THE BLOG
06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Uttering the "P" Word on Earth Day

When the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, there was much discussion about population growth and its strain on Mother Earth. World population at that time was 3.7 billion. Today, with world population at 6.8 billion and still growing, nary a word is being said about population and its impact on the planet. What gives?

Thomas Hayden in reviewing three new ecology books for the Washington Post this week writes "Bizarrely, none of these authors discusses population growth in any kind of depth, if at all." Julia Whitty writing for the May/June edition of Mother Jones magazine calls discussion of population "the last taboo."

If human numbers were a problem in 1970, they are even more of problem today. There's more deforestation, more depletion of fisheries, more plant and animal extinction, and a whole lot more concern about the human impact on the world's climate. Then there are the concerns about energy, food and water. But, there is still little or no talk today about population. Why?

There are multiple reasons. First, discussion about population today inevitably raises concerns about coercion. Woman should not be forced to have fewer children. Fair enough. But outside of China's one-child policy, few women are being forced to have fewer children. The problem, in fact, is the opposite. Women in many parts of the world are bearing more children than they want. Some women lack information about family planning or access to modern contraceptives. In other cases, women have little say in reproductive matters, particularly in countries where child marriage is prevalent and respect for women is low. When it comes to population, empowering and educating women and giving them more reproductive choice is a good thing.

Second, there are those who regard discussion of population as somehow racist. With birth rates falling toward the "replacement rate" in economically advanced countries, poor developing countries are largely responsible for world population growth. What right do we have to tell people in the developing world that they should have fewer children? Good question.

First, let's acknowledge that when it comes to climate change and preventing the depletion of scarce resources, it's far more important to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the U.S. and other developed nations. That's because we consume a lot more resources. The ecological "footprint" of a child born in the U.S. or even Europe is much higher than a child born in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. That's why we all need to change our consumption patterns.

Second, lowering birth rates in many developing countries is enormously beneficial. Family planning saves lives. High fertility rates are associated with high rates of maternal death and infant death. Early teen pregnancies, in particular, have bad health outcomes. Smaller families are not only healthier; they are more likely to be better educated and better off financially.

Of course, we don't have to reduce population growth in poor developing countries through voluntary family planning. But if we fail to do so, many of these countries may not be able to feed themselves in the decades ahead. Unless birth rates fall further, countries like Niger and Uganda will triple their populations by mid-century. Yemen, which experts warn is running out of the water, is on pace to double its population in 30 years or less.

In some cases, rapid population growth is contributing to environmental and economic impoverishment in the form of deforestation and soil erosion. In some cases, like Rwanda and Sudan, population pressures have contributed to political strife and even civil war. There are, in fact, dozens of failing, or potentially failing, states where family planning will likely make the difference between survival and a humanitarian disaster.

Keeping silent about the world's population crisis may make some people feel better, but it won't make the world itself any better. We don't do anybody any favors, including our posterity and all the other living creatures on this planet, when we ignore population growth and its implications. In a world beset by conflicting needs, there aren't many 'win-win' propositions anymore, but voluntary family planning is one of them.