World population hits 7 billion, but there are easy ways to curb growth

Water, food, and resource shortages, environmental degradation, poverty – population growth is endangering people and planet alike. By 2050 we'll need two planets just to contain us. The good news: Population growth does not have to rise as fast as projected.

The United Nations reports that world population today will reach the 7 billion mark just 12 years after the 6 billion level was crossed. And if UN projections prove correct, world population will reach 8 billion in just 13 years and 9.3 billion by mid-century.

The big question is whether humanity is getting too big and, in the process, endangering the well-being of people, posterity, and the planet. The Global Footprint Network warns that humanity is already living beyond the Earth’s capacity to regenerate resources, and that by 2050 we will need two planets to keep pace with population and rising consumption. The good news, however, is that, if we take the right steps, population growth does not have to rise as fast as currently projected.

Curbing population growth must be an urgent priority for all nations. Indeed, there’s ample evidence to suggest that humanity is already putting too much stress on the world’s environment. Rising temperatures and the increasing frequency of severe weather suggest that we may be altering the Earth’s climate. Add to that the depletion of ocean fisheries, the steady lowering of water levels, desertification, and the rapid rate of species extinction, and it’s obvious that we are flirting with environmental disaster.

We may also be approaching limits to economic growth. In the 12 years since we reached the 6 billion mark, oil prices have soared from just over $10 a barrel to nearly $100 a barrel today. Also, the price of grains and other basic foodstuffs have more than doubled in the past seven years, contributing to major setbacks in the fights against hunger and severe poverty. With nearly 1 billion hungry people in the world, fears grow that food production may not be able to keep pace with projected population growth.

The Food and Agriculture Organization says that food production in developing countries will have to double in the next 39 years to keep pace with population. To do that, farmers in those countries will have to overcome several hurdles, including the rising costs of fuel and fertilizer, hotter temperatures, more record flooding and drought, the loss of top soil, and the competition for arable land from urbanization and biofuels.

But we're not doomed. And here’s why.

It doesn’t cost trillions of dollars to expand family planning options for women in developing countries. The UN estimates that there are 215 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of birth control. The UN estimates that providing them with access to contraceptives would cost $3.5 billion additionally a year, a fraction of the $125 billion that the US and other donor nations spend annually on aid to developing nations.

Lack of access to contraceptives, however, is only one of the reasons that women are not able to prevent pregnancies in developing countries. The larger challenge is delaying the age of marriage. Child marriages lead to early and dangerous pregnancies and high birth rates. Shockingly, an average of 25,000 girls a day become child brides. In rural Yemen, for example, girls are often married at the age of 9 or 10. That is why a group of former presidents and world leaders, called the Elders, has launched the international “Girls Not Brides” campaign aimed at ending the practice of child brides through partnerships with aid and nongovernmental organizations all over the world.

Child marriage is already illegal in most countries. What is urgently needed are programs that make it worthwhile for parents to keep their girls in school. The UN’s World Food Programme, for example, provides school lunches for girls and, in some cases, allows food to be taken home.

There are also proven, low-cost strategies for changing social norms. Targeted efforts aimed at ending such harmful practices as foot-binding in China and female genital mutilation in Senegal have been successful. Similarly, by role-modeling the benefits of smaller families and delaying marriage, entertainment programs have achieved transformational results in countries such as Mexico and Brazil. Today, radio soap operas reaching remote villages in poor developing countries can inform women about their family planning options, and improve attitudes and behaviors towards girls and women.

Combined with family planning services and information, these kinds of education and social-change campaigns can lower birth rates, decrease maternal and child mortality, empower women, boost food security, improve economic prospects, and save the environment.

Some have argued that because of declining birth rates, concerns about population growth are a thing of the past. But hitting the 7 billion milestone is no reason to “pop the champagne,” as one commentator suggested.

In a world struggling with climate change and rising energy and food costs, we underestimate the impact of population growth at our peril. But it’s not an insurmountable challenge, and addressing it would constitute a "win-win-win" proposition for people, posterity, and the planet.

Robert J. Walker is the executive vice president of the Population Institute, a nonprofit organization seeking to achieve a world population that can live in harmony with the planet.

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