Samantha Sharf | Making 7 billion voices count
Elements of Style | The world now has 7 billion people; how can they all be heard?
November 2, 2011, 1:47 am·
Elements of Style
As of Monday, you are one of 7 billion people on Earth.
Start counting out loud: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…
According to a video by National Geographic, you would have to keep counting for 200 years to reach 7 billion. And according to CNN, 7 billion seconds ago happened in 1789 — the year George Washington was elected president of the United States and the year the French Revolution began.
In other words, the figure is nearly unfathomable in any tangible sense. Despite the abstract, almost theoretical nature of such an immense sum, this milestone is a rare example of a modern event that truly involves every one of us. The only others I can think of are New Year’s Day and Oct. 12, 1999 — the day the world’s population hit six billion.
In line with the public debate since 1804, when the world’s population is believed to have hit one billion, much of the media coverage this week has focused on topics like food and fertility. Does the planet have ample resources to feed a constantly growing population? Should more of the world establish family-planning laws like China’s one-child policy?
It seems trite to say these issues are important. Of course they are. At least hundreds of people from dozens of countries have written more eloquently than I could on these questions and others. National Geographic is even running a stunning yearlong series looking at population. I haven’t, however, heard many questions about freedom or expression. How can 7 billion voices be heard? How can 7 billion individual sets of desires be met?
As Penn students, we have a permanent platform to speak our minds. Most professors will ask for your opinion at least once in a while. We can stand on Locust Walk and shout our beliefs to our hearts’ content. And any student can have her writing published in The Daily Pennsylvanian or one of the dozens of other publications on campus. Our pending degrees open doors we will never be aware we are walking through. This abundance of freedom makes it easy to ignore the silence imposed on most of the world.
According to the Newseum, only 15 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with a completely free press (just over 1 billion people). As residents of a nation that guarantees free press and free speech, we take for granted how easy it is to log onto sites like Facebook or Twitter and update our social spheres on our slightest whim.
Facebook boasts roughly 800 million active users. That is only 11.4 percent of the world’s population. Such statistics are impressive for any business, but for the platform where the free world carries on its daily conversation, the number is less awe-inspiring.
Lately we have heard a lot about the 1 percent, that small fraction of Americans who control such a huge fraction of the national wealth. According to data recently released by the Internal Revenue Service, the limit for entering the 1 percent in 2009 was $343,927. But the phrase has been used more for its symbolic worth than its specific value.
So today I want to use my very large stage to coin a new symbolic phrase: “the expressive 1 percent.” We Penn students and Occupy movement protesters fall comfortably within this bracket. That’s a lot of power; you don’t need to spend it all in one place.
So, in between fighting for economic equality or for your dream job, stand up for free speech. Give a voice to the billions of world citizens who are not as fortunate.
The population is expected to grow another billion in roughly 14 years. If we fight to move beyond the status quo and refuse to be blinded by our own freedom, there is no reason 8 billion voices can’t ring loudly by then.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is email@example.com. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.