SEVEN BILLION PEOPLE: I had better write fast. Sometime between my deadline to submit this story and the time it goes live, the estimated world population will exceed 7 billion for the first time ever.
As I stare at the population clock, I am paralysed at the sheer speed at which the number of people grows. I am terrified at how our world might support all those lives.
But the biggest challenge of all is how to elevate the lives of more than one billion people already alive who eke a living from less than $1 per day, so that they live a life free of famine and preventable disease.
Since at least 1798, when Thomas Robert Malthus argued that population would soon outstrip agricultural production, pessimists have foretold famine, disease and conflict if population growth isn’t reined in.
But some economists and demographers don’t see the problem this way. To them, Malthus was a crank who never grasped the ambit of human ingenuity. Industrialisation, slave-powered Caribbean sugar colonies and the New England cod fisheries revolutionised food production in the 19th Century. Green revolution supercrops staved off Malthusian misery in the 1960s.
Yet we need only look at the appalling famines in Somalia and neighbouring countries to see what happens when too many people try to scrape a living from the land. The great biologist EO Wilson puts it sharply: “The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people but to poor ideology or land-use management is sophistic.”