As most people know by now, this Halloween, the day we celebrate the dead, the world’s 7 billionth baby was born. Seven billion people is a lot! And our numbers are increasing to the tune of 150 babies born every minute. Is there a limit to how many people the Earth can support? Currently the world produces enough food to easily supply everybody with a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. Yet one billion people do not get their daily-recommended calories. And so much acreage is used to produce food that many experts now believe the arable land has reached its limits.
Unfortunately, what really matters is less how many people live on the planet than the impact that those people are having. This not only involves food; it concerns our consumption habits. We are a society of consumers – so these habits are really straining the Earth’s resources. The energy needed to provide us with a fulfilling lifestyle is becoming a source of contention for many people, societies and governments.
The question of how many people the Earth can sustain often becomes a political question. People are needed for political, economic and military strength. Societies need working-aged people to support the young and elderly populations who cannot work.
Education is a key factor in all of this. Education allows for technological and social innovation. Education also fosters a mental flexibility that will allow the necessary transition to a greener economy. According to The Laxenburg Declaration on Population and Development, “the education and health of people is one of the most important factors in the capacity of people to contribute to sustainable development and economic growth, and adapt to environmental change.”
Women ultimately hold the key to population control. According to award-winning environmental journalist Fred Pearce, women are defusing the population bomb because they are bearing half as many children as their mothers and grandmothers.
Fertility rates are dropping worldwide and lower among women who generate income. Women with higher levels of education also tend to have fewer children. However, while women today are having fewer babies, that trend is not the same everywhere. The birth rate in Indonesia, for example, is on the rise. And women in sub-Saharan Africa still average four children per woman. In the United States the birth rate is also on the rise, having recently passed the two children per woman threshold.
Birth control is a volatile issue lots people do not want to touch on. In many societies a woman’s right to control her reproduction rates is often limited due to social, moral, religious, economic or political factors.
When Homo sapiens left Africa for Asia and Europe, little did they know that their descendants would one day conquer the world. Areas on the planet that remain untouched by humans are shrinking every day.
With the right policies in place, people can be seen as a resource and not merely as a problem. Maybe then we can look at the world’s population not as a predicament but as a positive factor.