7 Billion, Here We Come

This Halloween, get ready to experience something scarier than ghosts, witches, horror movies, and haunted houses: a human population totaling 7 billion. 

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the world’s population will hit 7 billion on October 31, 2011, after doubling in the second half of the 20th century to reach six billion in 1999.  A little more than a decade later, we have already tacked on another billion to that figure.

What explains this rapid growth?  What do future population trends look like?  How is the proliferation of the human population affecting our world?

“Lower mortality rates, longer life expectancy and large youth populations in countries where fertility remains high all contributed to the rapid population growth of recent decades,”  reports the UNFPA.

In developing countries where reproductive health education programs are lacking, fertility rates have continued to climb.  The combined population of the world’s 48 least developed countries alone is projected to double by 2050, totaling 1.7 billion people.

“The countries in which poverty levels are the highest are generally those that have the most rapid increases in population and the highest fertility levels,” according to the UNFPA.  Extreme poverty, food insecurity, inequality and high birth and death rates all contribute to a vicious cycle.

“The ICPD realized that investing in people — and empowering individual women and men with education, equal opportunities and the means to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children –could create the conditions to allow the poor to break out of the poverty trap.”  

Currently, women in developed countries average half the number of births that women in developing countries experience.  Countries that have invested in universal health care and reproductive health, education and gender equality, have witnessed economic gains and reduced fertility and mortality.  

Yet, regardless of individual country population growth rates, the world population is steadily rising; projections indicate we will reach 9.3 billion people by the middle of the 21st century and 10.1 billion by 2100.

So, what does this mean for the welfare of our planet?  Can Earth feasibly sustain this many people? 

The Earth does not have the resources to sustain the rate of population growth we are currently witnessing.  “While world food production is projected to meet consumption demands for the next two decades, long-term forecasts indicate persistent and possibly worsening food insecurity in many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.”  To meet the needs of the 2020 world population, the UN expects food production will have to double.   Land, water, and other natural resources will be further depleted and degraded, and waste production will compound humans’ toll on the environment.

Interestingly, in many developing countries, more attention is being paid to women’s roles in achieving sustainable development.  As the primary providers of food and water, caretakers of families, safeguards of land and resources, women play a “vital” part in resource management.  Thus, they hold tremendous potential to help mitigate the effects of human consumption on the environment.  The UNFPA concludes that: “Appropriate and integrated social, population and sustainable development policies and programs that empower the poor, especially women, are needed to support a sustainable future.”

In efforts to inspire action for social good, the UNFPA has launched a global initiative, “7 Billion Actions” under the banner, “7 Billion People – Counting on Each Other.”  Partnered with National Geographic, UNFPA hosted an event in Washington, DC today: “Women as Agents of Change in a World at 7 Billion”.

You can educate yourself on the benefits of reproductive health education and services to better understand the threat these issues pose to our environment by visiting the UNFPA’s website.

While links between the quality of our environment – including the degradation of natural resources and creation of waste – and the human population remain extremely complex, one thing is clear: if action is not taken to curtail the growth of our population, the planet and humans both will suffer invariably.  The planet cannot sustain us all. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/wwworks/2222523486/

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