A UN report tagged November 15 as a key turning point: eight billion human beings. But why does this number matter? Do we really understand what it means to be part of a family this large?
November 15 is the UN’s estimated date for the eight billionth person to join the living human species. We might have hit that number a few days prior, or a few weeks ago. We might meet it tomorrow, or the day after. But some of we eight billion really like the feel of concrete dates. An official turning point! It feels symbolic, even if we’re not sure of what. Maybe it lets us believe we’re more in control of our cosmos, like we can ever have a complete lock on what’s happening here?
Eight billion human beings.
And most of us, living lives we can barely fathom as concurrent to our own.
In Harbin, a city in northeast China, a man is working today in a flourishing agricultural industry made possible by rich soil on a land that also turns fiercely cold in winter, yielding the perfect terrain for a world-renowned ice festival. He walks through streets informed by blended Russian and Chinese heritages, before Japanese occupation drove out most of the former demographic, leaving an overwhelmingly Han Chinese population eating vaguely Russian fare. Toxic dumping practices, joined with a massive uptick in household solid waste thanks to rapid urbanization, imperil his public health and environmental outcomes.
China is home to 1.4 billion human beings, 17.5 percent of the species. (In contrast, North Americans only make up 4.73 percent.)
If we expand to the whole of Asia, 4.7 billion of us (58.8 percent) can be found in places like India, struggling with the rise of Hindu nationalism alongside more quotidian horrors like climate change; and the Philippines, where the poorest might be fortunate to buy pagpag, a dish made from restaurant meat scavenged from garbage heaps; and Taiwan, a well-educated island nation that holds much of the world’s semiconductor futures in its hands, even as Chinese aerial displays daily remind the nation of its uncertain political future.
Child labor abounds in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, underpinning the construction of clothes we take for granted, and raw materials that end up in other household items of unclear provenance. According to UNICEF, child labour has increased these last four years, in part due to COVID-19 and in part due to inflation pressures. Those numbers don’t take into account the complex shift in social responsibility also felt in regions that skew demographically young—like in Africa, which has the dubious honor of an overwhelming number of countries whose average citizen ages are under 18. (70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa is under 30.)
Most reporting on our eight billion has remarked on our declining fertility rates, especially in developed sectors of the world. We’re still slated to hit at least 9.5 billion by 2100, if not more, because China’s birthrate data has become more accurate since it dropped its one-child policy, wherein many wouldn’t register a first birth, especially of a girl. But for some reason, this question of “fertility”, and with it the future of certain forms of species growth, seems to matter more than the question of what it means to be part of a family of eight billion here and now.
On the day that we may or may not have added our eight-billionth human being, a rocket used as part of Ukrainian air defense* fell on a small town near the Ukraine border, killing two Polish people on NATO-backed territory. Ethiopia’s government made small strides toward honoring a crucial truce with Tigray, in attempts to bring a brutal war to its end. A jailed pro-democracy activist in Egypt, which is hosting this year’s international climate change conference, was announced to have ended his hunger strike. US President Joe Biden met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while past-president Donald Trump filed paperwork for a 2024 presidential run.
And in homes all over the world, more quotidian major events played out. Many elderly people spent most of their days without touch. Veterans contemplated suicide. Children were neglected or actively thrust into abusive scenarios. Indigenous communities shared stories of struggle and passed on endangered languages. Parents literally sold organs to pay for food. Freshly evicted people adjusted to life on the street. Folks struggled to get the medication they need to manage illness and disability. Everyday workers were petty. Everyday bosses were worse. Medical staff brought life into the world, and eased our transit from it. Drunk people celebrated key life events. Humans whose disabilities make it difficult for them to process the idea of key life events at all still felt their joys in the moment, existing near people they recognize as safe. Online commentators tried to get a rise out of each other for the fun of it. Someone, anyone, chose for one fleeting moment to be kind.
Eight billion human beings.
What does it mean?
What’s the point of quantifying “us” if we haven’t the vocabulary to reflect on what being us truly signifies? Is this a time to be discussing fertility rates, and asking when we’ll hit the next magical number on this arbitrary timescale?
Or is this a chance to step back, take a beat, and reflect on the strange fact of our family—the human species—and what we have made of our fleeting presence on this planet?
Today there are eight billion of us. (Maybe.)
The bigger question is: what mark will we leave, while we’re here at all?
*In the initial fog of war, the Polish tragedy was feared to be the result of Russian action, which could have had grave implications for NATO countries. The implement of destruction, most likely an S-300 rocket, is now considered to have gone astray in Ukrainian air defense actions against Russian attack.