Starting to Talk About Population

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Our global community is growing all the time. The Earth is now home to 6.7 billion people, and the question is looming: Just how many of us can the planet support?

In many discussions about the environment, population growth is the last thing anyone wants to talk about. For one thing, family size is a subject that quickly becomes very personal. And when you consider that one of the most important decisions that people make is whether to have children — and if so, when, how many and with whom — it’s no surprise that even theoretical discussions about population concerns and family planning can turn into awkward conversations.

Nonetheless, global population growth is an issue that begs to be discussed. After all, population size is directly tied to many other issues that affect everyone on the planet — access to clean air and water, wealth and poverty, and global supplies of food and energy.

So let’s start with a simple question. How many of us are there?

By the Numbers

As I’m writing this, the population clock on the U.S. Census Bureau Web page estimates world population as 6,724,401,912. What do you want to bet that’s off by at least one or two people? But you get the idea the clock is meant to convey: World population is growing rapidly and continuously, and 6.7 billion is a good estimate of where we are today. Another population counter on this page puts the U.S. population at about 305 million.

Trying to predict future population growth requires a little more guesswork. For a good discussion of this issue, check out this recent article from the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute. It notes that most demographers expect that by 2050 world population will be between 8 billion and 11 billion people. However, as the author points out, these estimates assume a slowdown in birth rates that may not materialize. Here’s a graphic showing different population projections based on high and low estimates of growth. And that leads us to a more difficult question: What do these different possibilities mean for the planet? How many people is too many?

A Global Issue

There’s a lot of debate about how many people the Earth can reasonably sustain, but you don’t have to look far to find evidence that we’re already experiencing a few problems. Here are a handful of articles linking population growth to the loss of forests and biodiversity, and increases in the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. Population growth also puts a strain on water resources and food supplies.

Another issue to consider: While global population is growing, it isn’t growing evenly. Here’s a graphic that shows population trends by continent. One significant cause for concern is that some of the poorest parts of the world have rapidly growing populations, which could put an even greater strain on limited resources in those areas. On the flip side, population growth in wealthier countries can also cause problems, because richer countries tend to use more resources per person and produce more greenhouse gas emissions. For example, China recently overtook the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but that’s remarkable given the fact that China has a much larger population. In fact, when you look at per capita emissions, it’s clear that the United States is still producing far more than our share of carbon dioxide.

To further complicate the issue, it’s worth mentioning that while population growth can cause social strain, so can population decline. That’s because when birthrates fall dramatically there aren’t as many younger workers to help support aging populations. That’s already an issue in some European countries. One solution is for countries with falling populations to open their doors to more immigration, but that’s another thorny issue around the world.

Starting the Conversation

OK, so if we believe that population growth at its current rate is a problem, what should we do about it? Should those of us who are of childbearing age decide to have fewer children? How many children per person would be ideal? Should governments or international organizations provide help for people who want to have fewer children but don’t have access to health care and contraception? And if that’s the case, at what point should government policies stay out of decisions on family size because it’s too invasive?

Just as importantly, how do we talk about these issues with other people who may have very different opinions? There are now almost 7 billion people on the planet, and we have a wide variety of opinions on population growth and all the related issues of sex, religion, money and politics.

Fortunately, there are some great resources for learning about population issues, and lots of people sharing their thoughts on it. Here are a few resources worth checking out.

* More: Population, Nature and What Women Want. This is a thought-provoking new book by Robert Engelman, the vice president for programs of the Worldwatch Institute. He’s got an interesting take on population issues that considers both the big picture demographic trends and how they affect people — particularly women and children — around the globe. (Engelman also blogs about population; you can read more of what he’s written here.)

* The United Nations Population Fund. There’s a lot of good information about population issues on this site, especially as they relate to the issues of human rights and poverty. Some of the most interesting sections are the case studies. These pages discuss programs that are addressing population issues with people from different cultures, and encouragingly, finding ways to do so that everyone can agree on. A common goal is to improve health care access for women and children.

*Also check out our thoughts about population issues here on the Mother Earth News Web site. Our publisher, Bryan Welch, frequently writes about population for his blog, Rancho Cappuccino. We’ve also started a forum page where you can weigh in with your own thoughts on population issues.

Do you have other resources related to population that you’d like to share? You can list them in the comments section below.

Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .

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