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Christy Turlington Burns Headshot

Occupy The World

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POPULATION 7 BILLION
AFP/Getty Images

Like many Americans, my family just celebrated Halloween with all its tricks and excesses of treats. In all the excitement, an important piece of news may not have made it on to the radar screen for many of us, though it may represent a more shocking -- and very real -- Halloween worthy scare. The UNFPA estimated that this October 31 marked the approximate day that the world population passed the 7 billion mark. 7 billion. To some, that may sound like just an abstract number or an interesting factoid, but the truth is our global population growth will have serious implications for all of us and of course for our children and grandchildren.

7 billion is not a magic number in and of itself; maybe the real 'scare' is that it isn't contained to a date shared with Halloween. With about two babies being born every second, the seven billion figure will keep climbing. Some estimates say that it could reach 10 billion by 2100.

This exponential rate of growth has implications that maybe we've been loathe to accept but will have the greatest effect on the most vulnerable. These populations have suffered, and will continue to suffer as food security and resources become more limited and diminish with each year's passing.

Curiously, and perhaps more than simply notable, every report I could find about the 7 billionth baby was born somewhere "over there," thousands of miles from the United States -- as far as Nigeria or the Philippines.

In the U.S and Western Europe, where the native-born population has shrunk, there is a common perception, tinged with a not always subtle sense of cultural and racial bias, that the population explosion in the developing world is the result of some ingrained and unavoidable predisposition toward creating large families -- perhaps rooted in religious and social values that are too entrenched to change. And that we have no right, responsibility or ability to try to change these values. Whatever problems they suffer as a result are then easily pushed off as "their" problem.

But cultures do in fact change, and not always as the result of a direct effort to transform a particular social attitude or behavior. It was not long ago, in the post-war era, that American households had large broods of five or more children. This was particularly true in Catholic communities, for example, due to the Church's teaching against the use of contraceptives. But in the generation following the baby boom, even Catholic families began having fewer children. Was this because the Church changed its teaching? Or that families abandoned their religion? Neither -- the teaching did not change, and while church attendance may have diminished in the past 40 years, pews at Catholic churches are far from empty. It is more likely a result of the huge increase in the number of women going to college and entering the workforce. Women delayed having families to pursue careers and had access to the tools they needed to empower themselves to having smaller families in light of their work demands outside the home. This had a positive impact not only in terms of population management, but also women's health: having fewer children also resulted in fewer pregnancy-related deaths.

As a global community we have to start thinking more seriously about whether there are limits to what our earth can bear and if we're willing to cope with the struggle for limited resources, which only seem to increase as our population does. These are the same considerations individual family units should be able to consider as they determine the ideal of their own family's size. We might consider making it easier for individuals to access the tools to help limit family size if desired. UNFPA says that at least 200 million women want to use safe and effective family planning methods, but are unable to do so because they lack access to information and services or the support of their husbands and communities. We might also consider how investment in the education and empowerment of girls and women will help shape the choices families make about how many children to have. This is where the hope comes in -- we can actually do something about this infringement on rights.

The real news story here is not just that the world is getting crowded but that we will have to work a lot harder toward bringing the world together. If we truly value humanity, life and all that it represents in its highest form, then we need to do all that we can to promote quality of life over the quantity of life. Life expectancy has also doubled in the last one hundred years. If this trend continues more of us might need to consider the quality of life question sooner than later, if only out of self preservation.

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