In a recent nationwide Roper Poll commissioned to study the U.S. public’s attitudes toward population, barely 50 percent of respondents believed there is a strong link between global population growth and climate change, reported Thomas Prugh of World Watch magazine at the September 30, 2008, launch of World Watch’s population issue co-sponsored by the Worldwatch Institute and the Environmental Change and Security Program. People need to learn about population growth’s impact on climate change and other indicators of environmental health, said Prugh.
To Grow or To Shrink? That Is the Question
Historically, governments viewed population growth as a sign of a nation’s vitality; some promoted it by offering incentives to have more children. Prugh noted that such pronatalist attitudes are far from obsolete: “Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared September 13th a national holiday for conceiving children. And couples who delivered a baby nine months later, which not coincidentally would have been on Russia Day, got refrigerators for that accomplishment,” he said. In contrast, many governments are now promoting voluntary family planning rather than population growth. But a lack of political urgency has limited their success. “Support and funding for family planning is actually flat or in decline,” Prugh emphasized.
Empowering Women and Expanding the Discourse
Population has always been an “incredibly gendered issue,” argued Robert Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute, which is one reason for the lack of public discourse on the subject. He called for a broader discussion of population and urged women who work in the sexual and reproductive health and rights fields to actively participate. If you “don’t talk about population from your perspective and from what you know about these issues, others will,” he warned, “and they may not know as much as you do about it.” For Engelman, providing access to family planning and placing population decisions in the hands of women “is natural—this is understandable—and in general, it’s a very good thing.”
The Good, The Bad: Urbanization
“This is the first year, 2008, in which half of us have become city-dwellers,” said Karen Hardee of Population Action International, a development that will have both positive and negative consequences. Urban populations have better access to family planning and education. However, urban growth can outpace local governments’ ability to enforce environmental regulations, treat hazardous and solid waste, and limit air pollution. At the same time, Hardee argues, technological innovation, access to information, efficient land and energy use, and better living conditions—as well as economies of scale—can limit urbanization’s negative environmental impacts. “Urbanization is inevitable, and it’s also accelerating, with most of the growth in the population in developing countries,” she stated.
Population and the Changing Nature of Security
“To be sure, rapid population growth does not have a simple causal relationship with conflict. And to suggest so would fail to take into account additional aggravating factors, such as poverty, poor governance, competition over natural resources, and environmental degradation,” said Sean Peoples of the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. But population dynamics can fuel instability and increase the risk of a country falling victim to intrastate violence. According to The Shape of Things to Come, a report by Peoples’ co-author, Elizabeth Leahy, countries with youthful age structures—where 35 percent of the population is younger than 15—have a 150 percent greater chance of seeing conflict erupt than countries with more balanced age structures, due to pervasive joblessness, lack of education, and competition over resources.
Since countries with very young and youthful age structures represent a great challenge to international stability, population should be included in national security discussions. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently said, “We also know that over the next 20 years certain pressures—population, resource, energy, climate, economic, and environmental—could combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability.” But there is hope of avoiding insecurity: “Progress toward more balanced age structures occurs when health care improves, leading to lower mortality rates and longer life expectancies, and when fertility rates fall, which happens when women and men have access to the services they need to choose their own family size,” said Peoples.
Photo: Thomas Prugh. Courtesy of Dave Hawxhurst and the Woodrow Wilson Center.