Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughts on World Population Day

world population day, natural resources, 7 billion people
People gather to get water from a well in the Indian state of Gujarat. Population growth is putting pressure on the world’s resources.  Image credit: Reuters

This year, World Population Day, July 11, fell on the same day as Major League Baseball's All-Star Game and it's not hard to figure out which one was "trending" on the Internet. Raising awareness about the All-Star Game, as far as I can tell, has no long-term consequences, while a dialogue about securing reproductive health and family planning options for the world's women affects the entire future well-being of people both in developed and in developing countries.

Last fall, Forbes columnist Erica Gies wrote a column on not having kids, arguing that the 7 billion and counting people in the world are consuming resources at a rate that can't be sustained. She's also sure that her kids' quality of life will be worse than her own so she can't bring them into the world in good conscience. It's easy to see that we live on a finite planet and that our resources are also finite. But we continue to think that population growth and economic growth can be sustained indefinitely. It just doesn't add up.

The projections are for the global population to reach 9 billion by mid-century -- that's 2 billion more people than today. If you think our natural resources are stressed and stretched now, then wait until 2050. Maybe it's better then to move population growth issues to the front burner and not reach 9 billion in the first place. Kudos to the Gates foundation for making family planning part of their strategy. According to their pamphlet, over 200 million women worldwide who want to use contraceptives don't have access to them (see the annual number of abortions below).

At the end of her essay, Gies links to "Worldometers", which gives a running population ticker as well as many other related social, energy and environment tickers. I encourage you to see the tickers spin for yourself but some numbers (rounded, as they change rapidly) are below:

Births this year: 70,000,000
Deaths this year: 30,000,000
Net population growth: 40,000,000
Abortions this year: 22,000,000
Deaths of children under five this year: 4,000,000
People with no safe drinking water source: 900,000,000

Forest loss this year (hectares): 2,800,000 (about the area of Massachusetts)
Desertification this year (hectares): 6,400,000 (about the area of West Virginia)
CO2 emissions this year (tons): 18,000,000,000

Other numbers: more bikes are being produced than cars, there are 50% more overweight people than undernourished people, cellular phones sold today outsold tv sets worldwide 6 to 1, and far too many women (182,000) died in childbirth this year. 

We can reuse and reduce as much as we want, and we should, but if we keep allowing our own numbers to increase then we're going to overwhelm the natural resources and be in a much more difficult place than we are now. And all the All-Star Games in the world won't save us.

So what can you do? Find a way to celebrate World Population Day (it doesn't matter that it was yesterday). Help put population growth and women's reproductive health on the radar of the blogosphere, the mass media, pop culture and ultimately, government and international policy. Here's a positive news item from the good people at the Huffington Post, and some suggestions from the good people at the Feministing community. Dave Gardner, who produced the documentary Growthbusters, has also put together a great resource of videos. Check them out!


  1. It's never too late to write about overpopulation, so thank you for doing so. Thanks for this insightful post. It makes so much sense!

    Another great resource is Robert Engelman's 9 Population Strategies to Stop Short of 9 Billion. You can find some things you can do right there. Plus (from the shameless plug department) you can organize a screening of GrowthBusters in your community, to shake people out of their stupor.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  2. Hi Dave, Thanks very much for writing. I saw you mentioned Engelman's post on your Facebook wall and I put it up there under "front burner". I've watched the trailer for your film and wanted to show it last semester but we ran out of time. It's on my list so thanks for the reminder.

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