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Opinion

Sustainable population, minus the control

Empowering women will naturally restore balance.

By Robert Engelman / July 10, 2009



New York

In an era of warming climates and cooling economies, Malthusian limits to growth look to be not just real but hard upon us. More people once meant more innovation. Now it just seems to mean less for each: Less water for cattle herders in the Horn of Africa. Less land for farmers from the Philippines to Guatemala. Less atmosphere to absorb the heat-trapping gases the global economy exhales. Less energy and food. And if the world's economy doesn't bounce back, fewer jobs.

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This predicament brings back an old sore topic: human population and what, if anything, to do about it. Not that any immediate respite is possible. There are nearly 6.8 billion of us today and more on the way. To make a dent in these problems in the short term without throwing anyone overboard, we'll need to radically reduce individuals' footprint on the environment through improved technologies and, for the well-off, a downshift in lifestyle.

Raw population growth is worrisome enough. Rising consumption rates make it more so. As nations develop, their consumption – and its environmental harm – rises. The average American consumes many times the resources the average African does. Americans are just 4.5 percent of world population, but there are 1.2 billion people in industrialized countries. And another 2.4 billion people in China and India are clambering up the consumption ladder. Today's rapid growth in consumption on top of rapid population growth is a one-two punch that has the environment reeling.

One obvious need is to cut individual consumption rates – somehow. But until the world's population stops growing, there will be no end to the consumption squeeze. With the 9 billion people demographers project by 2050, even a global average lifestyle such as South Africa's could be unsustainable. Acting on both population and individual consumption consistently and simultaneously is the key to long-term environmental sustainability. For the sake of the poor, let alone the rest of the world, we'd be better off if population ended its growth soon and moved gradually to a level lower than today's.

For most of the public, slowing population means "population control," as in China. But the concept of "control" is, for good reason, anathema to most people. As it happens, it's actually more effective to address population based on our right to decide for ourselves if and when to have children. The basis for action is something that also makes sense for other reasons: Make unintended childbirth as rare as possible. The benefits ripple out from women's lives in particular to all of humanity and to nature.

The idea is hardly new. At a United Nations Conference in Cairo in 1994, almost all the world's nations agreed to reject population control and instead help every woman bear a child in good health when she wants one.

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