Population growth is a choice, not an inexorable force of nature. If we wish to, we can keep our population at sustainable levels. If we don’t, the forces of biology, technology and economics will keep us growing. Our descendants will not see the stars at night, have the prosperous lifestyles we can aspire to today, know farms and forests, experience wilderness and the incredible other species on the planet.
More than 7 billion people currently inhabit the planet, compared to only 3 billion in 1967. Every year about 135 million people are born and 55 million people die, adding 80 million to our global population. That’s about one United States every 4 years, or 1 billion more every 12 years. Almost half of the global population is under the age of 25 and their decisions during their reproductive years will determine whether we have 6 billion or 14 billion people by 2100.
Each person uses far more land than the few feet they actually occupy. We use cropland to grow food, grazing land for meat and dairy, oceans for fishing and oxygen generation, forests for lumber and carbon sequestration, and developed land for habitation, transportation and commerce. This is our Global Footprint. For an average European or American lifestyle, it is 10-20 acres per person.
These range from life-threatening to simply disruptive. They include:
- Over 1 billion people do not have enough food and safe drinking water.
- Global warming is disrupting our ecosystems and threatening billions of people with dislocation.
- Energy sources, from wood to oil, are becoming scarcer and harder to reach or extract.
- Due to population pressures, people now live in areas that are basically unsafe. Hundred of thousands of people died in 2010-2011 because they lived on floodplains in Pakistan or by the tsunami-prone coast of Japan.These regions were sparsely populated 30 years ago.
- Population growth shares complex ties to poverty and inequality, exacerbating the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and complicating access to Earth’s finite resources.
- In the U.S.alone, sprawl destroys 2.2 million acres of farmland, ranchland and forest every year.
- Americans spend an average of 55 workdays (2200 hours) per year stuck in traffic.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim.”
Here are 5 things that will reverse population growth nationally and worldwide.
- Empower women and families to plan how many children they want.About 200 million women in the world would prefer to delay having children but do not have access to contraceptives and reproductive healthcare. With modern life-saving medicine has come modern contraception. We need to provide services and accurate information to the people who really want it, and elect politicians who promise to do so both in the United States and worldwide.
- Education and job opportunities, especially for women. These are critical components for alleviating poverty, gender inequality and overpopulation. Studies have found that when women have more education and job opportunities, they choose to have smaller families, and are able to invest more in each child which helps break the cycle of poverty. Ask our politicians and international organizations to help provide education and jobs worldwide.
- Awareness of environmental and social cost of overpopulation. Our population is already above a sustainable level, and in many regions well above a safe and prosperous level. As people became aware of this in the 60’s and 70’s many people chose to have smaller families. Kids are truly wonderful, and caring for them is a challenging and rewarding experience. But parents can keep in mind that every person must be cared for within the constraints of the local and global environment.
- Social norms. Refrain from pressuring people to have children if they are not ready or prefer to remain childless. Some cultures value large families. This often suited a sparsely-populated farming or pastoral region, and sometimes remains as a holdover from those times. Measures can be taken to model and emphasize the benefits of smaller families. Let’s not glorify teen pregnancy with TV shows and tabloid magazines. Additionally in affluent countries, we need to shift away from a culture of excess and unsustainable consumption.
- Economic forces. Most people take their economic situation into consideration when planning their families. If they do not have housing and jobs they delay starting families. Birthrates rose during the housing bubble begining in 2002, but when the bubble burst and the 2008 recession began, birthrates dropped. Better economic policies in conjunction with slowing population growth worldwide, can help increase global prosperity. Our usual measure of economic progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has a built-in tie to population growth (i.e. more people means more economic transactions). This means GDP can rise with population while median household income (and well-being) actually declines! With the wrong measures we set the wrong goals.