by Simon Ross, Chief Executive at Population Matters
Population is about both scale and detail. In terms of scale, it can be hard to grasp. There are seven billion of us now, according to the United Nations. That is twice as many as fifty years ago, and our numbers will rise by almost half again over the next seventy-five years. That must have some sort of impact. The more of us there are, the more pressure we surely put on the environment, on resources and on our own quality of life. We all know about falling fish stocks, deforestation, climate change and concerns over future supplies of food and water. Yet that impact is hard to measure. And there are other contributory factors too, including inequality, consumption rates, technological practices and government priorities, making the precise effect of population growth less clear.
Population is about detail, too. It is about how long we live and how many children we have. That is one reason why it can be a sensitive subject. Families are a very personal matter and are often tied into one’s beliefs about religion and one’s place in the world. Another reason that population can be a sensitive matter is that population can get pulled into other debates – rich vs. poor, developed vs. developing world, men vs. women and individual choice vs. social norms. These are legitimate debates, but population does not stand on one side or the other of them. It is too important a factor to be reduced to a debating point.
In much of the world, birth rates are gradually falling, and this can lead to a dangerous complacency. There remain many countries where women have few rights, are married off at an early age and have on average four or five children. The consequences can include health problems and a limited life where their full potential is not developed. Family planning programs should not be seen as something which will come along eventually as part of globalization but as an essential way of changing people’s lives for the better right now.
However, the big picture is about more than maternal health, individual rights and social development, important though these are. The world is industrializing and per capita demands on agriculture, water, energy and other resources is rising rapidly. Many of these resources are limited. While some can be developed further, climate change will limit production levels and itself is a consequence of rising human activity. In the long term, we can only achieve reasonable living standards for all and sustain the biodiversity of other species if we think in terms of overall human numbers falling, not rising, from their current levels.
That brings us back to the detail, to individuals choosing to have smaller families as part of an environmentally conscious lifestyle. In developing countries, with currently high birth rates and low consumption levels, we should be helping them to manage their fertility better through funding appropriate family planning. In developed countries, where access to family planning is assumed, and consumption levels are much higher, we should be ensuring that public health programs are in place to minimize unintended pregnancies and making the environmental case for smaller populations. Many people do already have smaller families for this, or other reasons, but the scale of future challenges and the long term impact of human numbers mean that we should be having the discussion more publicly. The reality is that anything one does to reduce one’s personal impact on the planet has less effect in the long term than having that extra child.
Population Matters campaigns to change the way people think about population. Our vision is for a human population size for the earth that affords people a good quality of life, maintains the habitat for other species and is environmentally sustainable.