The sustainability challenge of seven billion
01 November 2011

​The world's population has hit the seven billion mark. According to official United Nations reports, on 31 October, the earth gained its seven billionth inhabitant. A rising population brings many challenges for policymakers, politicians and individuals, and in order to rise to these challenges, efforts towards greater  transparency and a sustainable global economy will be vital.
​There has been much debate and speculation over this population milestone in recent weeks. There are those who have raised worrying concerns about the effects and consequences of a rapidly growing population, suggesting that we have the makings of a 'perfect storm': population growth, climate change and peak oil, leading to food, water and energy insecurity. For those sitting on this side of the fence, population growth is a driver and a multiplier of every other environmental and developmental problem that we face.
On the flip side, there are those who feel that more people does not necessarily mean more problems. In fact these people would argue that population growth is positive, evidenced by the fact that there have been enormous strides in health, education and income over the last century, which means that population growth is not preventing development. In some cases, high numbers of population can be a real boost to growth - raising productivity and increasing progress. Indeed, development is generally associated with urbanization and an increase in population density.
Both parties offer reasonable arguments, but let's step back a minute and think about where we've come from and what's actually going on.
Two centuries ago, the world's population numbered less than one billion. Since then, numbers have accelerated. Sixty years ago, the average life expectancy was around 46 years, today it has risen to 70 (UN Population Division). More and more people have been supported by economic growth and more and more have benefitted from improved nutrition, sanitation and medical care - allowing people to live increasingly longer lives.
These trends, however, vary greatly between different countries, ages, genders and social groups. In the west, populations are shrinking and ageing, while in the south, populations are growing fast. Both present big challenges.
Of the three billion or so people expected to be born in the coming decades, most will be in developing countries, and demographers predict that by the year 2050 the global population will exceed nine billion. Can we feed a population that is growing at this rate? Will the growing human burden on the planet eventually cause catastrophic and irreversible environmental damage?
In light of all of this, the one certainty that we should all be aware of is that organizational sustainability practices are becoming increasingly important. Too much of a focus on actual population numbers and growth rates can be a dangerous distraction from the core problem that our civilization faces, which is not how many of us there are on this planet but how we use the planet and its resources.
Strategies for managing resources need to be revised. We need an 'energy revolution' that is as radical and even more rapid than the industrial revolution - we need to steer away from fossil fuels and move towards renewables and energy conservation.
In addition, certain human rights issues need to be prioritized and mainstreamed. For example, every woman should have the right to free, good quality reproductive healthcare - a right to control her own fertility. This is of course a simplistic take on this complex issue, which varies between countries and societies, but nonetheless, the profile and priority of this issue needs to be raised as part of a strategy for slowing population growth and decreasing societal divisions.
It's clear that these tasks are massive and beyond the control of most of mankind, but certain efforts, such as sustainability reporting for transparency and the transition to a sustainable global economy, are core to providing solutions to the challenges that an ever-growing population brings.