Stabilize Global Population

If any sustainable balance among the world's biodiversity, ecological systems, and humans is to be found, we must stabilize human pop-

Earth Day 1990
Students clean litter from the roadside in Colorado on Earth Day 1990. Once we accept the importance of maintaining biodiversity and understand our dominant position in the biosphere, we must also accept the responsibility of caring for the planet. (D. Robert and Lorri Franz/Corbis)

ulation. Although the consumption of the world's resources is dominated by the minority of people living in the rich, developed countries, the needs of the growing billions living elsewhere are taking an enormous toll on the global environment. Humans already capture more than a third of the earth's terrestrial productivity and more than half of the world's freshwater. As food production has doubled in the last thirty-five years, we now release more nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment than all natural sources combined (Vitousek et al., 1997). Simply feeding the world's people requires that food production increase at the same pace as population. Almost a billion hectares of land will be converted for crops and pastures between now and 2050—roughly half of the remaining suitable land (Tilman et al., 2001).

Human population grew gradually from the dawn of human civilization until roughly 1800, when for the first time there were 1 billion people on the planet. It took less than 200 years to add the second billion (which occurred around 1930), and since then the billion-people milestones have passed quickly on the path to 6.1 billion humans in 2002. World population is expected to swell from 6.1 billion to roughly 9.3 billion in 2050. All of that growth will occur in the world's developing nations. According to the UN Population Division, the population in the forty-nine least developed nations will almost triple from 668 million to 1.86 billion by 2050 (United Nations, 2001). The pressure on natural resources and biodiversity in these poorest regions of the world promises to be crushing, as more and more people scrape for shelter, land to farm, and firewood for cooking in a self-reinforcing cycle of environmental degradation and poverty. Even water, the most basic of needs, will soon become a scarcely available commodity to almost half of the world's people (UNFPA, 2001).

Fortunately, there are many actions we can take that will help bring about demographic transitions in the fastest growing nations and bring us closer to attaining a stable population. The following is a partial list of some of those actions:

1. Improve the educational and political status of women. Women around the world have less access to education than men and fewer opportunities to participate in the political process, and they often do not have the right to own property or earn income. Two-thirds of the world's roughly

1 billion illiterate adults are women. Just 12 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide are held by women. Studies have repeatedly shown a correlation between higher levels of education among women and smaller, healthier families. Similarly, when women are able to enter the political process, family-friendly and family-planning legislation is more often enacted ( Population Reference Bureau, 2001). When women are intellectually, economically, and politically empowered, they can make decisions about how many children they wish to have.

2. Improve the survival and health of children. The African leader Julius Nyere is often quoted as saying that "the most powerful contraceptive is the confidence by parents that their children will survive" (Gore, 1992, p. 313). Low infant mortality rates and improved prospects for healthy children who grow to adulthood allow parents to have smaller families while still ensuring that there will be enough children on hand to care for their parents, run family businesses, and carry on family names.

3. Provide easy access to family planning resources. When parents are educated in family planning options and when access to a variety of contraceptives is readily available, family size becomes a matter of reason and decision rather than one of chance or ignorance. Education on spaced births, delayed marriage, breastfeeding, and other cultural institutions as well as birth control measures all combine to allow parents to choose when and whether to start families and how large those families will be.

Turning the tide of population growth has been a highly politicized topic in much of the world. Some argue that encouraging family planning goes against the tenets of a number of the world's religions. Others make the point that developed nations ought not to demand that the people in developing nations have fewer babies while the environmental impact of a single child gobbling energy and resources in the United States, for example, is equal to that of dozens of children born to peasants in Cambodia. Although these may be valid arguments, few arguments can seriously call into question the goals of alleviating poverty, increasing the health and survival of children and mothers, and reducing the rate of population growth in the poorest nations.

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