THE BLOG
11/11/2014 09:21 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

The Population Wake-Up Call

A recently published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reads like a grim Choose Your Own Adventure tale of global population dynamics. What if the next pandemic wiped out 2 billion people? What if the entire world implemented a one-child policy? What if fertility rates didn't change at all?

From run-of-the-mill variant fertility rates to a menu of hypothetical catastrophes, the authors of "Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems" looked at multiple scenarios to determine how different underlying factors might affect global population trends. They came to the conclusion that no matter what happens, any attempt to address population growth "is a solution long in the making from which our great-great-great-great grandchildren might ultimately benefit, rather than people living today" and we would be better off focusing our energy on addressing overconsumption.

Setting aside questions about the accuracy of their calculations, there was one troubling scenario that wasn't discussed: What would happen if we just completely ignored the population issue?

Around the world, more than 200 million women who want access to modern contraception are unable to get it, and that unmet need is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next 15 years. In the U.S., about half of all pregnancies are unintended - higher than the global average - and yet we've seen unprecedented attacks in recent years on access to reproductive healthcare. Economists and politicians are sounding the alarm to increase population for the sake of economic growth, while more than a billion people already live in extreme poverty and almost as many face hunger every day.

It's not just our own species struggling on our crowded planet: Wildlife are going extinct at least 1,000 times the natural background rate, with human population growth indicated as a key factor.

Maybe population isn't a problem we can solve overnight, but from backslides in women's rights and reproductive healthcare to increasing pressure on the natural world, the consequences of ignoring the issue would be swift and severe.

To the authors' credit, they did state that their findings were "not an excuse for neglecting ethical measures for fertility reduction now." Corey Bradshaw, lead author on the study, said, "I hope this is taken as a wake-up call and a sobering reminder of how long we've neglected the population issue."

Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media took the study as a call for inaction, a giant snooze button to keep ignoring the elephant in the room.

Population stabilization and reduction has never been seen as a "quick fix," but rather a necessary one. In the past four decades, human population has nearly doubled. In that same time period, populations of both invertebrate and vertebrate wild animals have plummeted by half. Extinction rates, climate change, pollution and global inequality have accelerated. Overconsumption shares the blame, but this isn't an either-or situation. That's the elephant missing from so much of the media narrative around this study: When you do the math, there's no escaping the fact that there are more people demanding more from our planet than ever before.

We can pick a different direction. Stop hitting the snooze button and make it a priority to keep expanding human rights, reproductive healthcare, education and equality while saving as much room as we still can for wildlife. That's the adventure I'd choose every time.