07/11/2013 08:21 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2013

Give Women and Girls the World


Happy World Population Day! Yeah, I know. It might lack the sizzle of Sidewalk Egg Frying Day (July 4) or the flash of National Nude Day (July 14). But it is a pretty darn important reminder that there are a whole lot of us sharing this little planet, and doing what we can to ensure everyone has a decent life has never been more important.

I know what you might be thinking: Didn't we already solve the problem of rapid population growth? After all, many nations -- including the United States -- are at or below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman. In fact, some people have been arguing that America is running out of babies. (I suspect these same people must not use Facebook and never visit a suburban grocery store on the weekend, but that's maybe that's just me.)

But just because nobody's describing the elephant in the room doesn't mean there's no elephant. Here are the facts: Around 5.2 billion people were around to mark the first World Population Day back in 1989. Now, less than 25 years later, we're nearing 7.1 billion. Our human family is growing -- and growing quickly. In fact, the United Nations recently revised its population projections upward. A few years ago, UN demographers expected that we'd hit 10.1 billion by 2100. Now, they project 10.9 billion instead.

To put that into perspective, at our current rate of growth, every night there are a quarter million additional people at the global dinner table than the night before -- the equivalent of 409 fully loaded jumbo jets. And nearly all of the growth is happening in nations least able to cope with it, where land, food and water resources are already being stretched to the limit.

Maybe that increase wouldn't matter if our planet were expanding along with the human population. Well, I hate to break it to you, but it's not. In fact, natural resources are increasingly under strain. Already in the world, one in every eight people is hungry. Thanks to climate change's effect on crop yields, agriculture experts project that food prices will double by 2050. That would be bad enough at the previously mentioned suburban grocery store, but it would spell disaster in places where people live on less than $2 per day and spend a larger percentage of their income on food than we do.

And you can't grow crops without water. Our planet might look a refreshing blue from space, but all but 2.5 percent of that water is too salty for plants or people to drink. And more than a billion people already live in water-scarce areas. By 2025, half of the world's population is expected to live in areas of water stress.

Some people argue that we have plenty of food and water; it's simply a distribution problem. Perhaps that's the case, but it's little comfort to the Rwandan mother who can't provide her children enough nutrition, or the Afghan family whose well has gone dry and whose livestock have died. Do Americans need to use fewer resources? Absolutely, yes. But will that automatically make life better for people in the poorest nations in the world? Unfortunately, no.

So what can we do for the world's population on this World Population Day? We can redouble our commitment to the empowerment of girls and women. Women everywhere deserve the right to decide if and when to have a child. Currently, at least 222 million women in the developing world don't have that choice, because they have no access to affordable and appropriate contraception.

Access to family planning doesn't just help women achieve their goals -- although that's certainly a great reason to support it. When babies are planned, they are born healthier. Families can invest more in each child's education, and girls are more likely to finish school. Whole nations can harness the economic engine known as the demographic dividend. Extreme poverty really could become a thing of the past.

I'm not expecting you to throw a World Population Day party this evening -- we all know how tough navigating the supermarket after work can be. But I am asking you to do three things: Demand that your lawmakers support funding for international family planning programs -- $1 billion is America's fair share. Talk to your friends and family about how all women -- not just the lucky residents of developed nations -- deserve to make choices about their own futures.

And above all, speak up for the empowerment of women and girls. Because none of us can fully succeed if only half of us ever get the chance.

John Seager is President of Population Connection, the nation's largest grassroots population organization. The organization's website is