This month, the planet will welcome the 7 billionth person! And the exploding population growth while slowing, is far from over. Not only are people living longer, but there are approximately 1.8 billion women of childbearing age on the planet right now. Therefore, even though on average each woman is having fewer children than she would have had just a generation ago, the global population is expected to keep growing for another few decades at least.
The growing population will put incredible strain on the planet’s resources as we try to feed, clothe, shelter and provide energy to sustain human life to the standards to which we have become accustomed.
Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University asked an interesting question in a recent op ed piece on CNN:
“What will it take to maintain a planet in which each person has a chance for a full, productive and prosperous life, and in which the planet’s resources are sustained for future generations? How, in short, can we enjoy “sustainable development” on a very crowded planet?”
His answer, and one that many other experts share, is that it will be a two pronged solution that relies both on advances in technology and the stabilization of the global population. In order to reduce high fertility rates, he specifically advocates for keeping girls in school, ensuring that children survive, and providing access to modern family planning and contraceptives.
And while many people are focusing on the potential problems – already scarce resources disappearing, the strain on a fragile environment, economic stresses, etc., there is some good news. The population explosion may be tempered by the fact that in most of the world fertility rates have decreased dramatically as women move away from having large families. Most of the industrialized world is now approaching or already below the “replacement fertility rate”.
In an article in National Geographic, Hania Zlotnik, director of the UN Population Division said,
“At this moment, much as I want to say there’s still a problem of high fertility rates, it’s only about 16 percent of the world population, mostly in Africa. South of the Sahara, fertility is still five children per woman; in Niger it is seven. But then, 17 of the countries in the region still have life expectancies of 50 or less; they have just begun the demographic transition. In most of the world, however, family size has shrunk dramatically.”
It will take a lot of work to develop and adopt sustainable technologies and lifestyles, and to achieve a stable population. But, we do have the ability. After all, with 7 billion minds working on this problem, shouldn’t we humans be able to come up with some good solutions?