Defusing the population bomb

It's getting crowded out there. According to an updated report from the United Nations, the planet's population is not following the expected curve: topping out at about 9 billion mid-century and then leveling off. Instead, the demographic trends point to continued growth, bringing the worldwide population to 10.1 billion by the end of the century — nearly a 50% increase for a planet now inhabited by just under 7 billion.

The highest rates of growth will be concentrated in poverty-stricken countries with low education levels, especially those in Africa, where the population is expected to more than triple to 3.5 billion. Nigeria's population, for instance, would more than quadruple, to 730 million. In the Middle East, the population of Yemen is projected to more than quadruple by the end of the century; this in a country that has a limited water supply and already must import much of its food.

The news led some population experts to call for improvements in agriculture to feed a world with so many hungry mouths. But that is, at best, a temporary patch. No matter how efficient we become at growing food, the Earth cannot provide for an infinitely increasing population.

If the U.N.'s numbers hold true, the increased number of poor people will strain the world's environment and natural resources. It will also create far more demand for foreign aid from the developed world.

When the figures are adjusted for inflation, worldwide family-planning aid to poor countries dropped by more than half from 1995 to 2007. The United States has long been the world's leader in this kind of assistance, but gave it shorter shrift during the George W. Bush administration, which launched a multibillion-dollar initiative on AIDS in Africa but flat-lined spending on birth control aid. In addition, the AIDS prevention campaign emphasized abstinence and marital fidelity, which were not particularly effective, rather than condom use.

President Obama's budgets have called for increased spending on family planning overseas, but in the current budget battle, that funding was cut by 5% (even on the domestic front, the Republican Party has waged an attack on women's reproductive rights by attempting to withdraw funding for Planned Parenthood). Meanwhile, no other country has stepped in. As a result, at least a fourth of the women in Africa have no access to effective birth control methods.

According to Robert Engelman, vice president of the Worldwatch Institute, more than one in five births results from an unwanted pregnancy. Without all the unintentional births, fertility would be below the replacement level, the rate needed to maintain the current population.

In other words, it wouldn't take much to drastically change the end-of-century numbers. Bad crops, lack of water, epidemics — any or all of these could tip the balance back toward a population that levels off at 9 billion. But those are tragic scenarios. In contrast, more education for girls and wider access to safe, effective family planning would serve a dual purpose, moving the world population toward sustainable levels and helping to avert famine, illness and premature death.

Forty years ago, early efforts to provide family-planning aid in developing countries ran aground when they became associated with coercive birth control programs such as China's one-baby policy and India's forced vasectomies. Such violations of human rights are not just unacceptable; they also are unnecessary. Surveys find that women in developing countries would choose smaller families if they had the means to do so.

Women who have no schooling give birth to an average of 4.5 children; with just a year or more of schooling, the number drops to 3. As education increases, the number of births drops. Girls in Africa who receive some education will have fewer children and have them later in life. Their children will be healthier, and more educated as well.

Of course, foreign aid is of limited help in countries where religious beliefs or oppressive regimes make it all but impossible for women to exert control over any aspect of their lives. But as individual nations find it more difficult to provide for burgeoning populations in coming decades, there could be some surprising changes. In Iran, a campaign to increase the birthrate after the shah was deposed in the late 1970s — the legal age to marry was lowered to 9 — was reversed when the country struggled to find housing, employment and even enough water for a population that had nearly doubled in two decades. The new smaller-families campaign included birth control counseling before a couple could obtain a marriage license, and the birthrate plummeted to just above replacement level. More recently there have been calls to raise the number of births again.

The industrial world struggles with a different form of ambivalence about population growth. When birthrates in Japan and Italy fell to well below replacement levels, leaders were horrified and the Western news media reported it as terrible news. It's true that such a decline in birthrates presents a challenge: a smaller population of working-age people to support a larger population of retirees. Radical drops in birthrates and the subsequent aging of the population have presented formidable problems in some countries. But the situation is temporary; that smaller population will age in a few decades and become easier for future generations to support.

This much is certain: Nations cannot indefinitely produce larger and larger generations to support older ones. Humans may have the reproductive ability to keep raising their numbers, but the planet on which they do it is finite.

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