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A Letter to #7,000,000,000

Planet Earth is the only home we have ever known, and it's likely to remain that way for a very, very long time. It's an inaccessible universe and we, your ancestors, have poked some big holes in this shared life raft. It's deflating fast!
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October 31, 2011

Dear #7,000,000,000,

Welcome to our world! The only place in the known universe where life, in 15 million varieties, colors and forms exist.

First, congratulations -- life for humans has never been better. You will live longer than ever before in a relatively free society. The chance of you encountering the pointy end of an axe, sword, or bullet is, happily, vanishingly small.

You have better opportunities for an education and decent health than at any time in our short, brutish history. If you are a girl, and the odds are a little bit in favor of you being a girl, you will likely be able to pick whom you marry or don't marry, dream of and achieve the highest political offices on any continent, and decide when and how many (I am betting one or two) kids you will have.

The best news of all is that for say, $50, you can have at your fingertips virtually all the collective knowledge of the human race. Oh, what magic Darwin or Edison would have performed with such powers? You also have the unprecedented ability to reach just about anyone, as friend or collaborator and with that collective might you can build what you care about and take down that which oppresses.

Your inheritance is not too shabby right? But there is a catch..

Planet Earth is the only home we have ever known, and it's likely to remain that way for a very, very long time. It's an inaccessible universe and we, your ancestors, have poked some big holes in this shared life raft. It's deflating fast!

This age, the Anthropocene, has come at a cost and the debt will continue to grow well into the lives of your children. For starters, we are running out of fresh water. It's too thinly distributed. It's not what we drink that worries me so much. It's all the stuff we make and the food we eat that truly gobbles up water. By the time you are a teen, two-thirds of our planet will be in a state of permanent water scarcity.

We are running out of our ability to grow crops ever more efficiently. Phosphorous, which we mine and use for crops, is running out and there is no easy way to make it. There is only about half an acre of productive cropland on the planet for every person on earth, about half of what we need. We are also in big trouble with the fish we eat. Not only is catching fish hard, but many fish are loaded with poisons that are really bad for little kids like you.

Our quest for energy has created the biggest worry of all. We unlock energy that releases way too much carbon dioxide. The result: a rise in the temperature of the earth, a rapid rise in our sea level, and droughts in some of the places that can afford it the least. Even the oceans are turning acidic. If you find yourself near a desert or a coastline, move!

Personally, what I lament the most is that you may not get to see and benefit from the variety of life we have today. There is a good chance that the tigers and rhinos of your youth will eclipse into myth, like unicorns, in the memory of your children. For want of a few dollars, that never made anyone rich, we are about to condemn all future generations to eternal poverty.

So what must you do?

Well, when I was born, the world had exactly half the number of people it has today. Being environmentally conscious was a luxury then; today, it's a necessity.

#7,000,000,000, if you've got siblings, you'll learn this right away -- you have to share. The most common shared things on this planet are not roads, or buildings -- rather they are air, water, grazing land, oceans and wildlife. Protect these shared resources at all cost.

Take care of the water we use -- once it's gone, it's very hard to get it back. The good news is that we have the technology to save water, on farms, and in factories. The jeans I am wearing cost 2,000 gallons of water to produce. If everyone wanted a pair of jeans, we would use up 14 trillion gallons of water. Jeans are a wonderful invention, but I don't think we need so much water to make a pair, do you?

Encourage your government to create jobs by making more efficient the places we live and work in. Invest massively in energy efficiency and clean energy that does not rely solely on turning dinosaur remains into light bulbs. Our future depends on it.

Be conscious of what you eat and what you buy. If you have a choice, use it to send a message; companies will listen. They know that on a crowded planet sustainability equals availability (of resources). Half the world is malnourished, and eating smart saves lives.

Do all you can to care for the other 99 percent: the plants and critters that inhabit the earth. They are fellow travelers, and our only friends, in a cold, dark universe. Our future happiness depends on it.

Above all, treat other humans with empathy. There is room enough for all of us -- but only if we hear, truly hear what others are saying.

This isn't all on you. You didn't cause all these problems -- after all, you just got here -- and it's not up to you to solve them. Luckily, there are 6,999,999,999 other humans on our planet who will have to chip in as well.

Don't get depressed, okay? Yes, the challenges are formidable but no time in human history has there been a greater awareness and opportunity for transformation. There are now seven billion people on Earth. People are smart. We can figure this out.

(Aka Sanjayan)

Watch Sanjayan discuss the world's growing population on NBC Nightly News.

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