On Learning How to Share: A Review of the Seven Billion

Hear this piece read by its author, Mary Albino: [audio: issuetwo/mary.mp3]
With baby Danica’s Halloween arrival, the planet’s population officially reached seven billion. It’s an estimate of course—the margin of error is six months in either direction—but the point is humanity has reached a milestone: there are twice as many people alive as there were fifty years ago. Instead of unleashing a sense of jubilation, the occasion seems to have generated panic. Would the planet sink under Danica’s extra five pounds, or explode from the carbon monoxide released from the bus her mom took home from the hospital? Some really did wonder. After all, how many more people can the planet support? When will we have reached capacity?

Space isn’t the problem. A baby is the size of a loaf of bread, and we can certainly find room for more. In fact, all seven billion of us could comfortably reside in the state of Texas and the density would still only match New York City’s. Resources are the real worry. Rice patties and wheat fields, dairy and meat farms, bodies of clean water, irrigation systems, latrines and sewage systems—are there enough? You can’t grow trees in the desert or plant corn in the Arctic. 10,000 babies are born every hour—will there be enough food and water for them to eat dinner every day for the rest of their lives? The things a person needs to live a decent life—roadways, schools, jobs, medical care, and the institutions that protect rights and freedoms–are already in short supply.As the one billion people living below the poverty line indicate, we’re way behind in our attempts to meet the needs of the people that already exist. How will we handle another three billion by 2100?

People tend to think about the population problem as though humanity is trying to squeeze a foot into a shoe that’s a size too small. They hope and pray that there’s a humane way to keep total fertility rates down.

In fact, the “population problem” has very little to do with population or fertility. The families having seven or eight children in India, Bangladesh and Nigeria are not the reason there aren’t enough resources to go around: it’s people in Toronto, on computers, reading newspapers, eating flank steak and drinking Pinot Grigio. Those of us who take long hot showers before commuting 45 minutes to work, who go skiing on weekends, who wear a different suit every day and try to get to Mexico for a week at least once a year. In all of these activities we’re using way more than our fair share of what the planet has to offer.

illustration by Raj Dhillon

By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world’s people use most of the world’s resources and produce most of the pollution. Twenty percent of the population uses eighty percent of the planet’s resources. The lifestyle of the average Canadian requires resources that take up approximately 7.1 hectares of space. American lifestyles take the cake with 9.5 hectares; British lifestyles, 5.3; Japanese, 4.9. The world average is 2.7 hectares. China, despite its millions of cars, is still below that figure at 2.1, while India and most of Africa are below 1.0.

If we’re to worry about the “population problem” and the future of the planet’s resources, more important than fertility rates is the question of sharing, and why we’re so bad at it.

An aversion to sharing is to some degree human. According to Gareth Hardin’s theory of the Tragedy of the Commons, people make decisions in their own interest at the expense of shared, limited resources even when it’s clearly not in anyone’s long-term interest. In other words, we’re greedy and short-sighted, even about our own futures. Given the chance, we won’t save enough for retirement and will take out massive loans in order to buy houses way bigger than we can afford. Psychological studies of consumption habits show that most people prioritize the present at the expense of the future.

Another part of the problem is that people don’t feel compelled to be generous without immediate recognition of their efforts. If I take a shorter shower, or buy one fewer pair of sandals this summer, who will benefit? It’s not as if I can decide to eat only rice and beans for dinner and my portion of chicken and avocados will appear instantly on the doorstep of a poor family in Ethiopia who will then send me a thank you note by SMS.

Not just an affliction of individuals, though, greed is entrenched in the rules of the international system. Borders play an important role in the unequal distribution of resources. While there might be enough food in the world for all seven billion of us, there isn’t enough food in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Mumbai’s slums—where population density is one million people per square mile—are overflowing, while most of Canada and Australia sit empty.Poor countries have less to offer their citizens than rich countries, but the rules of the international system don’t allow for the free movement of people.

Sharing could be a cultural imperative around the planet, but instead countries like ours put a premium on independence, not generosity. Yet the idea that paying for one’s own food and car makes for self-sufficiency is an illusion, and one to which the beneficiaries of a system that tilts in their favour are especially prone. Thinking of privilege as earned allows the lucky to justify a lifestyle of overconsumption that puts everybody at risk. When worrying about the planet’s dwindling resources, rather than fussing over the fertility rate in India, we’d do better to ask how we’d want the seven billion slices divided if we didn’t get to choose which piece of the pie would be ours.