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Population: The multiplier of everything else

POPULATION: The Multiplier of Everything Else by William Ryerson


When it comes to controversial issues, population is in a class by itself.

Advocates and activists working to reduce global population growth and size are attacked by the Left for supposedly ignoring human-rights issues, glossing over Western overconsumption, or even seeking to reduce the number of people of color. They are attacked by the Right for supposedly favoring widespread abortion, promoting promiscuity via sex education, or wanting to harm economic growth. Others think the problem has been solved, or believe that the real problem is that we have a shortage of people (the so-called “birth dearth”). Still others think the population problem will solve itself, or that technological innovations will make our numbers irrelevant.

One thing is certain: The planet and its resources are finite, and it cannot support an infinite population of humans or any other species.

A second thing is also certain: The issue of population is too important to avoid just because it is controversial.

The Magnitude of the Problem

The Big Picture of Growth Globally and in the United States

The world’s population is growing by about 80 million people annually—the equivalent of adding a new Egypt every year. The total population is approaching 7 billion, seven times what it was in 1800. Every day approximately 156,000 people die, but 381,000 are born—a net daily growth of 225,000 human beings.

The cost in human suffering that results from unplanned and excessive childbearing is staggering: 500,000 women and girls die worldwide every year from pregnancy and childbirth1—a figure equal to all of the U.S. deaths in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Most of the women who die are in their teens and early twenties, forced by their societies into bearing children too young and far too frequently.

But the developing world is so capital starved owing in large part to its high population growth rate that allocating some portion of government budgets to reproductive health care is often extremely difficult. For its part, the developed world as a whole has failed to come close to meeting the commitments for population assistance made at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. To achieve the commitments made in Cairo, both developed and developing countries would need to triple their current contributions. The lives of billions of people are being rendered increasingly desperate by being denied access to family-planning information and services they want and need.

The top three countries for population growth are India, China, and the United States. India grows by about 17 million per year, China by about 7 million per year, and the United States by about 3 million per year. These three countries, plus Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Indonesia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Brazil, and the Philippines, are poised to grow by 1.6 billion by 2050, representing 63 percent of the world’s projected growth of 2.6 billion in the coming four decades. These projections are based on assumptions about reduced fertility rates in all twelve of these countries. If the expected fertility reductions do not occur, the world’s population could double to 13.6 billion by 2067. 

About The Post Carbon Reader

How do population, water, energy, food, and climate issues impact one another? What can we do to address one problem without making the others worse? The Post Carbon Reader features essays by some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the key issues shaping our new century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and community resilience. This insightful collection takes a hard-nosed look at the interconnected threats of our global sustainability quandary and presents some of the most promising responses.

Contributors to The Post Carbon Reader are some of the world's leading sustainability thinkers, including Bill McKibben, Richard Heinberg, Stephanie Mills, David Orr, Wes Jackson, Erika Allen, Gloria Flora, and dozens more.

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