Population... overload?

On Monday, October 31, 2011, the world population reached seven billion people. In India, the seven billionth baby is Nargis, born to her parents in Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest regions in the country; in the Philippines, her name is Danica. The UN celebrated by nominating a few babies around the world to mark this milestone—all of them, however, are girls, perhaps an acknowledgement of our world as majority female.

Now imagine shrinking all seven billion into a small village with only 100 people. What would our village look like? What are the population characteristics?*

•    95% of world is not American. 51 of us are female. 49 are male. Men on average live 61 years. Women live 3 years longer. Half the village is under 25 years of age.
•    Our village has neighborhoods. One neighborhood has 58 Asians. Another has 13 Africans. 10 Latin Americans live in the barrio. 8 Europeans live on one side of the Atlantic. 6 North Americans live on the opposite shore.
•    20 villagers speak Chinese. 8 speak English. 7 converse in Hindi. 6 in Spanish. 5 in Russian. 4 in Bengali. Another 4 in Arabic. 3 in Portuguese. 2 each in Japanese, French & German.
•    33 villagers are Christians. 22 are atheists or simply not religious. 18 are Muslims. 13 are Hindu. 6 are Buddhists. 1 is Jewish. Our village uses 5 different calendars.
•    37 of us have jobs. The rest of us do not.
•    18 people in our community cannot read or write. One of us has a college education.
•    50 villagers will never send or receive a telephone call. 8 of us have cell phones.
•    20 women—our mothers, daughters and sisters—have been assaulted or raped by someone in our own village.
•    80 of us live in substandard housing. 50 do not have a basic sanitary toilet. 4 of us use 50% of the village’s total healthcare.
•    The 20 poorest villagers consume just 1.5% of all goods and services. The 20 richest villagers eat 45% of all the meat and fish, use 59% of all the energy and own 87% of all the village’s vehicles.
•    5 people control half the village’s total wealth.

How do these numbers influence how we approach social change? Look at them again—63 out of 100 of us do not have jobs; half of us do not have access to a basic toilet; only 20 of us have access to basic housing.

Seven billion is certainly a statistic to marvel—a planet that housed only 1.6 billion in 1900 is still chugging along today. But these numbers are not an indication of a planet that is necessarily going in the right direction.

The UN says that food production will have to increase by 70 percent to feed the two billion more mouths we will have by 2050. More people will live in cities, which will require a big shift in how we use infrastructure, a reduction in energy use, and living in much more close quarters. Climate change will continue to be an ever-present and even more important issue—and given that people in the developing world are at the front line of climate change and food insecurity, our approach to solutions will require galvanizing very different communities than we do now. How do we do that?

Seven billion calls for new design thinking, a conscious understanding of the majority cultures in the world, and a shift in how and where we look for innovation.

What are the biggest problems we will face? As an individual on this planet, what is your responsibility?


*Numbers cited from Jonathan Lewis’s Keynote Address at the Beyond the Magic Bullet Conference, February 2011.