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As world population passes 7 billion, two strategies make for a sustainable future

Ensuring that women make their own choices about child-bearing and cutting waste are two important ways to ease the challenges of a more populous world.

By Nourishing the Planet / October 31, 2011

A nurse takes care of a newborn baby in a hospital in Fuzhou in southeast China's Fujian Province on Monday. As the world's population hits 7 billion Oct. 31, the United Nations has urged the global community to invest in the health and education of children.

Liu Tao/FeatureChina/Newscom

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As the global population surpasses 7 billion people sometime around the end of October, addressing the challenges associated with a still-growing world population will require a two-pronged response.

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The combined measures of empowering women to make their own decisions about childbearing and significantly reducing global consumption of energy and natural resources would move humanity toward, rather than further away from, environmentally sustainable societies that meet human needs.

Roughly 4.5 billion people have been added to the world population in just the last 60 years, according to United Nations estimates, putting increased strain on the world’s ecosystems and resources. Because humans interact with their surroundings far more intensely than any other species and use vast amounts of carbon, nitrogen, water, and other resources, we are on track not only to change the global climate and deplete essential energy and other natural resources, but to wipe out thousands of plant and animal species in the coming decades.

To some extent, these outcomes are now unavoidable; we’ll have to adapt to them. But in order to improve the likelihood they will not be catastrophic, we need to simultaneously work to influence the future path of population and to address the environmental and social impacts that continued population growth will have.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched 7 Billion Actions, a campaign to highlight positive actions by individuals and organizations addressing global development challenges. By sharing these innovations in an open forum, the campaign aims to foster communication and collaboration as the planet becomes more populated and increasingly interdependent.

Addressing global population growth is not the same thing as "controlling population." The most direct and immediate way to lower birth rates is to make sure that as high a proportion as possible of pregnancies are intended, by assuring that women can make their own choices about whether and when to bear a child.

Simultaneously, we need to rapidly transform our energy, water, and materials consumption through greater use of conservation, efficiency, and green technologies. We shouldn’t think of these as sequential efforts – dealing with consumption first, then waiting for population dynamics to turn around – but rather as simultaneous tasks on multiple fronts.

Worldwatch recommends two main approaches to mitigate the impacts of a soaring global population:

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