I keep seeing and hearing different numbers in the media for global population. I see 6 billion a lot, or 6.5 billion, but according to the US Census Bureau – which creates the US and World POPClocks – or population clocks – the number of us humans now living, rounded up, is 6.7 billion. That’s the Census Bureau’s estimate for how many human souls live on Earth today, and you can watch that number creep up continuously by checking in on the POPClocks, as I sometimes do. It’s pretty amazing how quickly the numbers change.
Or if you don’t believe the US Census Bureau, you can check out a similar clock that the United Nations produced while marking the global Day of 6 Billion. The UN marked that day on October 12, 1999, and the UN’s population clock is keeping similar time to the clocks of the US Census Bureau.
Of course, neither the US Census Bureau nor the United Nations really knows the number of humans alive today. That number is not knowable. Even the number of humans in the US alone is not truly knowable, although we at EarthSky participated in the huge fanfare accompanying the arrival of the 300 millionth American in October, 2006. These numbers in the U.S. are determined by good old-fashioned census-taking, plus computer modeling. The last U.S. census was in 2000, and another one is not due until 2010. Do people really tell the truth in a U.S. census? I guess there’s no reason not to, although I can imagine young people – in my daughters’ irreverent generation – not being entirely honest when they enter the ‘number of people in household’ box on a census form.
Of the global numbers displayed on the World POPClock, the Census Bureau says: (The numbers are) not intended to imply that the population of the world is known to the last person. Rather, the clock is our estimate of the world population size and an indication of how fast it is growing. According to (Census Bureau) estimates, the world population reached 6 billion on July 27, 1999, at about 3:03 AM GMT (July 26 at 11:03 PM EDT). Because of the uncertainties of the estimates, and the fact that we are constantly updating our estimates, the estimate of when 6 billion was hit will change.
There’s also an often-quoted number – 9 billion – predicted as the number of humans on Earth by the year 2050. And there are many many interesting stories related to what happens before and after that 9 billion mark – which we humans are now steadily plodding toward, most of us with our collective heads aimed firmly down at our feet and not at the road ahead. Population movements across Earth’s surface will be one major factor in any given country’s population. Many agree that women entering the workforce in greater numbers – and having greater control over their own bodies and family sizes – will be a major influence on declining fertility rates. Last time I looked, the United Nations was including the possibility of a global pandemic in its population estimates, but few non-experts realize how little even a large pandemic would slow us from reaching that 9 billion mark by mid-century.
By the way, EarthSky is working behind the scenes now toward making podcasts featuring scientists speaking about population issues. We have a terrific partner in this proposed project, the Population Reference Bureau, whose website already has much to offer on the movement and increase of Earth’s humans. Population is a favorite subject of EarthSky’s, since spending some years in the early part of this century grappling with the concept of a human world and with the 21st century scientific revelation that humans and Earth are coupled in a very profound way.
To me, sitting in my editor’s chair at this website, it sometimes seems as if we humans are in a race. The race is between our own burgeoning population numbers, and our political and technological will to solve the problems that come with increasing population.
Will we as a species come to recognize our connection to nature and learn to live in a way that’s sustainable? I wonder how my two daughters – still childless, but both now firmly in their childbearing years – feel about bringing children into such an uncertain world.
In case you haven’t been watching, here are the population estimates since July of 2007, according to the world POPClock.
The photo at left is from TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³‘s photostream. It’s called Praying for Time.
The photo in the middle of this post is called The Road Ahead. It’s from advencap‘s photostream.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.