New UN Population Report Reveals Planet Changing in More Ways Than One

Vicky Markham

The United Nations Population Division just released a new report on projections for world population growth, with somewhat surprising findings.

The United Nations Population Division just released a new report on projections for world population growth, with somewhat surprising findings.  It said that the global population – rather than stabilizing as experts previously thought – will most likely grow to over 9 billion in less than 40 years, and continue to grow to just over 10 billion by 2100.  Even the UN’s “low” projections for world population growth have been revised upwards based on the new data

One reason for the new projections is that fertility rates aren’t declining in some developing countries as experts had forecasted.  In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, fertility rates remain high and population could more than triple from 1 billion to 3.6 billion in our children’s lifetimes. This is probably the result of several things, including the fact that foreign aid for family planning services has not kept up with demand, in part due to widespread social, religious and political pressures, and in part to shortsighted cuts in assistance. The most recent US Congressional budget recently cut 5 percent from international family planning, representing nearly 30 percent below its 1995 peak in inflation-adjusted dollars.  The number of women of reproductive age grew by several hundred million during that time. In addition, fertility rates have increased in some industrialized nations, including in the United States and Britain.

We are expected to reach the significant “7 billion global population milestone” this fall.  While this unwieldy number and the new UN projections for growth may not seem to have a real connection to our everyday lives, there are significant links, with women and girls, family planning and reproductive health, and environmental sustainability. 

Evidence for this can be seen in the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which found that well over 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems were transformed or degraded mainly from human activity in the past 50 years. Human demands on the world’s water supplies and water quality, climate systems, plant and animal species’ habitat, and land use are causing irreversible changes. 

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In simple terms, the population connection comes through the sheer numbers of people reliant on the earth’s resources to live, the scale of their activity, and their impact on the earth’s ecosystems. Resource-intensive consumption by wealthy populations (mostly but not only in developed and newly developed nations) places heavy demand on natural resources beyond the resource’s capacity to replenish itself, and in the pollutants generated from unsustainable resource use.

A good example of the population-environmental linkages is with climate change. There is solid new evidence from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado showing that when population numbers rise, so does energy consumption, and the resulting per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that cause climate change. With the realization that world population is indeed growing more rapidly than expected, we know that on a parallel track so too will CO2 emissions and climate change.

Here, the UN report reinforces how critically important it is to address both “family planning” and “environmental resource consumption” simultaneously.  Industrialized nations must curb their unsustainable per-capita energy consumption. And we must slow population growth by reducing unintended pregnancies. What experts tell us is that when women have the power to plan their families, populations grow more slowly, as do greenhouse gas emissions. The cost of providing these needed family planning services worldwide is minimal compared with other development and emissions reductions strategies – roughly $3.7 billion per year.  The solution isn’t in either population or consumption, but both, simultaneously.

With our global population reaching 7 billion this year, and knowing that the number is on a “growth” rather than stabilization track, we are presented with an opportunity to take stock, and understand what it really means (i.e. where the growth is occurring, or how developed vs. developing nations contribute more to environmental impacts per capita).  Even in everyday occurrences we are seeing evidence of the many forms that the population-environmental links can take, for example, in the densely populated coastal ecosystems where people are already under threat from increased incidence of climate change-induced severe weather (New Orleans/US), flooding (Mississippi/US), and sea level rise (Bangladesh).  It is all around us, we just have to take notice and take action.

The new UN report sets the scene for all the hoopla around the world reaching 7 billion people, giving us a sense of urgency and credibility for addressing the issues.  The big take away here is “choice”.  We all have the capacity to make strategic choices that can affect population stabilization and environmental sustainability.  Here are some key concepts as we make those choices:

  • Youth are key target audiences as they are entering three decades as primary decision makers on both family planning and resource consumption matters for themselves and their families.
  • Women-centered approaches are central because women are both disproportionately affected by environmental impacts (i.e. climate change-induced drought is uniquely affecting women in developing nations who have to walk even further for water or have to farm under increasingly drought-ravaged conditions), and are uniquely able to deliver solutions. The Kenya-based Green Belt Movement is a stellar example of highly effective women-centered solutions to key development and conservation issues.
  • A comprehensive, holistic approach involving women and girls is important, including universal access to reproductive health and family planning in addition to real, permanent social, economic, educational and political opportunities for girls and women, so they can be in positions to make decisions freely.
  • Let’s not forget the unique role and responsibilities the US plays in this scenario – both in checking our own high per-capita consumption, and as constituents, in urging our US government leaders to support and finance: voluntary universal access to good quality reproductive health services; programs that support girls education and women’s social, economic and political opportunities worldwide; and, environmentally sustainable practices in our own country, from the local to national levels.

We have more evidence than ever about our changing planet’s population and environmental status, now let’s take the opportunity to act on it.

News Human Rights

New Report Highlights Growing Number of Aging People in Prison

Kanya D’Almeida

The authors of the report say that expediting their release is a “critical part of reducing mass incarceration, and of creating a more fair, just and humane justice system.”

Gloria Rubero served 26 years in New York prisons. Between being incarcerated at the age of 30 and her release at age 56, she was denied parole five times, suffered two major strokes, and earned her GED and a college degree.

“When I got out nine years ago, it was like being thrown from the top of the stairs to the bottom—I had nothing,” she wrote in a recent policy paper, part of a new report on reducing elder incarceration in New York state.

Rubero’s account of life after prison following her release in 2006 chronicles her struggles to find work, receive Medicaid, get an apartment, and adjust to a new and fast-paced worldstruggles that countless returning citizens, and particularly older people, confront on a daily basis.

Published by Columbia University’s Center for Justice, the report is a collection of policy papers produced in the aftermath of a Spring 2014 symposium organized by RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison), the Correctional Association of New York, Be the Evidence Project, and others, aimed at addressing the fast-growing population of aging people in prison.

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Experts in the field, including numerous formerly incarcerated people, argue that the rapid growth in the number of elderly prisoners demonstrates the punitive nature of the U.S. justice system, and further contend that the huge costs associated with locking up aging citizens—defined in the report as anyone over the age of 50—is incommensurate with the risk they pose to society.

According to the report, just 6.4 percent of people incarcerated in New York state prisons who were released after the age of 50 returned for new convictions, a number that fell to 4 percent for those who were 65 or older.

The authors say that expediting their release is a “critical part of reducing mass incarceration, and of creating a more fair, just and humane justice system.”

The state’s aging prison population shot up by 81 percent, from 5,111 in 2000 to 9,269 in 2013, according to the State of New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The paper suggests this has largely been the result of so-called tough on crime legislation, such as mandatory life sentences without parole associated with the “three strikes, you’re out” law, and rigid release policies.

Prisoners older than 50 now comprise 17 percent of the state’s total prison population, the vast majority of whom are Black men and women.

Numerous studies have documented the financial, medical, and societal costs of locking people up for decades and allowing them to grow old behind bars.

The United States spends an estimated $16 billion a year to imprison the elderly. Since older prisoners typically have greater health needs, and because the very fact of incarceration often leads to premature aging, the price tag for incarcerating a person over the age of 50 is at least twice and sometimes five times as much as the cost of imprisoning a younger person, the report found.

Quite aside from the exorbitant expense associated with housing the elderly in state and federal correctional facilities (one report by the ACLU put the annual cost of housing a single elderly prisoner at $68,270), the report offers a close analysis of the personal and social consequences of “greying” behind bars.

These include inadequate medical and geriatric care on the inside, housing and employment discrimination on the outside, a parole process that has been defined as “dehumanizing,” and a lack of reentry services tailored to the specific needs of older people.

While the report offers numerous recommendations for New York stateincluding Rubero’s suggestion that formerly incarcerated people be empowered to guide the reentry of returning citizens—it contributes a larger analysis of the entire penal system in the United States.

In the words of RAPP Director Mujahid Farid, one of the lead authors of the paper who began a 15-year sentence in 1978 at the age of 28, but ended up serving 33 years in prison, the report “allows us to challenge a fundamental pillar of mass incarceration: the reliance on a system of permanent punishment, a culture of retribution and revenge rather than rehabilitation and healing.”

The ACLU estimates that state and federal prisoners over the age of 55 quadrupled between 1995 and 2010 from 32,600 to 124,900. If growth rates continue, that number could hit 400,000 by 2030.

Commentary Human Rights

Corporations May Prove To Be Unlikely Allies in the Fight for Wage Increases

s.e. smith

Chipotle may not be the ultimate tipping point, but we could may be inching closer to a moment at which the government will be compelled to act, mandating a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, and other benefits for workers in the United States.

Earlier this month, Chipotle became the latest in a growing list of companies expanding wages and benefits for their employees in the absence of any government mandates to do so—but under considerable pressure from unions, labor activists, and members of social movements advocating for a better standard of living. While such groups continue to lean on the government for reform, they are also targeting individual corporations’ images and wallets. This, in turn, may be instrumental to creating a culture in which raising the minimum wage is non-optional.

Executives at Chipotle evidently felt that improving conditions for all workers, including part-timers, was the right thing to do, likely from a public-relations perspective rather than out of the goodness of their hearts. Still, the move signals a reason to be at least a bit optimistic about working conditions in the United States, which stands out among industrialized nations for its low wages and limited benefits.

Chipotle may not be the ultimate tipping point, but we could be inching closer to a moment at which the government will be compelled to act, mandating a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, and other benefits for workers in the United States. As activists jostle corporations, multinationals are facing the opportunity to be proactive to look good for the public, rather than being dragged into the 21st century. That trend could push the government to the breaking point, bringing about critically needed regulatory changes for workers.

Starting on July 1, Chipotle employees will be eligible for paid sick leave, paid vacation time, and tuition credits. There are some caveats to the scheme, but it reflects a step in the right direction. More than a year ago, the firm’s executives indicated that it would be relatively easy to absorb a minimum wage hike, a move that economic pundits felt implied that they were weighing a change in standard compensation for their workers. The statement also slyly suggested that other firms should be capable of the same.

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Notably, evidence suggests that a higher minimum wage actually increases profits for corporations—an argument cited by supporters as they target individual companies with fair pay campaigns. It reduces the costs associated with high turnover and promotes economic growth, which results in more consumers and higher revenue at the cash register. Higher pay, in other words, pays off. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, just issued his own rousing commentary on the subject, insisting that the country could afford a $15 hourly minimum wage.

He knows from which he speaks. Some of the earliest initiatives to voluntarily increase minimum wage and benefits originated in the tech industry. Earlier this year, Facebook made headlines with its expansion of wages and benefits to contract workers, who now earn $15 an hour. Apple, ahead of the pack, increased wages for its retail personnel by 25 percent in 2012, bringing some associates above $15 and sometimes even higher, depending on position and location. Google just extended better pay and benefits to the workers who pilot the company’s infamous shuttles. In April, the CEO of Gravity Payments, a Seattle-based payments processing company, slashed his own wages to ensure a minimum annual salary of $70,000 for all employees.

In retail, meanwhile, Gap employees will be making $9 an hour this year, with an increase to $10 next year. Ikea, Target, and Walmart have also increased their wages, so that SNØRKL chair will come with an extra side of feel-good social responsibility. The fast-food industry has been following suit, as companies like McDonald’s started raising wages—with a significant catch in the case of the golden arches, as the hike doesn’t apply to franchise locations, and as few as 12 percent of workers will see an actual change in their paychecks.

Not every corporate campaign is equal, however: Highly publicized and heavily touted feel-good measures often come with a bitter aftertaste. Even with very public improvements to company policies, many pay nowhere near $15 hourly wages, the changes don’t come with better benefits, and few have included commitments to reforming practices like on-call scheduling, let alone cultures of sexual harassment and racism, as well as anti-union scheming.

These less-savory moves are a striking illustration of corporate co-optation of social movements—by and large, firms see the writing on the wall and recognize the value of making token changes to appease consumers. The failure to push through true, broad-ranging equity highlights the fact that government regulation will always be needed to force through, and maintain, authentic reforms on a large scale.

This is especially true because corporations, for many reasons, aren’t going to all voluntarily start paying workers more. Numerous conservative-owned companies are unlikely to increase wages on their own—don’t hold your breath for Chick-fil-A’s behind-the-counter workers or those in the aisles at Hobby Lobby—and those that do might quietly drop benefits or change eligibility.

But with conservative politicians stonewalling attempts to push through minimum wage increases at the moment, it will take continued pressure on a number of fronts to enact moves toward improving worker rights. Consumer impact, for example, plays a highly active role in the conversation about wage reform in both corporate and legislative offices. Consumers already choose to vote with their pockets, with ethical consumption becoming another growing trend in the United States: It’s becoming fashionable in some circles to spend money at companies that pledge to behave responsibly. Moreover, consumers are in a position to strike back at Congress, pushing politicians to support minimum-wage increases with their votes as well as their dollars.

Shareholders, perhaps counterintuitively, could become another source of influence on the government, especially for conservatives who argue that minimum wage laws are a fundamental betrayal of capitalist values. Announcements about wage increases tend to be accompanied by a radical jump in stock prices, with responsible investors spurring a feedback loop that benefits everyone. Ethical business practices, it turns out, are also better business practices. With the government concerned about retaining economic momentum, any evidence supporting wage increases as a positive trend for business should be taken seriously—unless, of course, the government doesn’t want to act in the best interests of U.S. businesses.

The Fight for $15 and related activist movements, however, are really the key to any successful push for a minimum wage increase. Workers taking to the streets en masse were the ones to highlight the minimum wage issue and make it a social rallying point in the first place, and they’re the ones likely to drive the lesson home as well. Such public social pressure keeps the issue in the face of companies, politicians, shareholders, and individuals, all of whom are critical to a resolution to the minimum wage problem. Without constant agitation from labor organizers, it’s easy to let the issue slip into the background, far from discussion and scrutiny.

In the face of these growing forces, the government may be driven to act, just as it did with environmental policy related to climate change, such as California’s landmark 2012 cap-and-trade program. In that instance, the state was partially forced to pass the key environmental legislation by angry consumers as well as companies voluntarily engaging in emissions reductions on an individual level, themselves in response to urging from climate advocates and the public.

The fact that advocates are so often forced into the position of lobbying individual companies for social justice rather than Congress is a telling testimony to the hold of conservative politics on the nation. In this case, steadfast anti-fair-pay attitudes make it impossible to have a functional conversation among lawmakers about increasing the minimum wage. Wage reform should be naturally driven by Congress, but many organizers are well aware that they won’t gain traction from that direction unless they can come to the table with the support of activist communities and with illustrative test cases showing that increasing employee pay was not a death knell for major corporations.

For workers across the United States, voluntary minimum wage increases at companies in response to social pressure are a good sign that someday, perhaps in the near future, a very real shift will happen on the federal level when it comes to the issue. The government is most likely to enact a stepped increase to a minimum wage between $10 and $12, not the much-desired $15, but it’s an extremely strong start on an issue of critical importance to the nation. When the country does see that move, corporations are going to deserve at least part of the credit, even though their motivations are almost certainly far from pure. This intersection between private interests, on-the-ground organizing, and potential government action is an illustration of the fact that sometimes it’s necessary to make strange bedfellows to drive social change.