AIF Blog

The Population Challenge

Jun 29, 2012
CATEGORY: Environment

Guest Blogger: Gwen Hopkins, Program Officer,

Aspen IDEA Initiative, The Aspen Institute  

The pictures flash quickly: lush sea vegetation replaced by empty grey-blue seabed as carbon bubbles out of undersea vents. Reservoirs depleted too quickly, never to refill. Forests and mountains leveled for coal, deep sea oil rigs ablaze, the arctic ice cap visibly retreating. Dennis Dimick is answering the question posed to him with a litany of evidence collected by National Geographic: Does population matter?

Yes, he says — a lot.

Kicking off the Our Planet: The World at Seven Billion track, on a panel called “The Population Challenge,” Washington Post staff writer Joel Achenbach moderated a conversation between Dimick and Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA, following Dimick’s presentation about how the earth’s human population has made its presence known.

Dimick explains that this new geologic era has been dubbed Anthropocene, the age of man, as we “transform the planet to perpetuate our lifestyle.” That’s a lifestyle powered first and foremost by what he calls “the new sun” – coal, oil, and gas, or in Dimick’s words, “ancient plant goo.” These transformations are deep and widespread – and according to Dimick, growing worrisome in their magnitude. While there is searing inequity – “few have a lot, and a lot have few” – those that lead the consumption have, for example, caught 90% of the big fish in the sea already, and burn in one year a quantity of fuel that took a million years to coalesce underground. “If everyone in the world lived like Americans do, we’d need four planets.”

And that’s just the 7 billion of us on the planet now. Despite declining average fertility rates, exponential population growth has begun to gain faster and faster momentum, taking from the beginning of time till 1800 to accumulate a billion people and now, at 7 billion, only about 12 years to add another. Each of those births have implications for resource management and distribution, for the extent of the human impact on biodiversity and carbon emissions, exacerbating climate change and weather volatility.

For the babies born into families in or approaching the middle class, Dimick continued, they’ll want to eat more meat, drive more miles, and purchase more things than their parents did. They represent a need for more infrastructure — roads, homes and jobs — and a need for more doctors, teachers, and other service providers. When countries cannot meet these needs, we see uneducated, unemployed youth populations – in other words, political insecurity. So the question isn’t why would population come up — it’s why wouldn’t it?

But even as population grows, silence has fallen over the topic – out of lack of awareness and out of fear. Perhaps that’s because population growth is a result of fertility rate — which means, of course, sex. “Change in talking about family planning of this country — this issue has somehow become polarizing and politicized in this country — should be non-controversial issue that women should have the right to space births,” Gayle commented.

In fact, women around the world have repeatedly reported that they would like to delay or prevent their next pregnancy, but are not currently using modern contraception. Gayle acknowledged that fulfilling this unmet need for family requires education as well as services, but emphasized that it’s an opportunity countries cannot afford to miss. “We know that access to safe, effective contraception is the most direct way to space births and decrease population growth, but you don’t get that just by giving people pills.”

Dimick chimed in, “We see rapid urbanization, girls’ education, women participating in the economy and family planning; all those conditions working together can make a big difference” in lowering fertility rates. He illustrated this with a graph showing future population growth as predicted by the UN. “How many children girls have in the future will determine how high this curve goes.”

In conclusion of the panel, Dimick had two take away-messages for the room. The first was, change the energy paradigm to move away from coal, gas and oil. The second? “Help girls become strong, self-standing citizens” who “become strong, successful members of society.” The world’s future depends on the choices girls are able to make, he went on.

 Not only is this right, the panelists argued, it is strategic. “Bring in the 50% of the world’s potential that is basically being lost,” Gayle urged the room, explaining that “CARE focuses on women and girls as a key driver for social change and ultimately in building stronger economies.”

But Dimick returned again to population and the opportunity to slow growth rates in developing countries and consumption rates in developed countries by empowering women to plan their families. “If we can’t make this transition worldwide, then all bets are off.”