At Long Last: Prominent Attention to Population

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At Long Last: Prominent Attention to Population

Tod Preston

A growing chorus has been sounding the alarm about an issue that has suffered from bewildering inattention in recent years: the negative impact of rapid global population growth on the health and well-being of our planet.

In recent months,
a growing chorus of prominent individuals has been sounding the alarm
about an issue that has suffered from bewildering inattention in recent
years: the negative impact of rapid global population growth on the
health and well-being of our planet.  Although rarely stated directly,
implicit in these statements (highlighted below) is that more should
be done to support voluntary family planning and basic reproductive
health care for millions of poor women who lack it.  Why?  Because lack
of family planning is a primary cause of the more than 60 million unintended
pregnancies worldwide every year and the resulting yearly net increase
in global population of 78 million people.

On Monday I
attended an extraordinary presentation at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars by Thomas Friedman about his new book,
Hot, Flat and Crowded
.  As you might suspect from the catchy title, the
book focuses on how "global warming, the stunning rise of middle
classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged
in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable."

In recent months,
Friedman has been joined in bringing attention to the role of population
growth in such critical issues as poverty, climate change, hunger, and
security by the Secretary General of the U.N., the director of the CIA,
former President Bill Clinton, the leaders of the G-8, Secretary of
Defense Robert Gates, and the United States Senate.

Here are a few

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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U.N. Secretary
General Ban Ki Moon, "Global Action
to Save Global Growth"

— Washington Post op-ed (July 3, 2008):

change and environmental degradation threaten the future of our planet.
Growing populations and rising wealth place unprecedented stress on
the earth’s resources. Malthus is back in vogue. Everything seems suddenly
in short supply: energy, clean air and fresh water, all that nourishes
us and supports our modern ways of life."

Bill Clinton, Speech at the Slate
60 Conference
22, 2007):

"[T]he population
of the world is supposed to go to nine billion by 2050. Nobody is going
to talk about this in the election this year for either party, but I’m
not running so I can say it.  …[I]t took us 150,000 years to go from
one person to 6.5 billion, and we’re going to nine billion in 43 years?
Now just think about it. Think about the accelerating pace of change
in the world. We’re going to nine billion people. Almost all of those
2.5 billion people are going to be born in countries now unable to support
the people who live there."

CIA Director Michael
Hayden, Speech at Kansas
State Univ.

(April 30, 2008):

"In thinking
about the future, one of the most important things that our analysts
brought to–CIA analysts–brought to my attention was world demographics.
Now I’m probably pointing at the obvious here, but let me point to some
of the things that our analysts brought to my attention.  Today, there
are 6.7 billion people sharing the planet. By mid-century–by mid-century,
the best estimates point to a world population of more than 9 billion.
That’s a 40 to 45 percent increase–striking enough–but most of that
growth is almost certain to occur in countries least able to sustain
it, and that will create a situation that will likely fuel instability
and extremism–not just in those areas, but beyond them as well."

Secretary of Defense
Robert Gates, Speech at U.S. Global
Leadership Campaign Tribute Dinner

(July 15, 2008):

"We also
know that over the next 20 years certain pressures – population, resource,
energy, climate, economic, and environmental – could combine with rapid
cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of
deprivation, rage, and instability. We face now, and will inevitably
face in the future, rising powers discontented with the international
status quo, possessing new wealth and ambition, and seeking new and
more powerful weapons. But, overall, looking ahead, I believe the most
persistent and potentially dangerous threats will come less from emerging
ambitious states, than from failing ones that cannot meet the basic
needs – much less the aspirations – of their people."

United States
Senate, FY 2009 Annual Foreign
Assistance Bill
, Senate
Report 110-425, p. 3 (July 18, 2008):

"[T]he stresses
on woefully inadequate social services in many developing countries
caused by high rates of population growth, which contribute to competition
for limited resources, environmental degradation, malnutrition, poverty
and conflict. Assisting countries in reducing rates of population growth
to sustainable levels should be a priority of USAID."

For those of us
who have lamented the declining support in recent years for international
family planning programs – in part due to the lack of attention paid
to the implications of rapid global population growth – these statements
are very encouraging.  But forty years since world leaders first proclaimed
that individuals have a basic right to determine how many children to
have and when to have them, some key questions remain: 

  • Will
    this renewed attention to population issues result in greater funding
    and political support for international FP/RH programs? 
  • Will
    we finally provide the resources necessary to ensure that all women,
    rich and poor, rural and urban, literate and illiterate can freely determine
    when and if to have a child?

We have a ways
to go in reaching that goal.  Modern contraceptives still remain out
of reach for hundreds of millions of women in poor and developing nations
because of issues such as availability and affordability.  As a result,
more than one-third of the 190 million pregnancies worldwide are unintended
a major driver of
the addition of nearly 80 million people to our world each and every

This isn’t rocket
science. Couples around the world fundamentally want family planning
– and it works.  In addition to fostering slower, more sustainable population
growth, it raises standards of living, improves maternal and child health,
and reduces abortion. 

Of course, in
the end it’s all about sex and the empowerment of women – two issues
which a lot of officials would rather sweep under the rug and ignore. 
But the price of doing so is an increasingly high one.  Just ask the