World Population Day: Why You Should Care

Laurie Mazur

World Population Day is worth your attention - if you care about the well-being of the world's women, or about the global environment.

Today is World Population
Day. Perhaps you didn’t know. Or perhaps you accord it the same degree of
importance as Penguin Awareness Day (January 20th) or National
Pickle Day (November 14th).

But this one is worth
your attention – if you care about the well-being of the world’s
women, or about the global environment. Rapid population growth magnifies the
environmental challenges before us, and the best way to slow growth is by
bolstering women’s health and rights. We can start by restoring U.S.
leadership in support of family planning around the world.

You might assume
the "population bomb" has long been defused. But while the rate of population growth has slowed in most parts of
the world, rapid growth is hardly a thing of the past. Our numbers still
increase by 75-80 million every year, the equivalent of adding another U.S. to
the world every four years.

In fact, we are now at a pivotal moment for world
population. While a certain amount of future growth is inevitable, choices
made today will determine whether human
numbers — now at 6.8 billion — climb to anywhere between eight and 11 billion
by mid-century.

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The difference
between eight and 11 billion is not insignificant – especially for the
environment. Of course, human environmental impact is shaped by many factors —
including technology, consumption patterns, economic policies and political
choices. And some people have much greater impact than others: we in the U.S.
comprise just 5% of the world’s population, but consume 30% of all
resources and produce 30% of all wastes.

Still, while there
are great disparities in environmental impact among the world’s citizens,
everyone has some impact. We all share an inalienable right to
food, water, shelter and the makings of a good life. If we take seriously the
twin imperatives of sustainability and equity, it becomes clear that it would
be easier to provide a good life – at less environmental cost – for
eight rather than 11 billion people.

Take climate
change, for example. A recent analysis of climate studies by Brian
O’Neill at the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that slower
population growth is likely to mean lower greenhouse gas emissions over the
long term, making the climate problem easier to solve.

Of course, slowing
population growth is not all we must do. Continued reliance on fossil
fuels could easily overwhelm the carbon reductions from slower growth.
Rapacious consumption in the affluent countries drives environmental
destruction worldwide; changing our systems of production and consumption must
be the top priority if we are to preserve a habitable planet.

But slower
population growth could help give us a fighting chance to meet these
challenges. It could reduce pressure on natural systems that are reeling from
stress. And it could help give families and nations a chance to make essential
investments in education, health care and sustainable economic development.

The good news is
that the best ways to slow population growth are all things we should be doing

Fifteen years ago,
at the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo,
the world’s nations agreed that the best way to slow population growth is
not with top-down "population control," but by ensuring that all
women can choose whether and when to bear a child. That means universal access
to voluntary family planning and other reproductive health services. It also means
education and employment opportunities. And it means tackling the deep
inequities – gender and economic – that prevent women from making
real choices about their lives.

Unfortunately, we
have made little progress towards these goals. U.S. funding for family planning
has fallen since the mid-1990s, while the need for those services has grown
exponentially. Partly as a result, some 200 million women worldwide lack access
to contraception.  Access can be a matter of life and death: every year,
pregnancy-related complications kill half a million women, one every
minute.  Many of those deaths could be averted if women were able to delay
or limit childbearing.

Now we have an
extraordinary opportunity to protect women’s lives and health – and
preserve the planet for current and future generations. We now have a President
who understands the importance of family planning. A large coalition of groups
that care about the environment, health and poverty are joining together to ask
the U.S. government to spend $1 billion annually on international family
planning assistance. That’s just five percent of the amount the bankers
on Wall Street gave themselves in bonuses last year.

World Population
Day is the perfect time to join this effort, and help build a world that is
sustainable and just.  Because (not to diminish the importance of penguins
and pickles) this one really matters.


Laurie Mazur is the editor of A
Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge
Press: October, 2009).

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