07/10/2014 02:53 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

World Population Day: How Are We Doing?


Twenty-five years ago, the United Nations Development Programme declared July 11 to be World Population Day. Much has changed in the past quarter century. Significant progress has been made, but many challenges remain. More women than ever are able to decide freely how many children to have and when, but many women in the world still lack access to modern methods of contraceptives, and gender inequality in the developing world prevents many girls and women from exercising their reproductive freedom. As a result, global fertility rates have fallen, but not as fast as once expected. Without access to reproductive services, maternal and infant mortality remain unacceptably high, and the challenges posed by a growing world population continue to mount.

Every woman in the world should be able to decide, free from any coercion, when to have children and how many children to have. As part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the UN set 2015 as the target year for achieving universal access to family planning and reproductive health services, but that target will not be met. Twenty-five years after the first World Population Day, the international community needs to recommit itself to empowering women and girls and ensuring that they have access to reproductive health services. Here's why:

Population is still growing. Twenty-five years ago, world population stood at 5.2 billion. Today, it's 7.2 billion, and if global fertility rates were to remain unchanged, world population would soar to an unsustainable 27 billion by the end of the century. In 1989, women on average had 3.3 children in their lives; today they have 2.5 children. Fortunately, demographers are generally agreed that fertility rates will continue to fall, and if they fall as fast as currently projected world population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050 and nearly 11 billion by the end of the century. Even that projected growth path, however, has its perils.

The Global Footprint Network estimates that we are already overusing planetary resources. In terms of renewable resources and the Earth's capacity to absorb carbon, toxic chemicals and other forms of pollution, we will need two Earth's by 2030 to sustain us for the long haul. Our current growth path is unsustainable. The warning signs are all around us, as rivers and lakes shrink, water tables fall, carbon emissions rise, deserts expand, forests shrink, and fisheries collapse.

Current trends would suggest that we are on our way to becoming a "single-specie" planet. We have already using about half of the world's land surface to grow our crops, raise livestock, construct our roads, and build our towns and cities. To grow our crops, we are using a land area about the size of South America, and to raise cattle and farm animals we have cleared an area greater than the continent of Africa. There is still land available, but what's left, for the most part, consists of mountains, tundra, deserts, and lands of marginal utility. If we need more arable land, and it appears we do, we must chop down more forests, including tropical forests.


Our claims upon the planet are having a devastating toll on all the other species that call this planet home. Scientists are warning that we are triggering the "Sixth Mass Extinction," the great extinction, perhaps, since the dinosaurs were extinguished 65 million years ago. Rates of species extinction are currently about 1000 times higher than the natural rate.

Preventing unplanned pregnancies is in everybody's best interests. In the developed world, where you and I are consuming a highly disproportionate share of the world's resources, preventing unplanned pregnancies will help to reduce carbon emissions and slow the headlong depletion of the world's limited resources. In the developing world, where fertility rates are still very high, family planning services are desperately needed to reduce maternal and infant mortality, fight poverty, end hunger, reduce gender inequality, and, in many areas, mitigate water scarcity and deforestation.

The United Nations estimates that there are 222 million women in the developing world who want to avoid a pregnancy, but who are not using a modern method of birth control. Meeting that contraceptive need would cost only $3.5 billion a year. By any global standard that's a tiny investment of money, but it's one that would pay enormous dividends in terms of improving the health and well-being of families. But in addition to expanding access to contraceptive options, we also need to empower girls and women.

Child marriage, in particular, needs to end. It's a violation of human rights that imperils the health and wellbeing of girls, and one that serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and hunger in desperately poor countries.

Today, as in 1989, we need to recommit ourselves to a healthier and more sustainable world, and that begins by promoting gender equality and providing universal access to family planning and reproductive health services. It's not just a moral imperative, it's a global imperative, and that's why the Population Institute has launched a population education campaign that features a brand new series of graphics and factoids that can be shared with your family and friends. Click here for more information.