October 31, 2011 wasn’t just another Halloween — it was also a day chosen by the United Nations Population Division to symbolically mark the birth of the seven billionth person. Yet even more frightening: it is predicted that we will hit the eight billion mark in 14 years.
Now this might be the moment to celebrate our triumph, our ability to not only survive but also to proliferate. It could also be the moment to commence a high-pitched wail of “apocalypse!”
But perhaps it is also the moment to accept this demographic milestone, step back and ask ourselves how to move forward. The head of the United Nations Population Fund, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, wrote in the annual State of the World Population report, “Instead of asking questions like, ‘Are we too many?’ we should instead be asking, ‘What can I do to make our world better?’”
Sustainability, as it has played out in long-standing debates on our swelling rate of consumption, is a key concern for humanity. And while conservation is often conceived of as a largely moral issue with no utilitarian imperative (we can survive, albeit just barely, in squalor), it remains that in order to deal with a growing population we must also deal with the environmental repercussions of that growth.
So what can we do? We’re an ever-expanding species that needs to inhabit the same space with very limited resources. And not only do we fear an insecure food supply, as “Wealth of Nations” philosopher Adam Smith warned, but we must also relentlessly confront snowballing environmental challenges that threaten our water, earth, and atmosphere.
For starters, we should take heed of out parents’ mantras about taking shorter showers and leaving less food on our plate (further, be wary of our portions). We should plant a tree, drive less and buy local. We should use energy-efficient lighting, watch less television and buy in bulk. Most importantly, we should reduce, reuse and recycle, essentially tipping our hats in the direction of the Green Advisors — Swat’s resident eco-conscious community builders.
But emphatically reciting trite maxims that promote eco-friendliness might not drive home the message that we are a species which must now cope with our upward position on a steep growth curve that doesn’t seem to be leveling out any time in the next century.
However, we are at Swarthmore, and it seems almost too much to ask to keep up with our readings, get problem sets done on time and hug a tree. But the importance of being young, educated individuals comes to fruition when we have the opportunity to exercise our activist tendencies. Accepting that seven billion (and counting) human beings inhabit a finite Earth is to also accept the idea that every one of us must bear the burden of humanity.
Continued enjoyment of our very basic luxuries requires that we also make a continued commitment to ensuring that those luxuries last for as long as possible, making the aforementioned ingredients of environmental responsibility anything but trite.