s of 15 November, we officially number more than 8 billion human beings on the face of the Earth, twice as many as in 1974 and a billion more than those who populated the planet in 2010. A dizzying pace, accelerated especially in the last hundred years, but which is tending to slow down, since the United Nations itself is projecting 9 billion by 2037, in other words, a lapse of fifteen years compared to the twelve that elapsed to go from 7 billion to the 8 billion we live, suffer and enjoy today. There is also evidence of population redistribution, with more than half of humanity now settled in just seven countries: China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Brazil. With a good chance, by the way, that India will overtake China in a few years’ time.
As always when this kind of milestone is mentioned, there are many voices that, ever since Malthus, advocate that the planet will not be able to feed so many mouths. This is an assertion that experience refutes, although on the contrary, the presence of more and more human beings is exerting such brutal pressure that the question is not only whether or not the Earth will be able to feed so many billions of people but, above all, whether it will be able to withstand the enormous destruction to which man is subjecting Nature with the consequent depredation of its resources.
An unofficial accounting system establishes each year the date on which humanity exhausts the resources within its reach, and the calendar only advances that symbolic date, so that by 2022 we had already eaten literally everything the Earth produces in the first half of the year. Add to this the destruction of habitats, the pollution of freshwaters, the pollution of the seas and the burning and disappearance of the green lungs of forests and jungles, and the picture is not very encouraging.
As the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh made clear, the immediate needs arising from the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine postpone the adoption of more radical solutions to many of the planet’s problems of habitability. The famines resulting from global warming, exacerbated by those who use hunger as a weapon of war, are no small matter, which means that the current forced migrations due to lack of food will provoke increasing exoduses of the most affected populations to more comfortable latitudes, even if, as is also an obvious bad experience, such refugees are not exactly welcomed with open arms.
Mahatma Gandhi said that “the world has enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed”. Apart from this last defect, the truth is that the part of humanity that is gaining access to a better standard of living aspires to more and more, obviously looking to those who have reached the highest levels of prosperity, which, as history shows us, has been achieved largely at the cost of subjugating many other human beings and plundering their resources or appropriating their wealth. It is logical, then, that what is called the Global South should aspire to compensations that will allow it to close the gap with the more advanced North.
However, humanity as a whole is a moving crowd that is also changing and rehabilitating itself in spite of all the hardships. There is plenty of data to express a more optimistic conclusion. For example, those suffering from the scourge of extreme poverty, i.e. those living on less than $2 a day, have fallen from 44% of humanity in 1974 to 10% today. The number of people who still lack basic necessities such as daily access to clean drinking water, sufficient and healthy food, and health care and attention worthy of the name has also fallen below one billion people. These figures explain not only the population growth of the planet, but also the indisputable general improvement in the quality of life, driven by unquestionable scientific advances, which have managed to multiply the productivity and performance of our Earth.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, on the occasion of this milestone, pointed out that the world’s 8 billion people could represent enormous opportunities for some of the poorest countries, which coincide with the highest population growth. Guterres also noted that “relatively small investments in health care, education, gender equality and sustainable economic development could create a virtuous circle of development and growth capable of transforming economies and lives”.
It would be illusory to expect humankind to dispense with its natural drive to wage war to achieve or maintain superiority over its neighbours. But it is also true that humanity has shown many signs of giving birth in all its great crises to indomitable, enterprising and adventurous spirits that have driven the great discoveries and breakthroughs from which we all benefit. It will continue to be so, and if the planet becomes too small it is also certain that human beings will conquer outer worlds in which to settle, live and prosper. Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, is therefore right when she says that “the sheer number of human lives in existence is not a cause for fear”.
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