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Of Course Population Is Still A Problem

By Robert Walker

13 July, 2010

Fred Pearce keeps on saying that population growth is no longer a problem. He said it again as part of his World Population Day message.

In Fred's view, it's very simple. Fertility rates have come down sharply over the past half century. Problem solved.

Sorry, Fred, saying that population growth is no longer a problem doesn't make it so, no matter how many times you say it. Neither does wishful thinking.

While admitting that world population may increase by another 2 billion or so by midcentury, he dismisses this increment as a "time-lag" problem.

Earth to Fred: 2 billion more people is a lot of people to a world that is already struggling to feed 6.8 billion people. It's a lot of people to a biosphere that is threatened with what leading biologists refer to as the Sixth Mass Extinction. And it's a lot of people to a planet that is already threatened with the effects of climate change. And while "population momentum" (i.e., large numbers of people entering their reproductive years) may account for some of the projected increase in human numbers, much of it is being driven by the fact that fertility rates in many developing countries around the world are still well above the "replacement rate."

Yes, Fred, we must do something about consumption. Unless we in the developed world do more to curb our consumption of fossil fuels and scarce minerals, the world is headed for an ecological and humanitarian disaster. We need to lower our per capita consumption of fossil fuels and other scarce resources. A lot. But I don't see the G8 or the G20 putting their heads together right now in an effort to lower consumer spending. Really, I don't. Neither do I see anything happening with respect to climate change.

And that's why it's especially important to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the U.S. and other developed nations. Sorry, Fred, it doesn't matter that America's fertility rate is right around the "replacement rate" or that Europe's is well below it. A baby born here or elsewhere in the developed world will still consume a disproportionate share of the world's resources and contribute disproportionately to the world's environmental problems.

It's also important to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the developing world. The reasons, however, are different. It really doesn't matter whether global fertility rates have dropped sharply; they remain unsustainably high in many of the least developed areas of the world. Yes, Fred, fertility rates have come down sharply in Iran and Bangladesh, but women in Afghanistan and Somalia and other desperately poor countries are still having four, five, or six children on average. Some poor countries, like Uganda and Niger, are on track to triple their populations over the next 40 years. Africa's population will likely double by mid-century.

Looking ahead, Fred, will these countries be able to feed themselves? Will they have enough safe drinking water? Will their lands be deforested or their rivers polluted? Will their maternal mortality rates and infant mortality rates remain unacceptably high? Will they be caught in a demographic poverty trap? Will they become failed states? If you have good answers to these questions, please let me know. Because if you don't, then we need to ensure that women in these developing countries are given the information and the access to contraceptives that they need to prevent unwanted and unintended pregnancies.

Someday we will be able to declare victory. Someday every woman will have access to family-planning services and reproductive health care. Someday world population will be in decline. Someday world population levels will pose no danger to the health of the planet. But that day has not arrived. Not yet. In the meantime, your breezy dismissal of the "population problem" does an enormous disservice to the planet and every living creature that calls it home.

Robert Walker is executive vice president of the Population Institute.

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Population Isn’t The Problem
By Fred Pearce