Earth’s population should exceed 7 billion people around the end of October 2011, according to the estimates of population experts. This morning (October 25) the Worldwatch Institute of Washington D.C. released a succinct approach to creating a sustainable world with 7 billion-plus humans. It rang true to me, so I wanted to present it to you here.
Worldwatch’s idea is that there are two critical factors that will contribute to sustainability. One, women across the globe must be empowered to make their own decisions about childbearing. Two, we as a species need to make significant reductions in global consumption of energy and natural resources. According to Worldwatch, this two-pronged approach:
… would move humanity toward rather than further away from environmentally sustainable societies that meet human needs.
Over my lifetime – 60 years – roughly 4.5 billion people have been added to world population, according to United Nations estimates. I remember a less populated world. It was a simpler world, with problems of course, but without the intensity and complexity of today’s problems and today’s world. Worldwatch puts it this way:
Because humans interact with their surroundings far more intensely than any other species and use vast amounts of carbon, nitrogen, water, and other resources, we are on track not only to change the global climate and deplete essential energy and other natural resources, but to wipe out thousands of plant and animal species in the coming decades. To some extent, these outcomes are now unavoidable; we’ll have to adapt to them. But in order to improve the likelihood they will not be catastrophic, we need to simultaneously work to influence the future path of population and to address the environmental and social impacts that continued population growth will have.
Worldwatch uses the phrase out of synch to describe how we as a species are interacting with the planet we live on. Worldwatch President Robert Engelman, an expert on global population, said:
The challenge becomes even more with each generation. Fortunately there are ways to practically and humanely both slow population growth and reduce the impacts associated with the growth that occurs.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched 7 Billion Actions, a campaign to highlight positive actions by individuals and organizations addressing global development challenges. By sharing these innovations in an open forum, the campaign aims to foster communication and collaboration as the planet becomes more populated and increasingly interdependent. Engelman said:
Addressing global population growth is not the same thing as ‘controlling population. The most direct and immediate way to lower birth rates is to make sure that as high a proportion as possible of pregnancies are intended, by assuring that women can make their own choices about whether and when to bear a child. Simultaneously, we need to rapidly transform our energy, water, and materials consumption through greater use of conservation, efficiency, and green technologies. We shouldn’t think of these as sequential efforts—-dealing with consumption first, then waiting for population dynamics to turn around—-but rather as simultaneous tasks on multiple fronts.
Hence Worldwatch’s two main approaches to mitigate the impacts of a soaring global population:
Empower women to make their own decisions about childbearing. Worldwatch says that more than two in five pregnancies worldwide are unintended by the women who experience them, and half or more of these pregnancies result in births that spur continued population growth. They say that Worldwatch president Robert Engelman has calculated that if all women had the capacity to decide for themselves when to become pregnant, average global childbearing would immediately fall below the “replacement fertility” value of slightly more than two children per woman.
Consume fewer resources and waste less food. Worldwatch says we humans appropriate anywhere from 24 percent to nearly 40 percent of the photosynthetic output of the planet for food and other purposes, and more than half of the planet’s accessible renewable freshwater runoff. Add that to the large quantities of food we humans waste every year. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, industrialized countries waste 222 million tons of food annually. Worldwatch suggests the obvious – that wasting fewer resources and less food would help create a more sustainable world.
Sitting at this editor’s desk for the past several decades, reading and listening to scientists’ insights, I agree with what’s being said here. The rights of women are key. Energy and resource usage are key. Do you agree?
Bottom line: At the end of October 2011, Earth’s human population will surpass 7 billion. The Worldwatch Institute suggests that there are two critical factors to creating a sustainable world – a world that can continue indefinitely in peace and prosperity, meeting human needs. One factor is the empowerment of women to control childbearing decisions. The other is more awareness and conservation of energy and resource use.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.