90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Seven Billion And Counting

The human population is just about to reach seven billion. Yikes! We talk to the experts — Polyannas, Cassandras and in between — about how many of us Mother Earth can handle.

The earth at night. (NASA)

The earth at night. (NASA)

The UN says next week, maybe on Halloween, the world population will hit seven billion humans. That’s a whole lot of homo sapiens. It took us forever to hit the first billion, just after 1800. We’ve added four billion in just the last fifty years. Now, seven.

Can the planet manage this population of us? Doomsayers have long been wrong, but now some of the very things that saved us – fossil fuels – are croaking the environment. So what about eight billion? Nine? Ten?

This hour On Point: seven billion humans, and the planet we share.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Mark Lynas, author of The God Species: Saving The Planet In The Age Of Humans. He is a visiting research scholar at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert, he is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor of the blog climateprogress.org. He served in the U.S. Department of Energy in the Clinton Administration.

Highlights

Some day this month, the estimated population of the world will top seven billion. But the numerical success of the human species has caused major strained on the planet and human infrastructure.

“We are pushing against the ability of the planet to feed the seven billion people that we have,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert editor of the blog climateprogress.org. “Food prices have been soaring. We’ve had the second major food price spike in the past three years, and now food prices are as high globally as they’ve been since the late 1970s.”

We’re not facing mass starvation, cautioned Romm. But adapting to the new realities will mean a change in behavior for the world’s most developed—and wasteful – countries.

“We’re certainly going to see a population of nine billion by 2050 – and that’s a mid-range estimate,” said Mark Lynas, author of The God Species: Saving The Planet In The Age Of Humans.

The challenge for the future, he said, won’t just be feeding those people, but feeding them even as they grow richer and demand better and more resource-intensive foods from a planet that is being seriously impacted by climate change.

Despite the daunting challenges, Lynas noted, “we need to have a fairly strong dose of humility when we make these long-term projections, particularly because we don’t know what technologies will be doing.”

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times “Because censuses are infrequent and incomplete, no one knows the precise date — the Census Bureau puts it somewhere next March — but there can be no doubt that humanity is approaching a milestone.”

The Atlantic “The United Nations Population Fund estimates that in one week, on October 31, 2011, the world’s population will reach 7 billion. Just 200 years ago, there were only 1 billion people on the planet, and over the next 150 years, that number grew to 3 billion. But in the past 50 years, the global population has more than doubled, and the UN projects that it could possibly grow to 15 billion by the year 2100.”

Practical Ethics “One example is the rapidly growing information economy. If someone makes a hammer, only a few people get the benefit, but if someone records a new song, writes a computer program, or invents a new technology, everyone can benefit. These activities thus produce more value the more people we have. With twice as many people doing jobs like these, we could all get roughly twice the benefits (more art, culture, science, technology), or they could work roughly half as many hours. A larger population thus has the potential to make life much better, so long as we can find the resources to support it.”

The Economist “In 1950 the whole population of the earth—2.5 billion—could have squeezed, shoulder to shoulder, onto the Isle of Wight, a 381-square-kilometre rock off southern England. By 1968 John Brunner, a British novelist, observed that the earth’s people—by then 3.5 billion—would have required the Isle of Man, 572 square kilometres in the Irish Sea, for its standing room. Brunner forecast that by 2010 the world’s population would have reached 7 billion, and would need a bigger island.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
ONPOINT
TODAY
Nov 26, 2014
Getting together with your family and loved ones at Thanksgiving and the holidays doesn't have to lead to  arguments and fights. (Meg Hunt / Flickr)

The Thanksgiving get-together and all the family drama trimmings. Sage advice from advice columnists.

Nov 26, 2014
A 1597 map of Lesbos / Mytilene, Greece by Giacomo Franco. (Flickr / Creative Commons)

How Aristotle invented science. The great ancient Greek, and life on Earth.

RECENT
SHOWS
Nov 25, 2014
A 40-pound tom turkey looks out at Raymond's Turkey Farm in Methuen, Mass., Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. The farm raises approximately 20,000 Broad Breasted White Holland turkeys per year. (AP)

We’ll talk turkey and all the sides. Top chefs join us to answer your Thanksgiving questions.

 
Nov 25, 2014
A protester squirts lighter fluid on a police car as the car windows are shuttered near the Ferguson Police Department after the announcement of the grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

Grand Jury decision out of Ferguson — no indictment. We’re on the ground with the latest details and reaction.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Last-Minute Thanksgiving Luxury
Tuesday, Nov 25, 2014

Our three Thanksgiving chefs offer up their best bets for delicious, last-minute holiday helpers, including a crunchy celery salad and maple glazed carrots.

More »
Comment
 
Calling All Interns, Calling All Interns
Monday, Nov 24, 2014

Have you ever thought about interning with On Point Radio? Good news: your time is now!

More »
Comment
 
The Explicast, Episode Six: What Does A White House Press Correspondent Do?
Friday, Nov 21, 2014

We turn to White House Press Correspondents all the time for news, but we’ve never really wondered how they gather their information. Fortunately, our guest host Jessica Yellin had time to sit down with The Explicast to explain.

More »
Comment