UNITED NATIONS -- Out of a crowded field of dire predictions regarding humanity having reached 7 billion in population came a U.N. report this week that called the moment an opportunity to stress sustainability and improve lives in less-developed nations.

The U.N. Population Fund published a study yesterday on the 7 billion mark that calls for better global planning and investments early in the century. That would prepare the way for what many expect will be 10 billion humans on the planet by midcentury, the report says.

The document -- entitled "The State of World Population 2011" -- notes that of the 7 billion, nearly 2 billion are between the ages of 10 and 24. UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said that demographic will be key in terms of avoiding the kinds of poverty and mass resource depletion many anticipate.

"We should be investing in the health and education of our youth," he wrote in the report. "This would yield enormous returns in economic growth and development for generations to come."

The document is meant to coincide with a U.N. estimate that humanity will cross 7 billion within the week, on Oct. 31. Though many experts say that number is at best an estimate, the reality is humanity either has crossed that threshold or is poised to do so (ClimateWire, Oct. 19).

Others reacting to the moment have been less optimistic. At a recent forum on human population at Columbia University, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs celebrated the upthrust in population as "a pivotal global moment" while calling it a threat to human existence.

More consumers confront 'huge dead zones'
Feeding 7 billion already requires so much fertilizer that fresh water around the globe is in danger, Sachs said. He also pointed to "huge dead zones" in estuaries of more than 100 rivers, the carbon costs of massive energy consumption and ongoing deforestation to feed the masses.

Others have also sounded a note of caution this week. Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book "The Population Bomb," said the growth has brought a massive "climate disruption" that means higher food costs, biodiversity loss and increasing chances of epidemic.

In an interview with the Stanford news service, Ehrlich acknowledged that people have become smarter, but he still sees reason to fear how the next 2 billion humans will affect the planet when compared to the previous 2 billion.

"To support 2 billion more, it will be necessary to farm ever poorer lands, use more dangerous and expensive agricultural inputs, win metals from ever-poorer ores, drill wells deeper or tap increasingly remote or more contaminated sources to obtain water, and then spend more energy to transport that water ever greater distances," he said.

"As a result, the next 2 billion people probably will do disproportionately much more damage to our life-support systems than did the last 2 billion," he added.

To Osotimehin, all that is reason enough to make sure children in poor nations receive a better education, especially in regard to their sexuality and controlling pregnancy. He stressed that repeatedly in the U.N. report.

"Consider that there are 215 million women of childbearing age in developing countries who lack access to voluntary family planning," he said. "There are millions of adolescent girls and boys in the developing world who have too little access to sexuality education and information about how to prevent pregnancies or protect themselves from HIV."

This connection between birth control and environmental protection is a key issue for the future, said Worldwatch Institute President Robert Engelman.

"The challenge becomes even more with each generation," he said from Washington. "Fortunately, there are ways to practically and humanely both slow population growth and reduce the impacts associated with the growth that occurs."

Click here to view the U.N. report.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500