World Population Day: Why You Should Care

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.

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).

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • invalid-0

    More human lives are never a problem.

    Environmental doom-mongering and sustainable orthodoxies across Western institutions and public life have succeeded in turning a cause for celebration into a horror story. Thankfully there are humanists who are not prepared to let the UN World Population Day remain unchallenged. Don’t let the UN exploit the issues of girl child education, family planning and women’s health to support the notion that there are too many people on this planet.

    Check out this video at , made by young volunteers at the feisty UK charity WORLDwrite, for some sober discussion of why celebrating more human life on the planet is an essential demand for humanists today. Three Cheers for 7 billion

  • invalid-0

    Though fertility rates are dropping, it is still predicted the world’s population could reach upwards of 11 billion by midcentury. Grain prices have been consistently rising all while watertables drop, aquifers dry up, and a vast percentage of China’s and India’s energy is used to mine fossil aquifers that are not replenished by rainfall. The only reason the population issued didn’t become a problem in the ’70s and ’80s are earlier predicted is because of the use of fertilizers that marginally increased food production. But now worldwide grain stores are at a new low due to the fact that grain production has fallen 6 of the last 9 years. Let us not forget that scientist predict that the ice cap that feeds the Ganges river/basin in India is expected to melt in 20 or so years which could leave one to two million people without water. Population growth not a problem? HOGWASH!

    As for your video by Worldwrite, here’s what Source Watch had to say about it:

    WORLDwrite provides a political platform for the British libertarian LM group, lambasting environmentalism and sustainable development

  • invalid-0

    Ganges river/basin in India is expected to melt in 20 or so years which could leave one to two million people without water.

    Sorry, that should read one to two BILLION people without water.

  • invalid-0

    Laurie, that was a great column. I also wrote on World Population Day at RH Reality Check. Please get in touch. Cheers, Jane Roberts 34 Million Friends of UNFPA.

  • invalid-0

    I urge folks to follow the view the video Schiffer recommends, then read my comments.

    The video sets up so many straw men, it’s a fire hazard. First, it rails against Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb (written in 1968) as though that’s the state of the art in thinking about population growth. Clearly, this group missed the last 40 years of history, in which the paradigm shifted from “population control” to reproductive health.

    The fact is, you don’t need to control anyone to slow population growth. Given high levels of unwanted fertility in many parts of the world, the best way to slow growth is by ensuring that all people have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing.

    This shift in thinking was endorsed at the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo — where 179 nations agreed to a new, rights-based approach to population that embraces voluntary contraception and comprehensive reproductive health services, as well as efforts to empower women and foster development.

    So, while there are some people out there still calling for “population control,” as the video implies, they are certainly not in the mainstream of the family planning/reproductive health movement.

    The videomakers also seem to have missed the last half century of news about the global environment. I watched bug-eyed as they claimed that “there are no natural resources; resources are not natural, they are manmade.” This brand of techno-optimism, which holds that there are no meaningful limits to how many people the planet can support, is frankly delusional. And it flies in the face of decades of scientific evidence about the collective impact of human activity.

    Don’t take my word for it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have less than a decade left to head off catastrophic climate change. And, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a five-year study that involved 1,360 scientists worldwide, nearly two-thirds of the Earth’s ecosystems – including fresh water and fisheries – are being used in ways that simply cannot be sustained. As a result, “the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”

    In the context of global environmental crisis, it matters whether there are 8 or 11 billion people on the planet. Fortunately, the best means to slow population growth are all important ends in themselves: girls’ education, family planning and reproductive health, poverty alleviation.

    Who could oppose such an agenda? I don’t know much about the group that made this video, but this link was instructive:

    Apparently, this group opposes all restrictions on business, science and technology, especially biotechnology.

    Kooky stuff — don’t fall for it.

  • invalid-0

    You guys are a trip check out the club of Rome then again being wrong multiple times NEVER slowed down the predictions of the left before.

  • invalid-0

    In 1972, the Club of Rome published “The Limits To Growth” in which it warned that the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury in ’85, tin by ’87, zinc by ’90, oil by ’92 and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993. Also, its now been forty years since this warning from Stanford University population biologist Ehrlich: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970’s and 80’s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate”. I wonder if his students ever got their tuition reimbursed.

  • invalid-0

    I urge Stef Schiffer and cmarie to step out of their time warp and join us in the 21st century. Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome made their predictions four decades ago — back before cell phones, communications satellites and personal computers. The analyses and predictions made today by the IPCC and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment use sophisticated computer modelling that is light years beyond those early, crude attempts. If anything, these newer predictions are proving too conservative; the climate is changing much more quickly than envisioned in the 2007 IPCC report:

  • invalid-0

    I thought you were going somewhere good with this statement: “Of course, human environmental impact is shaped by many factors — including technology, consumption patterns, economic policies and political choices.” But it turned out to be only a reference. For a stunning reveal on population control imagery from 1933-2008, visit Hampshire College: AND visit Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment for a historical, and intersectional approach to this issue. Why are organizations like these not credited in this article with developing a new model for addressing these issues? It’s NOT enough to just write a column emphasizing “slowing population growth” and essentially substituting the phrase “international family planning” for “population control.”

  • invalid-0

    The statement you quote from my original post is hardly “only a reference.” I go on to note that “slowing population growth is not all we must do…changing our systems of production and consumption must be the top priority if we are to preserve a habitable planet.” In my forthcoming book, my co-authors and I endeavor to disentangle the many variables that determine human impact on the environment, and conclude that population growth is one of those variables.

    Betsy Hartmann and her colleagues at Hampshire College and the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment (CWPE) have done important work , bringing to light abuses in population and family planning programs. Such abuses — from coercive incentives and disincentives to forced sterilization and abortion — are intolerable violations of human rights. Fortunately, they have become rare, especially since the sea change in population policy that took place in Cairo.

    That change was brought about, as Michelle Goldberg recounts in her terrific new book The Means of Reproduction, by “a group of feminist-minded women who had come up through the ranks of the population-control movement [and] decided to take it over from within.” The folks at Hampshire College and CWPE sometimes fail to acknowledge the work of those amazing women — and how much the population/family planning/reproductive health movement has changed as a result.

    The changes are not merely semantic, as anonymous charges. It is not just about “substituting the phrase ‘international family planning’ for ‘population control.'” Around the world, family planning programs have been redesigned to meet individuals’ needs, rather than demographic targets. Of course, the change is not complete, in part because funding for such programs has declined, while the need for services has grown exponentially.

    It’s also important to remember that the less-than-perfect family planning movement is responsible for an extraordinary achievement. Forty years ago, less than 10 percent of women in the developing countries had access to contraception; now it’s about 60 percent. The ability to make choices about childbearing is central to women’s health and self-determination. So that’s a truly transformational change (that’s why religious fundamentalists and other proponents of patriarchy get so hot and bothered about it.)

    There is a danger of going backward; the environmental crisis will revive calls for “population control.” But there is also a danger of not going forward, and fulfilling the transformational promise of family planning and reproductive rights for all.

  • fitz

    Those numbers are going to affect more than the environment. In short, the world simply does not have enough money to support that many people. casino online

  • invalid-0

    really interesting blog

    thanks for this information

    jen x