Within the next few days, the world population will reach 7 billion. No matter where you live, you won’t be able to escape the dire consequences of relentless population growth.
The planet reached an unsustainable 6 billion residents in 1999, a mere tick of the clock since the Earth’s beginning. According to the United Nations, the actual sustainability level is no more than 2 billion.
During the past century, 5 billion people have been added to the planet. Since 1940, the world’s population has tripled; it’s doubled during the past five decades.
The United Nations projects that by 2050 2.3 billion will be added. More than 1 billion will live in sub-Saharan Africa while the Indian subcontinent will increase by more than 600 million. This means that the burden of coping with increasingly limited resources will fall, as it inevitably does, on poor people.
In the United States, the population will balloon from its current 309 million to 423 million. For residents overwhelmed by traffic, school and hospital overcrowding, food and energy costs (already at or near record rates), rapid urbanization and a dramatically diminished quality of life, conditions will steadily decline, assuming nothing changes, during the next 40 years.
Before the Republican Party nominates its 2012 presidential candidate next year, 13 debates will have been held. At no time during any of them will overpopulation’s effects be discussed. The Democrats won’t mention it either.
Even though we live on a finite plant that has limited resources, the challenges of controlling population growth have largely eluded public discourse especially among political leaders who should be advocating for a sensible population policy. In the United States, the mere mention of limiting population may set off charges of racism.
But demographics are not necessarily destiny. The assumption that there will be 9 billion people by 2050 isn’t cast in stone. Even small changes made by increasingly aware humans would make a difference.
The first step in the long-term solution is family planning and educational outreach, especially in developing countries, about the emotional and financial consequences of bearing too many children. While worldwide fertility rates continue to decline, adolescent pregnancies remain disturbingly high especially given the large numbers of teenage girls just now entering their peak reproductive years.
An essential component in family planning is empowering young women. The United States has, sadly, lagged in this respect. Reality television, soap operas and tabloid magazines promote child bearing as glamorous. The “baby bump” is a fashion statement instead of a symbol of the profound responsibilities to come.
In Mexico and Brazil, however, two countries that struggled with high teenage birth rates, have benefited from more informative television programming.
Harvard University professor of economics and demography David Bloom summarized the pressing need to put population front and center. Calling the demographic picture “complex” and noting that it poses “formidable challenges,” Brown nevertheless insists that nothing will be gained by “sticking our heads in the sand.”
Among the tough but not insurmountable obstacles are the unmet need for contraception for hundreds of millions of women and countering the knowledge-action gaps in child survival, as well as the need to reform retirement policies and slow global immigration.
To sit by idly, as the United States does, ensures that humankind will be put increasingly at risk from overpopulation’s perils.