It’s World Population Day. Or is that, “Over” Population Day?

This year, the number of people living on the earth will amount to 7,000,000,000. That's seven billion, more than at any other time in the history of human kind.

  To say that we're taking an environmental toll would be an understatement. Natural resources have never seemed so scarce. Every time anyone anywhere in the world burns fossil fuel like coal or oil, it makes climate change a bit worse. Our oceans are running out of fish, our forests are giving up too many trees. We seem to be drinking up every last drop of water.

These trends have been building for the last couple of hundred years. But now – this year – as we reach, and then exceed seven billion -    I can't help but wonder, how much worse are things going to get? And would the environment catch a break if we could somehow reverse population growth, rather than sit by and watch helplessly as it escalates?

Should there be fewer people?

In other words, is the solution fewer people competing for the same resources? And if so, how do you "control" population growth so that overall, population starts to shrink rather than continue to escalate?

I asked Bob Engelman, a globally recognized expert on populationwho was recently promoted to executive director of the Worldwatch Institute, what he thought in an interview after a nuclear meltdown in Japan made me wonder whether our world's population numbers are forcing us to use dangerous sources to meet skyrocketing energy demand. Here's what he said:

"When I ponder how hard it will be to save the global climate, the oceans, forests, fisheries and non-human species, the answer seems obvious. But that answer is dangerous. To say we are too many is to imply some of us should go away fast, or at least that people should be made to have fewer children than they’d like."

"That attitude is inherently unfair, as it tends to undercut poorer, disadvantaged people."

What does make sense, says Engelman, is to promote "population policies based on the right of all women to choose whether and when to bear a child" because those policies actually slow the growth of population.
"Every country that offers easy access to contraceptive and safe abortion services also has a fertility rate of two children per woman or fewer, consistent with a declining population. More than two out of five pregnancies worldwide are unintended, suggesting that a world in which women everywhere were fully in control of their childbearing would soon reverse population growth. “Soon” would come even sooner if, at the same time, women’s standing relative to men surged—in education, health, economic well-being, legal protection and political participation."

Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, seems to agree. "We have enough food for everyone, yet nearly a billion go hungry, " he says. "We have the means to eradicate many diseases, yet they continue to spread. We have the gift of a rich natural environment, yet it remains subjected to daily assault and exploitation. All people of conscience dream of peace, yet too much of the world is in conflict and steeped in armaments."

 Notes the U.N.' Secretary General, "Ending poverty and inequality unleashes vast human potential…," and presumably would help lower population growth as well.

What do you think? Are there too many people? Too few?


What's the link between population and nuclear energy?

Octuplets? Outrageous!

Why Climate Change Matters to Women

Hot, Flat and Crowded: Tom Friedman Heats Up

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3 Responses to It’s World Population Day. Or is that, “Over” Population Day?

  1. adam @ greendoglove July 13, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Shew that’s a tough subject. You are right there are a lot of people in the world and it’s putting a strain on the earth’s resources. But what is the right solution?
    I definitely agree we should give women the right to choose whether or not to bear children, along with education on contraceptives. Both of those have also been shown to decrease crime, so that’s an added benefit.
    I used to think it was obvious that decreasing the population was the obvious goal, but there are people who make the argument we should be doing the opposite. Bryan Caplan in “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” ( argues the solution will ultimately come in the form of technological breakthroughs, and by increasing the population we are increasing the chance of someone discovering one of these breakthroughs.
    Anyways, sorry for the long-winded post, this is an interesting discussion!

  2. Diane MacEachern July 14, 2011 at 5:28 am #

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful post. Unlike Bryan Caplan, I don’t believe we can rely on technology alone to help us out of this mess. That sort of shifts the burden elsewhere, doesn’t it? But it certainly would help. No matter how many of us or how few, it just makes good sense to be more efficient whenever we can – and technology can certainly help us with that.

  3. IGORoamandreport July 18, 2011 at 7:35 am #

    Generally speaking, I think population will grow as long as we have plentiful resources. That being said, it’s how we are treating and conserving our resources that will make the biggest difference. Here in America we have 5% of the world’s population but use almost a quarter of the world’s energy, so I don’t think it’s necessarily ‘overpopulation’ that’s the world’s biggest problem.

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