Student Reporting: Population 7 Billion

February 22, 2012 • Family Planning, Daily Email Recap

I am pleased to distribute the following student essay, written by Carleton University undergrad Marika Washchyshyn (Bachelor of Journalism, 2012) for her International Reporting analytical course. Marika initially reached out to Population Institute’s Global Population Speak Out program for information and research leads. She submitted her paper on December 8, 2011. Congratulations, Marika.

Student Reporting: Population 7 Billion
Marika Washchyshyn

On October 31st, 2011, the United Nations announced the birth of the world’s seven billionth baby. According to the Population Institute’s population clock, the world population is 7,007,925,230 and counting today.

In a world where globalization has brought billions of people around the world closer together, is the birth of ‘Baby Seven Billion’ cause for concern or celebration? Now more than ever, factors like climate change, gender equality, the global economy and consumption of resources are being scrutinized as our planet’s sustainability is called into question.

Population growth has been on the rise since the 1800s, most notably from the three billion people milestone in 1959 to the seven billion people milestone in 2011. A report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) shows the billion-person increments between 1959 and 2011 took 12 years on average versus the 159 years it took to add the first three billion people. If current trends continue, the world population will rise to nine billion by 2050 and 10 billion by 2082, continuing to grow until the end of the century and beyond.

For perspective, the article “The Myth of 9 Billion” in May 2011’s Foreign Policy magazine says in the first five months of the year, the world population has grown by enough to equal all of the AIDS deaths since the epidemic began 30 years ago.

The world’s current population is consuming commodities and natural resources at a rate of one and a half Earths. In a report by the Global Footprint Network, this is explained as the “ecological overshoot” phenomenon, where annual demand for resources exceeds what the Earth can generate in a year. Today, it takes the Earth one and a half years to regenerate what its population uses in one year.

Michael Borucke, a research scientist at the Global Footprint Network, provides a telling analogy on the concept of overshoot. He says it’s a matter of time before every nation needs to realize the seriousness of the phenomenon.

“If we think about the Earth as a bank and if we understand that we’re taking more out than we’re putting in, over time, is that sustainable?” Borucke said. “Eventually, we’re going to get to zero. It’s just a question of how long it will take.”

President of the Population Institute Robert Walker says if we continue on the current course of the world’s renewable capacity, we could need two Earths by 2050. He says population growth is an important component, but is only one of many the world needs to address.

Access to family planning and reproductive health is a priority on a number of experts’ lists. According to the UN, there are 215 million women around the world who want to avoid pregnancy and aren’t using modern contraception. Between lack of access to contraceptives and cultural norms including male dominance, high prevalence of child marriages and gender inequality, unplanned and unwanted pregnancies are a problem worldwide, particularly in developing nations.

Richard Kollodge, Senior Editor for UNFPA, says women’s empowerment is key, and that too often in too many places, women have little or no say over their reproductive decisions.

The UNFPA reports an estimated 80 million unintended pregnancies, 22 million unsafe abortions and 358,000 deaths from maternal causes, including 47,000 from unsafe abortion per year.

Walker explains that if donor nations – developed nations contributing to global assistance – spent an additional $3.5 billion dollars, or an increase of about three per cent of what they currently donate, those millions of women would have drastically increased access to contraceptives and reproductive health measures.

“To put it into perspective, the world spends $200 billion on beer every year,” Walker said. “In such a world, surely we can find $3.5 billion for women who want to avoid pregnancy.”

Dr. Christabelle Sethna, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Women’s Studies, says although contraception and abortion are very important issues, family planning solutions alone won’t solve the problem. She thinks ongoing inequality among individuals and countries is what’s unsustainable.

Although the UNFPA State of the World Population 2011 report states that fertility rates have been declining since the 1960s, Walker cautions that the world is coming into an era of limits to growth. The most likely manifestation of this are increases in commodity prices of food, fossil fuels, and other resources.

The Population Institute’s report (PDF), From 6 Billion to 7 Billion, states that over the last seven years, food commodity prices have risen about 130 per cent. Metals and other minerals have seen even higher increases at 200 to 300 per cent, and oil has seen a ten-fold increase at over $100 a barrel.

Borucke of the Global Footprint Network advises nations to monitor their consumption patterns and understand Earth as a finite resource. Although slow reductions in population size may generate little gains in resources in the short term, keeping the world’s population in check will lead to dramatic declines in biocapacity deficits in the long term.

Executive Director for Climate Action Network Canada Graham Saul says the decline in consumption starts with developed nations providing an example that it’s possible to meet our energy needs without sending the whole world on a collision course to catastrophic climate change.

Canada is a top 10 greenhouse gas contributor across the board, per capita and as a nation. Saul says if Canada refuses to do its fair share, it will be failing to protect younger generations and help keep the world on course in driving 60 to 70 per cent of its species to extinction.

Saul highlights this by providing the following statistics. By the end of January 5th, only five days into the year, the average Canadian will have burned more GHGs than the average Burundian will burn all year long. And by the end of that month, the average Canadian will have burned more GHGs than 38 countries around the world will all year long.

“Essentially, hundreds of millions of lives will be lost, billions of livelihoods will be destroyed, entire populations will face migration, and large portions of the world will effectively no longer be inhabitable,” Saul said. “It will be a tragedy on a scale of any major tragedy of the world’s history.”

On December 5th, 2011, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Canada would not renew its 20-year-long commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.

According to Dr. Ram Sahi, research professor of economics at Carleton University, global warming is almost of more concern to the world’s population than population growth itself. He says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggests food scarcity levels have erupted from higher food prices and will worsen from drought, flooding and other disasters as a result of global warming.

The Population Institute states urbanization rates are greater than those of population as arid land shortages force rural inhabitants to move to cities. Slums continue to grow, as well as the number of people living on less than one dollar a day in highly unsanitary conditions. Local city planners are unable to keep up with the growing demand of services for their populations.

“One point five trillion dollars is sitting with big corporations,” Sahi said. “Governments in the Western world need to make investments into technology and environmental infrastructure, and that investment is not taking place.”

Thomas Friedman recently wrote an article for The New York Times, predicting that our current consumer-driven growth model will be replaced with a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working and owning less. He says the response will be dramatic and change at a speed we can barely imagine today, and that it will completely transform our economy in just a few short decades.

“We are heading for a crisis-driven choice,” he says in the article. “We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

Saul is optimistic about the future. He says alternatives are available, given the wealthiest 10 per cent of humanity start focusing their efforts on investing in clean, renewable energy. In the end, he says, it’s a profound moral choice.

Walker of the Population Institute isn’t so sure. He thinks that only by meeting the express desire of gender equality, we can then try to make the world more sustainable in the long term.

“I think we all want to celebrate human life. It’s great for the first time in history the planet is able to currently support 7 billion people,” said Walker. “But I think 7 billion is cause for concern, not celebration.”

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