The United Nations recently revealed an updated forecast of worldwide population. Latest statistics show that human population growth is occurring faster than previous projections had estimated. According to the UN’s current best guess, we are headed for 9.6 billion by mid-century (up from the previous estimate of 8.9 billion) reaching 10.6 billion by 2100. (World population is presently 7.2 billion.)
Scientists have been concerned for decades about the effects that rising population and consumption are having on the world. The Earth has amazing regenerative capabilities, but as is documented by Global Footprint Network, we have been in “overshoot” since the 1970s. That is, we have been taking more than the Earth can provide us at her measured pace– more groundwater, more trees, more fishes, more metals, more fossil fuels, etc.. We quickly spend the natural dividends, and each year go deeper into the capital. First world nations, despite having smaller populations, consume the lion’s share of resources.
It’s hard for anything to keep up with our population growth. A May article from the Thomson Reuters Foundation praised human progress, but added this sobering note:
In the last 10 years, 1.7 billion people around the world gained access to electricity. But the world’s population grew by 1.6 billion over that same period, nearly wiping out the gains. Similarly, rising energy demand effectively eliminated half the energy efficiency savings and 70 percent of the gains from growth in renewable energy over the past decade.
In addition to pressure on resources to keep us fed, clothed, housed and “energized,” one of the saddest things about our population boom is the unintended impact our unplanned expansion has on other earthly creatures. The journal Human Ecology just published a study by Dr. Jeffrey McKee and colleagues from Ohio State University confirming– if you had any doubt–the effect of our continual growth on Earth’s biodiversity. From The Telegraph, Dr. McKee:
There is no doubt that a multitude of factors go into diminishing the availability of resources that mammals and birds need to survive as viable species.
Our results demonstrate that human population density is at the core of extinction threats to both mammals and birds.
Resource depletion and extinctions don’t have to become a major crisis if we plan expeditiously for population stability– a replacement fertility rate, or even a rate aiming for a gradual population decline. If we made a conscious effort to match the rate of births to the rate of deaths, human population would stabilize, perhaps allowing us to find a sustainable balance with Earth’s generous ecosystems.
Why aren’t we going all out for population stability goals then? An article by Robert Engelman in Yale environment 360 lays it out:
The truth is that few of us are comfortable addressing either the need to improve family planning services and sexuality education or the growth of world population itself. Population, in particular, has been off the table of public and governmental discourse for two decades. By unspoken agreement, world leaders have come to see the issue as too sensitive to bring up. The worry appears to be that it offends the anti-contraception Catholic Church, as well as some women’s rights advocates and leaders of high-fertility countries, who argue that the consumption of the wealthy is a far greater threat to humanity than continued population growth.
The new UN population projections are a blunt reminder of the consequences of our silence. No end to global population growth is in sight. Nor will one be until we resolve to act on women’s autonomy, the dignity of sex without reproduction, and the importance of a non-growing population to environmental sustainability.
Meanwhile, there are some high-profile efforts to expand the availability and use of birth control worldwide. The New York Times recently featured extensive coverage of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Grand Challenge” to develop next generation condoms that couples will actually be excited to use.
And in its efforts to preserve threatened species, the Center for Biological Diversity has gotten into the birth control advocacy game too, distributing condoms in colorful packaging designed to remind us of our power to act.
Let’s hope fun, prize-winning condoms wow us soon, but let’s not stop there. We can all do more to advocate for the empowerment and education of people and the thoughtful planning required for our best future.
Illustrations: Packaging for the Center for Biological Diversity’s condoms. Design by Lori Lieber. Artwork by Roger Peet. © 2012. All rights reserved. Reproduction or redistribution of images must be accompanied by acknowledgement of the designer and artist.