This Saturday will mark the 47th Earth Day celebration — an event championed by our own Sen. Gaylord Nelson and as relevant today as it was in 1970.
The first Earth Day took place at a time when poorly regulated fossil fuel emissions were the norm worldwide. Now, President Trump appears hellbent on returning the U.S. to the days of unfettered fossil fuel emissions, while almost every other country — even North Korea — has committed to reducing carbon emissions.
Today, Earth Day and its commitment to a sustainable environment should go hand in hand with a concerted effort to slow the world's population growth. Reducing the carbon footprint and slowing population growth are inextricably linked. We can't take care of the planet if we don't reduce the pressure from the increasing number of people who inhabit it.
There are about 7.5 billion people in the world today.
Projections for global population in 2050 and 2100 vary dramatically. In 2050, the United Nations projects that the likely population of the world will be between 9.3 billion and 10.1 billion. In 2100, the projected range is between 9.5 billion and 13.3 billion. The projections vary widely because of the different assumptions about birth and death rates.
Actions we take now as a world community, individual countries, families and individuals related to reproductive health will dramatically affect the population growth curve over the next century — and could put us at the low end of the U.N. population estimates rather than the high end.
The phrase "demographic transition" was coined in 1929 to describe the pattern that people tend to have fewer children the more economically and socially secure they become. A major part of the explanation for this is that poor people often view their children as a form of economic and social security. In the face of high child mortality rates, it’s safer to produce more kids in order to increase the likelihood that one or more will survive, prosper and provide some support to their parents.
The concept of "demographic transition" can also be expanded to include the phenomenon that as people become educated about reproductive health and have access to birth control options, they are much more likely to make choices to limit their family size.
In other words, it is not just increased economic and social security that reduce family size, but also knowledge about, and access to, birth control resources.
The demographic transition is reflected in the significant decreases in family size in developed countries over the last several decades. In some of these countries, such as Japan, Germany, and across Scandinavia, the birth rate has dropped below the replacement rate, which means the population rate is decreasing.
This interest in birth control is echoed in developing countries of the world as well. The quote below is from the report 2015 U.N. World Population Prospects.
In 2015, the use of modern contraceptive methods in the least-developed countries was estimated at around 34 percent among women of reproductive age who were married or in union, and a further 22 percent of such women had an unmet need for family planning, meaning that they were not using any method of contraception despite a stated desire or intention to avoid or delay childbearing.
Access to family planning for that 22 percent would mean an annual reduction of tens of millions of unwanted births per year, adding up to a significant reduction in world population growth.
The information presented above shows that we as a world society, including the United States, have the ability to dramatically reduce population growth — not by coercive measures, but by improving economic conditions of the poor and by meeting the educational and resource needs of women and men who want to limit their family size.
As we celebrate Earth Day, we should also keep in mind the role that slowing population growth will play in creating a more sustainable planet.
E.G. Nadeau, of Madison, is author of "The Cooperative Society." He has a Ph.D. in sociology and has spent most of his career developing cooperatives worldwide. The book is available at TheCooperativeSociety.org.
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