If you are, like me, a newspaper addict who wants to keep a finger on the American pulse, you should follow the daily letters to the editor. Reg Edwards of Compton, Arkansas, recently wrote about one of my favorite big-picture topics: global overpopulation. Edwards notes that our numbers continue increasing by 200,000 every day, and have gone from 2 billion in the early 1930s to nearly 8 billion today. According to Edwards, "population is the issue": Until world leaders do something about it, big world problems will persist.
I couldn't agree more. Population growth aggravates nearly every one of our troubles: poverty, hunger, pollution, disease, war, resource depletion, global warming, extinctions, crime, congestion, immigration pressures, you name it. Our numbers are outrunning our resources.
So why don't we do something about it? The answer is that solving overpopulation is like turning around an aircraft carrier. It's a long-term problem and any non-catastrophic solution will also be long-term. Nevertheless, let's see where we stand, what the trends are and what we could do.
First, we should dismantle the common "birther" argument that large populations enable more people to experience life. This is false. We do want to maximize the number of people experiencing life over the long term, but large populations cannot do this because continued over-population spells short-term (within a few centuries) disaster for humans, after which a bare remnant might experience conditions resembling the stone age. What we want instead is a long healthy life for Homo sapiens--many millennia of prosperity during which trillions live happy, productive lives. To get there, the human race must shrink far below its current 7.8 billion population.
Here is wonderful news: The expert projections during the past decade were for global population to reach 11.2 billion in 2100 and to peak shortly thereafter. That's more than three billion additional people -- which would be a disaster. But a new and compelling study published in The Lancet projects world population to peak at 9.7 billion in 2064 and decline to 8.8 billion by 2100. As partial confirmation of this welcome conclusion, a news report on May 6 noted that the United States birthrate fell 4 percent last year, the largest decrease in 50 years, and the decline was across every race, ethnicity and age group. This was partly due to covid-19, but it's also indicative of long-term trends.
According to the study, the projections are driven by lower fertility rates in nearly every country and arise from the expected education of women to at least age 16 as well as from the global provision of reproductive health services. This, then, is the prescription for turning overpopulation around: Educate women and provide worldwide reproductive health services.
There is widespread support in most nations for the education of women and for reproductive health services including, obviously, sex education and family planning. But there are obstacles: Some cultures do not support, or in fact actively suppress, such education or services. This is prevalent in conservative religious cultures -- Islamic Mideast nations but also in the West among fundamentalist Christians including the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, many political, social and religious organizations oppose sex education and family planning, especially when it involves the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. These obstacles can only be overcome through education and awareness. People need to know, for example, that sex education and family planning lead to lower abortion rates as demonstrated by The Netherlands' low abortion rate (6 per 1,000 women of reproductive age) as compared with America's high abortion rate (15 per 1,000). Sex education and family planning also lead to lower teenage pregnancy rates. Today, global trends toward more liberal religious views and greater freedom for women are working in the right direction.
Nations whose average fertility rate is higher than 2.1 children per woman will expand in population, while nations with lower rates will shrink. Those who want to contribute to a healthy future for humankind should "stop at two." Birthers and others who promote large families are harming everyone alive and everyone in the future. Population growth can seem profitable for cities and real-estate developers, but ultimately this pro-growth philosophy brings the overpopulation ills mentioned above.
The United Nations, and rich nations such as ours, can help significantly by providing funds and expertise to support women's education, family planning and sex education worldwide. We can all support the international women's movement -- the most important social movement of our time.
And young people today can plan to stop at two.