What do 7 Billion People Mean for our Global Future?

28/10/2011 20:31 | Updated 28 December 2011
  • Ian Goldin Director of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University; Co-author, "Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance"

By now, we've all heard about the 7 billionth person being born on the planet this month. If we can get beyond all the headlines, though, we have an opportunity to reflect on the complex interconnectedness of global future challenges.

Professor Ian Goldin, Director of the Oxford Martin School (Oxford University's innovative research initiative on mega trends and global challenges), has brought together a number of leading academics to share their insights into some of the most critical impacts of human population growth on our social, environmental and healthcare systems.

Stories in the press challenge us to consider the potentially devastating effects of a burgeoning population - mass starvation, slum cities, economic meltdown, energy crisis, environmental disaster. Goldin's mission, however, is to bring together the best minds to help develop the knowledge and collective will that will allow us to harness human potential and develop solutions to the worst challenges.

Following, are some of the insights of academics from the Oxford Martin School's latest series of events on "Is the planet full?"

What do 7 billion people mean for the future of HUMANITY?

People often focus on the downsides of population growth but neglect the upsides. These upsides may even outweigh the downsides, making a larger population a good thing overall. 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 twice the benefits (more art, culture, science, technology), or they could work 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.

By Dr Toby Ord, James Martin Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford Martin School)

What do 7 billion people mean for the future of FOOD?

Seven billion people mean a continuing increase in demand for food at a time of growing competition for land, water, energy and other inputs into agriculture; the recent era of historically cheap (in real terms) food is almost certainly coming to an end. Increasing food prices will have little direct effect on high and middle-income people but will be highly detrimental for the poor (including the poor in rich countries). A billion people go hungry today not because the world can't produce enough food to feed them but because they do not have economic and physical access to food. Seven billion people mean that food needs to rise up the policy agenda; that we need simultaneously to increase food production sustainably, reduce waste, moderate demand, and reform our national and international institutions to make globalisation work to promote food security.

By Professor Charles Godfray, Director, Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food

What do 7 billion people mean for the future of WATER?

Population and water usage are strongly correlated. Demand for water is growing as our global population increases. This underlying per capita effect is amplified by demographic transitions and economic growth: people moving to cities and towns from rural areas use more domestic water; and as people become more well off, they consume more water - directly and indirectly, through consumption of water embedded in the production of food and goods. To avoid a crisis of water scarcity, it is vital to find ways to close the gap between demand and reliable, environmentally-sustainable supply. Supply-side solutions, such as desalination, are possible but expensive and energy intensive. Increasing efficiency is a far more economic and widely implementable solution. For example, we could favour crops that require less water, such as wheat over rice, improve irrigation efficiency, decrease our reliance on animal products, reduce water use in industrial processes, and update our sanitation systems.

In many cases water stress is more about politics, economics, behaviour and governance than absolute water scarcity. Better planning is needed, to allocate water where societal need is greatest, and to allow trade-offs between alternative uses. Without more intelligent use of water in all its forms, many parts of the world face either endemic or periodic water scarcity.

By Professor Mark New, Professor of Climate Science, Oxford University

What do 7 billion people mean for the future of HEALTHCARE?

Providing safe, effective and affordable healthcare to meet the expectations of 7 billion people will be a significant challenge for governments, not only in high-income countries, but especially in low and middle-income countries. Current approaches to the provision of healthcare will be unaffordable and so disruptive, innovative and frugal approaches will be required. We will need to empower and train a new cadre of healthcare workers, working in lower cost primary care settings, with the technologies to reliably identify and manage high-risk individuals, using low cost devices and drugs. We will also need to ensure that increased resources flow from the tertiary care setting to preventive healthcare services and that legislative approaches to the management of high risk health environments take priority over educational approaches. Rigorous cost-effective evaluations of healthcare services will be required and disinvestment in strategies proven to be ineffective will be as essential as the uptake of strategies proven to be cost-effective.

By Professor Robyn Norton, Co-Director, George Centre for Healthcare Innovation (Oxford Martin School)

What do 7 billion people mean for the future of OUR PLANET?

Human activity is having a major impact on the planet. We consume or have diverted a large proportion of the productivity of the land and oceans. Our hunger for land crowds out fellow species. Our waste products pollute the waters, warm the atmosphere and acidify the oceans. Partly this is to do with how many humans there are on the planet, but it is more to do with how much primary resource an average human consumes and how much waste they produce. The current increase in stress on the planet's resources and natural cycles are driven mainly by the unabated increase in resource use of the wealthiest countries, and the rising consumption of middle-income countries (such as China and Brazil) as large fractions of their populations rise out of poverty to moderate income. In all these cases the population pressures are rapidly moderating. The big population rises are in regions such as Africa, where the impact of the average human are still slight at a global scale. Population is certainly part of the challenge, but a bigger part is to manage and meet the desires of much of humanity to have a decent standard of living without leaving the planet resource-depleted, species-poor, and a junkyard for our collective waste.

By Professor Yadvinder Malhi, Director, Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests (Oxford Martin School)