Today, July 11th 2011, marks the 23rd annual World Population Day, instituted by the United Nations to highlight the impacts of population growth on people and the environment. Governments, universities and public-interest groups the world over will hold educational forums and other events to stress the need to stabilize human numbers. The world’s population is expected to reach seven billion at the turn of 2011-12. As that time draws near, a Malthusian disaster will certainly develop. Panic that the world is overpopulated has been increasing, caused both by the persistent rise in the number of people and by concerns about climate change and strain on resources.
Some quick figures: human population took approximately 250,000 years to reach 1 billion (in the early 19th century). More than a century passed before it reached 2 billion (in 1927). Yet, the next billion took only 33 years (1927-60). The one after that, 14 years. The following two stages, to 5 billion and then 6 billion, took 13 and 12 years, in that order. Yet, the increase from 6 billion to 7 billion will be the last to happen in such a short space of time. The next billion will take slightly longer – 13 or 14 years – and the billion after that, which raises the population to 9 billion, will take 20 to 25 years. By that time, around 2050, the momentum will be slowing towards zero – and the world will be hopefully approaching a roughly stable population for the first time in centuries.
The epoch of shortening time lapses is by now over, even if the absolute size of the population is still on the rise. Momentum matters massively in demography. Large families in an earlier generation equal more mothers in the current one and hence more children, even if families are smaller and the fundamental drive towards growth has dwindled. It takes another generation before the upshot of smaller families, starts to show up in the general population figures. The total size of the population has gone on rising because it still reflects the momentum of the 1960s and 1970s or the baby-boom period in America and Europe along with the very high birth rates in developing countries.
How could 9 or even 7 billion possibly be sustainable, I cannot help but wonder? The linkages between population and climate change are often complex. Yet, as the growth of population, economies and consumption outpaces the Earth’s capacity to adjust, climate change could become plausibly cataclysmic. According to WWF, the world will require an extra planet in 20 years’ time if it continues gobbling up resources as it does now. It is clear – a variety of environmental problems – from climate change to species loss to overzealous resource extraction – are either partially caused or exacerbated by population growth. We are already well into overshoot of the planet’s capacity to sustain us.
“Trends such as the loss of half of the planet’s forests, the depletion of most of its major fisheries, and the alteration of its atmosphere and climate are closely related to the fact that human population expanded from mere millions in prehistoric times to over six billion today,” says Robert Engelman of Population Action International. According to Population Connection, population growth since 1950 is the cause for the clearing of 80 percent of rainforests, the loss of tens of thousands of species, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions of some 400 percent and the expansion or commercialization of as much as half of the Earth’s surface land. Also, heavy-consumption lifestyle drains resources at an alarming rate – take the example of the USA that represents 4 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 25% of the overall consumption. Crikey!
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So what are the possible solutions – access to contraception, support to family planning, taxes, a revolution? In the recent Global demographic trends and future carbon emissions paper by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, speedier economic development is not the only factor, or a necessary one, in aiding population decline. Policies can also considerably influence fertility trends. While the suitability of policies that hearten even lower fertility in countries where it is already low is contentious and would require reflection over the tradeoffs related to increased aging, in other regions, there are several such policies already deemed attractive in their own right.
According to the movement Global Population Speakout, powerful taboos remain when it comes to speaking about population. Vested interests, both fiscal and ideological, prefer it when population discussions remain hot and off-limits. If these taboos are permitted to dictate, we really have little chance of coming together, as a global society, and attaining a truly sustainable world.
Let’s use this day, World Population Day, as a chance to discuss solutions to the problem, such as universal access to birth control and family planning and a worldwide campaign to empower women and provide them with needed resources to control their reproductive futures.