In the landmark 1972 book The Limits to Growth, a group of demography experts famously predicted that the global population would increase so quickly that the world could “look forward to a population of 7 billion in 30 years.” In the year 2006, some 34 years after that prediction was made, the world population stands at 6.5 billion.
This discrepancy between projected outcome and actual result illustrates how effective people, governments, and educational institutions can be in addressing emerging problems. It also shows the work that remains to be done in order to keep the world population at an ecologically sustainable level. In No Vacancy (Hope Press, 2006), a new book edited by acclaimed documentary director and author Michael Tobias, ecologists, international aid advocates, and family-planning experts share their thoughts on what’s working and what isn’t in the fight against overpopulation.
In many parts of the world, such as in Iran and western Europe, reproduction rates have slowed or have even declined in recent years. The same cannot be said of countries like Mexico and Nigeria where improvements in medical care and food production have resulted in overpopulation, particularly in urban areas. According to the World watch Institute, the global population could grow to anywhere from 9.5 billion to 12 billion in the twenty-first century.
Rapid population gains in countries that aren’t prepared for them strain public resources and infrastructure and can cause air and water pollution on a massive scale.
The ill effects of unrestrained growth will be felt most acutely by the world’s poorest populations, where growth will also be highest, says Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin: “If we grow to 11 or 12 billion people, which is possible if fertility rates do not continue to decline, we are going to be facing miserable conditions in developing countries likely to experience most of the additional population growth, particularly India, parts of Africa, and regions throughout the Middle East. This will result in declining standards of living, enormous healthcare problems and troublesome issues relating to international migration and terrorism generated by the tension caused by an increase in population density. In sum, the population pressures of the future will unleash global effects and not be confined to countries where most of the population growth occurs.”
Biologist Thomas Lovejoy suggests that individuals can have a positive impact on this issue simply by buying food that’s produced locally, cutting down on the need to import food from other countries that may not have as much to spare, and consuming fewer goods altogether.
“Basically, the world can neither support everybody living an American lifestyle nor living as hunter-gatherers. The answer lies in between. It’s very complicated and those of us from the highly consumptive societies are going to have to find ways to do with less,” warns Lovejoy.
Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University adds that rising global population numbers don’t paint a full picture of the challenges ahead because different populations have radically different consumption patterns.
“The first thing I would say to world leaders is we’re already vastly overpopulated,” Ehrlich writes. “You can see this because we’re not living on our income; we’re living on our biological capital, which is something we can’t do forever. It’s not just a matter of how rapidly or how large the population is but how individuals behave. By those standards, of course, the United States is, the most overpopulated country on the planet.”
The progress that humanity has made in curbing population growth could be undone in the years ahead as people lose sight of the essential link between family planning, women’s health, and the environment, according to Joseph Speidel of the University of California, “Unfortunately,” he writes “Unlike general health, which everybody is for, a lot of people are against population work, against family planning, and especially against critical areas like making safe abortions available. This puts us under enormous handicaps, but if one thinks it through and considers the big picture-how we can assure social and economic welfare around the planet-then you have no choice but to remain engaged with population. The links between population and environment are so strong, I’m surprised more environmental organizations and people who care about the environment don’t get involved in the population issue.”
The contributors are careful to point out that population growth to 12 billion is far from a foregone conclusion; in fact, the United Nations is projecting population growth to level off at 8.9 billion people. But many demographers concede that, in order for the world to reach that lower target, fertility rates in many countries would have to drop from where they are now. Greater availability of family-planning services, increased sex education, and the empowerment of the world’s women are all essential to keeping the earth’s population within reasonable limits. -Patrick Tucker
Source: No Vacancy: Global Responses to the Human Population Explosion edited by Michael Tobias et al. Hope Press. 2006. 230 pages. $19.95.
Populations in Contrast: Mexico and Iran
The population of Mexico currently stands at 107 million, with a fertility rate of anywhere from 2.4 (according to the Mexican government) to 2.8 (according to the United Nations Population division). At an annual growth rate of 3 %, a given population will double itself within 23 years.
Sex education at a young age is one approach to the problem, says Javier Dominguez Del Olmo of the United Nations Population Fund in Mexico. “You begin with children in school and provide them information about the importance of sexuality and the responsibility that it includes. Also, it is important young people know how to protect themselves against HIV, against pregnancy, against sexually transmitted diseases and against violence. Including this education in the school curriculum is an important strategy to create responsibility among the students.”
The situation of Mexico stands in stark contrast to that of Iran. After decades of tremendous growth, Iran has achieved replacement level fertility; the population is currently 68 million. Infant mortality and maternal mortality have also decreased substantially. Approximately 23,000 male and female family-planning workers across Iran provide contraceptive services and information about reproductive health to Iranian households. By one estimate, 72% of all couples in that country practice family planning.
Iran’s former minister of health, Seyed Alireza Marandi, gave No Vacancy these thoughts on the success of the Iranian reproductive health model: “Eventually the populace understood family planning as something religious leaders and our ideology accepted and in certain situations encouraged. We fielded mobile teams to travel throughout the country and established other facilities where we could not only educate the populace but also offer them tubal ligations or vasectomies. No one was coerced, yet all over Iran family planning became available. . . . Our population growth rate declined from 3.9% in 1986 to 1.4% in 1996.”
Source: No Vacancy.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST September-October 2006