The 7 billionth baby was born on 31st October in Lucknow, India and by the time you read this, the world will have gone past the 7 billion mark. Author of The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University recently gave an interview where he emphasized that global population has more than doubled since he wrote the book in 1968. He notes that although there has been a reduction in birth rates, it is not nearly enough.
It is projected that the Earth will have to support 2 billion additional people by 2050. Regarding this he says:
“To support 2 billion more, it will be necessary to farm ever poorer lands, use more dangerous and expensive agricultural inputs, win metals from ever-poorer ores, drill wells deeper or tap increasingly remote or more contaminated sources to obtain water, and then spend more energy to transport that water ever greater distances. All this will require vastly more energy than is now used. As a result, the next 2 billion people probably will do disproportionately much more damage to our life-support systems than did the last 2 billion. Of course, if humanity got serious about protecting the environment, and now especially the atmosphere, the next 2 billion could do less damage.”
Population growth has a direct impact on sustainable development. Yet, very often the connection is not being made nor is it talked about. The UN released a report that emphasizes the need for careful planning to support our growing population. These include supporting education, women’s welfare, and urban planning, and addressing water shortages, as well as ensuring access to healthcare. It notes that there are reasons to rejoice – falling fertility rates as well as an increase in life expectancy denotes that many educational and healthcare initiatives have taken effect.
Fred Pearce recently wrote a thought-provoking article in The Guardian about falling birth rates and increase in the ageing demographic.
He points out that the “average woman in the world today has half as many children as her mother or grandmother did 40 years ago: 2.5 children, compared to five. And the number keeps on going down. Dozens of countries are already below two, including Iran, Burma, Vietnam, China of course – and much of southern India, too.”
He notes that world population will hit a peak by mid-century and then decline afterwards. However, global ageing is a certainty as illustrated by Italy and Japan. This, he says, will actually contribute towards lower resource usage as economic productivity falls.
In order to tackle the problem of population growth, political intervention is desperately needed. It can be noted that China’s one-child policy is not entirely successful because it does lead to secondary problems like skewed sex-ratios as well as a spike in rates of female foeticide. Similar systems, therefore, cannot be introduced in countries like India and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, increases in outreach programs, sex education, access to contraception, and planned abortion can all help towards preventing unwanted births. In May of this year, it was estimated that 40 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. If a country with economic resources, quality of life and sex education has such a high number of unwanted births, it is unrealistic to expect countries with little to no resources to do better.
It is an alarming trend that population rates tend to be highest in underdeveloped countries. Even in developed countries, poorer neighbourhoods tend to have higher rates of unwanted pregnancy and births. The direct correlation between education, access to contraception and women’s empowerment therefore makes a powerful case for preventing unwanted pregnancies. The BBC has launched a micro-site so that you can figure out where you stand in this mass of 7 billion.
Unless population increase is talked about and tackled head-on, sustainable development and meeting the Millenium Development Goals will continue to take the back seat.