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Scientists: stop treating population growth as a ‘given’ and empower women

Climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, water scarcity, and land issues: almost all of the world’s environmental problems are underpinned by too many people inhabiting a finite planet. A new study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B warns that overpopulation—combined with over-consumption—is threatening to push the entire globe into “a collapse of global civilization.” But cultural changes, especially more empowerment of women and access to contraceptives, may hold the key to reducing population growth and eventual sustainability.

“Today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems,” Paul and Anne Ehrlich, biologists with Stanford University, write in the paper. The Erhlichs are known for decades of work on overpopulation and environmental issues, including co-authoring several books.

Children selling mangoes in Madagascar. According to the CIA, Madagascar is 21st in the world for population growth with a growth rate of 2.68 percent. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Children selling mangoes in Madagascar. According to the CIA, Madagascar is 21st in the world for population growth with a growth rate of 2.68 percent. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Currently, over 7 billion people live on Earth, that’s 5 billion more than lived here just a hundred years ago. In addition, demographers predict another 2.5 billion people by 2050, pushing the population to well-over 9 billion. But can the Earth’s natural resources—already stretched well-beyond sustainability—provide food, water, and other resources for an additional 2.5 billion?

“Virtually all analyses simply treat the need to feed an additional 2.5 billion people by 2050 as a given,” notes Paul Ehrilich in a press release.

For example in order to feed an additional 2.5 billion, and adequately feed the 7 billion today, experts say global food production would need to expand by 70 percent. Already, worldwide nearly a billion people do not have enough to eat everyday.

“[The global food system] has generated miracles of food production. But it has also created serious long-run vulnerabilities, especially
in its dependence on stable climates, crop monocultures, industrially produced fertilizers and pesticides, petroleum, antibiotic feed supplements and rapid, efficient transportation,” write the Ehrlichs, adding that, “unless greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced, dangerous anthropogenic climate change could ravage agriculture.”

According to the Ehrlichs it’s time to “stop treating population growth as a ‘given’ and consider the nutritional, health and social benefits of humanely ending growth well below nine billion and starting a slow decline.” The 2012 CIA World Factbook lists Qatar, Zimbabwe, and Niger as the nations with the highest growth rates: Qatar is growing by 4.93 percent, Zimbabwe by 4.36 percent, and Niger by 3.36 percent. World population, according to the CIA, is growing by 1.09 percent.

The Ehrlichs have no illusions about the difficulty of slowing and eventually stopping global population growth.

“This would be a monumental task, considering the momentum of population growth,” they write, noting that even in countries where population growth has leveled-off many complain of new demographic challenges.

“That halting population growth inevitably leads to changes in age structure is no excuse for bemoaning drops in fertility
rates, as is common in European government circles,” the Ehrlichs write. “Reduction of population size in those over-consuming nations is a very positive trend, and sensible planning can deal with the problems of population aging.”

Scientists have long said that leveling-off and even decreasing the global population would not need to depend on controversial one-child policies or other laws deemed draconian by many. Instead, investing in woman’s rights and health has been shown time-and-again to lower population growth.

“A program of improving the status of women everywhere and supplying all sexually active people with access to modern contraception and back-up abortion would be relatively quite cheap and would greatly reduce the numbers that must be fed,” Paul Ehrlich says.

CITATION:Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich. Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? The Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 2013 280, 20122845.

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