is any cause for optimism it is that the rate of population growth is expected to decline, but that doesn’t mean we won’t reach the milestones of nine billion (currently projected for 2037) and 10 billion (2058) before the population stabilizes.
In the meantime, before the real pitchforks and torches come out, we need to address the income disparity between the uber-rich and everybody else.