jack-o'-lantern planetThe world population will hit 7 billion on Halloween of 2011, according to a guesstimate from the U.N. Who knew those goons with the black helicopters had such a macabre sense of humor?

So, should you be scared?

On the one hand, does the number 7 billion really matter? Didn’t we stop worrying about population decades ago when overblown predictions of global famine failed to come to pass? Aren’t birthrates declining all over the world, with some rich countries actually starting to shrink? Can’t technology enable more people to live better on fewer resources? Don’t we have bigger problems to worry about — the economy, war, human rights, Toddlers & Tiaras?

On the other hand, in an age of runaway climate change and peak oil and water scarcity and disappearing biodiversity, is population growth more worrisome than ever? Shouldn’t it be particularly concerning in countries rife with gas-guzzlers and giant flat-screen TVs? What about new projections that our numbers could rise to 10 billion by the end of the century or even higher? And, considering that 215 million women around the world want to prevent pregnancy but aren’t using modern contraception, shouldn’t we be focusing more on family planning, not less?

Is population really such a big f*%@ing deal? Or is it just a big deal being made about f*%@ing?

Sex is, of course, at the heart of population, one of many reasons why people get so touchy about the topic. Population also runs up against issues of gender, race, class, aging, colonialism, poverty, consumption, contraception, abortion, immigration, religion. You name a hot-button issue, it’s mixed up in there somewhere.

In this special series on population, we’re exploring different angles, aspects, and opinions in pieces by Grist writers and outside thinkers. Check out the menu at right for all the offerings.

We’d also like to hear from you, in comments below, on Facebook, on Twitter, by owl. Please, though, keep it civil and respectful. Feelings run high around these issues; let’s have our discourse run high too.

graph of population growthGraph: Science

Also see past Grist posts on population: