In recent months, a growing chorus of prominent individuals has been sounding the alarm about an issue that has suffered from bewildering inattention in recent years: the negative impact of rapid global population growth on the health and well-being of our planet. Although rarely stated directly, implicit in these statements (highlighted below) is that more should be done to support voluntary family planning and basic reproductive health care for millions of poor women who lack it. Why? Because lack of family planning is a primary cause of the more than 60 million unintended pregnancies worldwide every year and the resulting yearly net increase in global population of 78 million people.
This morning I attended an extraordinary presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars by Thomas Friedman about his new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. As you might suspect from the catchy title, the book focuses on how “global warming, the stunning rise of middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable.” [See p. 5 @
In recent months, Friedman’s been joined in bringing attention to the role of population growth in such critical issues as poverty, climate change, hunger, and security by the Secretary General of the U.N., the director of the CIA, former President Bill Clinton, the leaders of the G-8, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the United States Senate.
Here are a few excerpts:
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon: “Global Action to Save Global Growth” — Washington Post op-ed (July 3, 2008)
“climate change and environmental degradation threaten the future of our planet. Growing populations and rising wealth place unprecedented stress on the earth’s resources. Malthus is back in vogue. Everything seems suddenly in short supply: energy, clean air and fresh water, all that nourishes us and supports our modern ways of life.”
Bill Clinton: Speech at the Slate 60 Conference (October 22, 2007)
” the population of the world is supposed to go to nine billion by 2050. Nobody is going to talk about this in the election this year for either party, but I’m not running so I can say it. …[I]t took us 150,000 years to go from one person to 6.5 billion, and we’re going to nine billion in 43 years? Now just think about it. Think about the accelerating pace of change in the world. We’re going to nine billion people. Almost all of those 2.5 billion people are going to be born in countries now unable to support the people who live there.
CIA Director Michael Hayden: Speech at Kansas State Univ. (April 30, 2008)
“In thinking about the future, one of the most important things that our analysts brought to–CIA analysts–brought to my attention was world demographics. Now I’m probably pointing at the obvious here, but let me point to some of the things that our analysts brought to my attention. Today, there are 6.7 billion people sharing the planet. By mid-century–by mid-century, the best estimates point to a world population of more than 9 billion. That’s a 40 to 45 percent increase–striking enough–but most of that growth is almost certain to occur in countries least able to sustain it, and that will create a situation that will likely fuel instability and extremism–not just in those areas, but beyond them as well.”
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: Speech at U.S. Global Leadership Campaign Tribute Dinner (July 15, 2008)
“We also know that over the next 20 years certain pressures – population, resource, energy, climate, economic, and environmental – could combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability. We face now, and will inevitably face in the future, rising powers discontented with the international status quo, possessing new wealth and ambition, and seeking new and more powerful weapons. But, overall, looking ahead, I believe the most persistent and potentially dangerous threats will come less from emerging ambitious states, than from failing ones that cannot meet the basic needs – much less the aspirations – of their people.”
United States Senate – July 18, 2008: FY 2009 Annual Foreign Assistance Bill (Senate Report 110-425, p. 36)
”the stresses on woefully inadequate social services in many developing countries caused by high rates of population growth, which contribute to competition for limited resources, environmental degradation, malnutrition, poverty and conflict. Assisting countries in reducing rates of population growth to sustainable levels should be a priority of USAID.”
For those of us who have lamented the declining support in recent years for international family planning programs – in part due to the lack of attention paid to the implications of rapid global population growth – these statements are very encouraging. But forty years since world leaders first proclaimed that individuals have a basic right to determine how many children to have and when to have them, some key questions remain:
- Will this renewed attention to population issues result in greater funding and political support for international FP/RH programs?
- Will we finally provide the resources necessary to ensure that all women, rich and poor, rural and urban, literate and illiterate can freely determine when and if to have a child?
We have a ways to go in reaching that goal. Modern contraceptives still remain out of reach for hundreds of millions of women in poor and developing nations because of issues such as availability and affordability. As a result, more than one-third of the 190 million pregnancies worldwide are unintended – a major driver of the addition of nearly 80 million people to our world each and every year.
This isn’t rocket science. Couples around the world fundamentally want family planning – and it works. In addition to fostering slower, more sustainable population growth, it raises standards of living, improves maternal and child health, and reduces abortion.
Of course, in the end it’s all about sex and the empowerment of women – two issues which a lot of officials would rather sweep under the rug and ignore. But the price of doing so is an increasingly high one. Just ask the “experts.”