Remember, remember, the fifteenth of November.
Not quite the same ring to it as the familiar refrain urging us to take stock of events which occurred 417 years ago. Whereas the 5th November looks back to an event which ended up having minor repercussions in the north-west corner of Europe, on Tuesday 15th November we will hit a milestone much more pertinent to our overall global story.
According to our best guess, on or around this date the eight billionth human on the planet will be born. In better moments, most have celebrated the growth of the worldwide population as a positive indictment of rising living standards, poverty reduction, healthcare advances and generally safer surroundings. In these more anxious times, it is likely that the potential negative consequences of the human boom will be what focuses attention.
The speed of growth is remarkable. From around 100 million 4,000 years ago to one billion at the start of the 19th century, the increasing number of people was generally manageable. It was offset at times by war, disease or famine, yet continued to trickle up. We are now on the cusp of an eight-fold increase over the past 200 years and, perhaps more astonishing, a doubling of the worldwide headcount from around 1975. According to projections, we will be well over 10 billion by the end of this century.
Much of this is due to population booms in places that would have been considered second or third world until very recently. Who are we, fortunately situated in the historically affluent west, to begrudge others the same rising of standards that benefited us from the 1800s onwards?
As our own “home grown” populations face decline, we can view what is happening as evidence of a geopolitical and commercial power shift, long since predicted, to the east and, eventually, the south. Not everywhere on Earth is experiencing recession or ageing communities, as we can see hereand here.
More people inevitably means more consumption, more resource used and more pressure on the world’s infrastructure. Earth Overshoot Day seems to get earlier and earlier. We don’t know for sure that we will rise to these challenges, although the focus on greater sustainability from policymakers, coupled with evermore innovative technological breakthroughs, can give us cause for some cheer.
Every generation likes to imagine that the problems it faces are historically unique. And a massive, potentially destabilising uptick in the number of people inhabiting the world is definitely a new challenge, not least to our natural environment. For now though, maybe we should celebrate this milestone as evidence of how humankind keeps innovating for the better, and hope that the brilliant minds who make this progress possible manage to prevail again.