Robert Walker: Challenges ahead for population seven billion

December 20, 2011 • Family Planning, Farming Practices, Daily Email Recap

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EarthSky // Interviews // Human World By Jorge Salazar Nov 02, 2011

Robert Walker: Challenges ahead for population seven billion

The world’s now-seven-billion people face new challenges from population growth unseen in the 20th century. That’s according to Robert Walker, executive vice-president of the Population Institute. Walker told EarthSky:

In the 20th century, the world successfully coped with population growth. We made substantial progress in reducing poverty and hunger. But today, as the world approaches the seven billion mark, confidence is not so high. After decades of progress in reducing hunger and severe poverty, a global recession and a food crisis have reversed some of the gains that were recently made. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a trend of higher and higher commodity prices for energy, minerals, and perhaps most importantly, for basic foodstuffs. At a minimum, the era of cheap energy and cheap food appears to be over.

Looking forward, Walker pointed to sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia as flash points in the fight against poverty. He said:

The critical question that we have to ask ourselves is, what can we do in the interest of reducing hunger and poverty in the world to lower fertility rates in those countries where fertility rates are well above the world average.

The answer to the challenges of population is complex, said Walker.

But it basically comes down to the need to keep girls in school longer. Because, we know that when girls stay in school and receive an education, that they will have few children, smaller families. Similarly, we know that when girls are not only educated, but given economic and political opportunity and full gender equality, family size also tends to fall over time. Finally, we need to make sure that women everywhere, not just in the developed world, but also in the developing world today, have access to a full range of contraceptives so that they have reproductive choice and are able to exercise their reproductive rights.

Even though population growth has slowed in the past half century, Earth continues to see new population records for humans. Walker explained.

There has been a substantial amount of progress made in the last 50 years in terms of reducing fertility, or birth rates. And because of that, we’ve seen a slowdown in the world’s population growth rate. But despite that slowdown, the world, in terms of the number of people being added every year to the planet, is still growing very briskly. In fact, we’re adding more people to the planet this year than we did ten years ago at this time.

We face a very significant challenge. And the problem is, the decline in fertility rates has begun to slow down. And we’re seeing in many countries today, fertility rates appear to be stuck at a fairly high level, which is inhibiting our ability to reduce hunger in those countries and to fight severe poverty.

Today’s seven billion people face unseen challenges from population growth. Image credit: U.N.

When it comes to things like food and shelter, a lot has changed since the world held six billion people in 1999, said Walker.

The major thing that’s changed in the last twelve years is that commodity prices, the prices we pay for oil, coal, natural gas, the prices we pay for minerals, copper and tin, and perhaps most importantly, the prices we pay for basic food commodities – wheat, rice, corn, and cooking oil – have all gone up very dramatically over the last ten to twelve years. And what that means is that it’s a harder and harder job to eliminate severe poverty in the world. And it means that people, rather than being able to come out of hunger and malnutrition, are being pushed back into a state where they’re not having enough food, or they’re not having the right kind of food to maintain health. So it’s a changing dynamic in the world.

Now, in addition to that, there is a longstanding concern that has existed for well over a half a century – that population growth and rising consumption are imperiling the planet itself. That we are, as a result of human activity, fundamentally changing the planet’s environment, starting, first of all, with climate change of course, but also extending to other issues, such as water quality and particularly a lot of concern that exists today about the oceans.

Robert Walker told EarthSky what he thought was most important about the milestone of population seven billion.

The important thing that people have to realize today is that population growth is a challenge for the world. And like all challenges, they have to be met; otherwise, we have to accept the consequences. And population growth really relates to almost all the problems that we are concerned about in the world today.

If you ask people, what are the most important problems that exist out there today, many people will mention climate change. They’ll mention environment. They’ll mention severe poverty and hunger. All these issues are related back to population growth and our unwillingness to provide women in the developing world and in the developed world alike, the access to the family planning services and information they want.

So, there’s an awful lot at stake, and it really comes down to whether or not we’re able to meet the needs and desires of women in the developing world and in the developed world. It doesn’t require a huge investment in resources to do that. That’s really the critical thing that people need to understand. Reducing population growth doesn’t require that we spend trillions of dollars. There are many challenges in the world that do require us to spend trillions of dollars, including the transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy.

But with respect to the population challenge, this is something that we can do something about, and we can do it very cost-effectively. It doesn’t require that much money. But it does require commitment.

Bottom Line: The world’s seven billion people face new challenges from population growth unseen in the previous decade. Rising prices for the necessities of life like food and energy put even more pressure on the world’s poor. Girls’ education and access to family planning are ways to slow population growth and alleviate poverty worldwide.

Robert Walker

Robert Walker is the Executive Vice President of the Population Institute, where he directs the organization’s advocacy and public education activities, including its work on issues related to health, economic development, sustainability and the environment. Prior to joining the Population Institute in February 2009, Mr. Walker was President of the Population Resource Center.

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