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Why World Population is a Human Rights Issue


By Jennie Wetter

Today was World Population Day, and the planet celebrated by registering 165 new births every minute.  Global population is currently 7.2 billion and counting, and projected to grow to 10.9 billion by 2100.

If that sounds like a lot, consider this:   Those estimates are only valid if fertility rates, which have declined in recent decades, continue to drop.   That’s a big “if.”   If fertility rates fail to decline further,  the world population could soar to 27 billion!  Here is a new set of shareable infographics and short information that explains this.

The infographics make it clear that there’s a vital link between keeping birth rates falling and fighting hunger, poverty and environmental damage.  Rapid population growth has already complicated efforts to reduce poverty and eliminate hunger in Africa, whose population of 1.1 billion is expected to more than double by 2050.

Over the next year the United Nations will be crafting its post 2015 development agenda. This plan will decide where the world commits its resources. Part of that process is happening next week at the United Nations where the Open Working Group will meet for the 13th and final time to craft the Sustainable Development Goals before official negotiations begin. We don’t yet know whether they will include universal access to reproductive health care and contraception, but they absolutely should, because that’s  key to keeping fertility rates declining. If they don’t, the consequences of letting the population triple or quadruple are unthinkable.

As it is, with 7.2 billion of us on the planet,  one out of eight of us experiences hunger. We’ve made great strides in reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty, but there are still 1.2 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day, and 2.4 billion people living on less than $2.00 a day. This means over a billion people are hovering on the edge of extreme poverty.

We already we use more resources than nature can renew each year.  Every year that continues,  we apply more pressure to the planet.  The atmosphere gets more saturated with greenhouse gasses, forests and rivers shrink, water levels fall, and fisheries collapse. The Global Footprint Network estimates that by 2030 we will need two Earths to meet our demand for renewable resources, and if everyone in the world lived like the average American, we would need at least five planets to support us.

These trends are already unsustainable now.  Imagine how they’ll track if global population growth accelerates.

Thankfully, for the time being, fertility rates are falling.. In 1989, when the first World Population Day was declared, women worldwide were having an average of 3.3 children.  Today that average is down to 2.5. More and more women are using contraceptives and that is a great thing for women, their families, communities and the planet.

But many women around the world who need them still can’t get access to them.  Some 287,000 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every year. We could cut that to 105,000 women a year just by meeting the unmet need for contraceptives.  The United Nations estimates that there are 222 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of birth control. Getting them contraceptives would only $3.5 billion a year – less than FIFA will make this year on the World Cup!

We also need to empower girls and women, make sure they’re allowed to stay in school and not forced to become child brides. They need to be able to make informed choices about using family planning services and have children by choice, not by chance.

In moving forward on the post-2015 development agenda we need to recommit ourselves to a healthier and more sustainable world, and that begins by promoting gender equality and providing universal access to family planning and reproductive health services. It’s a rights and health issue, but it’s also a matter of survival for us all.  If fertility rates stop declining and the population quadruples, there won’t be any sustainable development.

Jennie Wetter is the Population Institute's director of public policy.

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