8 Billion People: How in the Hell We Got Here and What It All Means

current world population

The world is now home to 8 billion people.

It’s a staggering number to comprehend and it throws up all sorts of moral and ethical questions: How many people can the planet sustain? What are we all going to eat? How could Nick Cannon do this to us?

For context, if people were grains of rice, we would all weigh 200 tonnes. On average, a kilo of rice is about 40,000 grains. A million people would be a hefty 25 kg sack. A billion is 25,000 of those sacks. Times eight. That’s the population of the planet right now.

Of course, not all of those people can be stuffed inside a warehouse somewhere like soft plastics. Much of the global population lives in urban areas, with rural areas and wilderness increasingly being turned to suburban sprawl for housing. The majority of the global population lives in Asia, with Africa and then Europe being the major population centres.

However, just because the population is rising, that doesn’t mean that it always will. Experts believe we’re now hitting “peak children,” with fewer babies expected to be born going forward than there have been in the past. Already, global fertility rates and population growth have vastly slowed since the 1960s, a trend that is expected to continue in the future.

So, what does all of this mean for people and the planet? Here’s what you need to know about us.

How Do We Know There Are 8 Billion People?

It’s pretty hard to even think about 8 billion people, let alone count them all. One global organisation however is currently doing that: the United Nations Population Divison.

Every two years, they calculate and publish the number of people on the planet in their World Population Prospect series, the latest of which was released just a few weeks ago. The figures are drawn from national census data as well as births, deaths, migration records and population surveys.

This data takes a while to break down and, by the time of publication, is usually at least two years old. So, the 8 billion figure is a projection based on statistical trends, but it’s very much the most accurate statistic we’re going to get.

What Impact Will 8 Billion People Have on the Planet?

The United Nations are obviously concerned about the impact that 8 billion humans will have on planet Earth, particularly as most projected population growth is expected to come from low and lower-income countries where sustainable practices are not easily achievable.

That being said, rich countries have a much greater impact on the planet per capita than poorer countries. Even though population growth is expected to slow, the UN state that this won’t really have an impact on unsustainable economic patterns and the use of resources. Basically, we need to develop more sustainable practices if we are to help the planet rather than slow the growth of the population. But both factors necessarily play into each other, as higher economic and social development often leads to lower reproduction.

A 2020 study from the World Resources Insitute found that, by 2050, we’ll need to produce 56% more food than we produced in 2010 if we are to feed the growing population. Doing so could mean we continue to cut down forests and increase greenhouse gas emissions, but it doesn’t have to.

They’ve identified that the planet has more than enough space to feed the population if a number of key changes are made. These include reducing the demand for animal-based products, particularly beef and lamb, reduce food loss and waste, and 22 other agricultural changes.

However, they describe all of these detailed adaptations that our economies must make as “not optional” if we are to close the gaps between supply and demand.

“The good news is that [we] close the gaps while delivering co-benefits for farmers, society and human health. It will require a herculean effort and major changes to how we produce and consume food,” they write.

How Fast Is the Population Growing?

Well, not as fast as it once was. The UN estimates that 385,000 babies are born every single day while at the same time roughly 190,000 people die. That gives us a net growth of around 200,000 people per day, or 138 people per minute.

While that might sound like a lot, it’s only an increase of 1.05% each year. This has dropped from its peak of 2.07% in 1970 and has declined every year since.

But we’ve also seen a rapid population increase in the last 200 years. Roughly 10,000 years ago, our best estimates suggest there were some 5 million people on the planet. Since the hypothetical time of Jesus, some 2000 years ago, there were around 205 million people on Earth, growing at a rate of 0.5% year on year.

It took us all of human history to reach 1 billion people, which was crossed around the year 1800. Then it took just 130 years to hit two billion in 1930, 30 years to hit 3 billion in 1960, 15 years to hit 4 billion in 1974, and 13 years to reach 5 billion in 1987.

The global population has therefore doubled in the span of a single human lifetime, assuming that person was born in 1970.

However, the UN estimate it will take another 200 years at current growth rates for the population to double again, and we may not ever get to that point.

That’s not a doomsday prophecy but a reflection of declining population growth. UN projections suggest we’ll hit 10 billion by 2058, but that the population will then plateau, and could start to decline by the end of the century.

You need every woman on Earth to have 2.1 babies if you want to keep your population stable. Any fewer, and the population declines, and more and the population grows. In the 1950s, the average woman was popping out five offspring. Now, were very close to that 2.1  figure globally, and in some regions, including Australia, have dropped below replacement levels. Europe and America have not been at replacement levels since the early 1970s.

That obviously has huge implications for society, not least of all aged care and the support of people who can’t work. Climate change is also set to worsen living conditions for all of us, but particularly those in regions with the highest population growth like India and Africa.

A world of 8, 9, and 10 billion people could be quite different but, if we’re smart about it, it may not have to come at the cost of the Earth. Looking back at what we’ve achieved over the past century, it’s reasonable to think we’ll figure out at least some of the solutions to the problems that a growing and aging population will create.

Here’s hoping.

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