by Laurie Mazur
August 11, 2011
This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article is the first in a multi-part series comissioned by RH Reality Check to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions that need to be put in place to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.
Welcome to the age of the Black Swan.
The tornado that nearly leveled the city of Joplin, Missouri in May was a Black Swan; so was the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan in March; and the “hundred-year floods” that now take place every couple of years in the American Midwest.
A Black Swan is a low-probability, high-impact event that tears at the very fabric of civilization. And they are becoming more common: weather-related disasters spiked in 2010, killing nearly 300,000 people and costing $130 billion.
Black Swan events are proliferating for many reasons—notably climate change and the growing scale and interconnectedness of the human enterprise. World population doubled in the last half-century to just under seven billion people, so there are simply more people living in harm’s way, on geologic faults and along vulnerable coastlines. As the human enterprise has grown, we have reshaped natural systems to meet human needs, weakening resilience of ecosystems, and by extension our own. In effect, we have re-engineered the planet and ushered in a new era of radical instability.
At the same time, the world’s people are increasingly linked by systems of staggering complexity and size: think of electrical grids and financial markets. What were once local disasters now reverberate across the globe.
So what does this have to do with women’s rights, you may ask? A lot, as it turns out. The great challenge of the 21st century is to build societies that can cope with the flock of Black Swans that are headed our way. Advancing and securing women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, is central to meeting that challenge.
The New World, and How We Got Here
The age of the Black Swan marks a sharp turn on the long path of human history. It is hard to overstate how swiftly and profoundly we have transformed the way we live. Imagine that all of humanity’s existence was compressed into a 24-hour day, with each hour representing 100,000 years. Our humanoid ancestors first appeared at midnight, then spent the night and most of the following day hunting and gathering in small, mobile bands. At 11:56 pm, we invented agriculture. In the last seconds before the end of the day came the industrial revolution, the Pill, and The Jersey Shore.
Also in the last seconds before midnight, our numbers increased sevenfold, and—in the blink of an eye—we former hunter-gatherers had colonized every corner of the planet. Just think: it took from the beginning of human history until 1800 for our numbers to reach one billion. Now, just over 200 years later, there are nearly 7 billion of us. And we will likely reach 8 billion by 2025.