How will this Halloween be different from any other Halloween? A singular event will happen this Oct. 31.
That is the day demographers predict a very special baby will be born: the Earth’s 7 billionth citizen! She will probably arrive in a developing country because that is where most of the planet’s babies are born.
What else can we say about this unique but unidentifiable person? Let’s assume she is a girl. However, in the world’s two largest countries, China and India, girls are selected against because people value boys more than girls. Early in pregnancy, some women pay for illegal ultrasounds done to determine if they are carrying a boy or a girl. If a girl, she is likely to be aborted.
And as incredible as it may seem, femicide (selective killing of baby girls shortly after birth) is still practiced.
If the 7 billionth baby is a girl born in a poor country, she will probably go to school for only a few years. Even if she finishes the elementary grades, it is unlikely that she will graduate from high school. Her lack of education is partially due to difficulty paying tuition and for the books, shoes and school uniform she would need. She will also be needed at home. Her chores will include helping her mother cook, caring for younger kids and gathering firewood and water. It is common for women and girls to walk miles every day just to fetch water.
She may be held down and have her genitals mutilated if she lives in certain areas of Africa or the Middle East. This girl also may be promised to her future husband as a child and be forced to marry even before she reaches puberty. It is likely that she will become pregnant as a teen, knowing little of family planning. If she is lucky, she will have a healthy baby, but too many of these young brides grow a baby larger than their bones can accommodate, with disastrous results.
She will probably stay at home when she goes into labor. If she is lucky, her attendant will be a trained midwife. Too often, traditional birth attendants have no formal training and rely on old wives’ tales to welcome new life. Women in labor in poor countries die at alarming rates from hemorrhage, infection and toxemia.
What can this person look forward to? I expect that the world she will join will be very different from the world that we have enjoyed. When she is a teen, petroleum will be less plentiful and very pricey. As a result, we in the United States will go back to many aspects of the lifestyles of our great-grandparents. We will travel less because fuel will be very expensive. We will live close to work to save fuel. And our homes will be smaller to save on heating and cooling.
Food will become a much larger portion of everyone’s budget. Remember, the reason that food is relatively inexpensive is that much of the work to raise it depends on petroleum, and petroleum is used to make the chemicals that boost production. The world’s population has grown at a record rate in the last century largely because of the availability of inexpensive food.
Can we look 20 years into this special young lady’s future? She may be the mother of young children and perhaps already had a child die from lack of safe water and adequate food. Her responsibilities will include cooking and caring for her family and helping her husband in the fields. If she is lucky, she may have her own small microenterprise, selling food or wares.
Past traditions will not have prepared her well for the future because the world is changing very rapidly. In 2031, it would take two planets Earth to support our burgeoning population sustainably, unless we make enormous changes. We can alter our lifestyles to consume less; indeed, we may be forced to make substantial change. Less travel, more efficient use of energy resources and more renewable energy will become the norm.
Enabling smaller family sizes will be the key to continued existence. Family planning will help both survival of humans and also survival of other members of the web of life upon which we are so dependent.
This Halloween, you can look forward to the usual spooks and demons at your doorstep. In addition, however, glimpse into the future, and you will see the specter of human overpopulation.
Richard Grossman practices obstetrics and gynecology in Durango. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. © Richard Grossman MD, 2011.