The short feature above and accompanying cover article
in the January 2011 issue launch National Geographic’s
seven-part year-long series examining global population. The world is set to hit seven billion this year, according to current UN projections
, and may reach nine billion by 2045.
The authors point out that today, 13 percent of people don’t have access to clean water globally and 38 percent lack adequate sanitation. Nearly one billion people have inadequate nutrition. Natural resources are strained. Is reducing population growth the key to addressing these problems?
Not according to Robert Kuznig, author of National Geographic’s lead article, who writes that “fixating on population numbers is not the best way to confront the future…the problem that needs solving is poverty and lack of infrastructure, not overpopulation.”
“The most aggressive population control program imaginable will not save Bangladesh from sea-level rise, Rwanda from another genocide, or all of us from our enormous environmental problems,” writes Kuznig. Speaking on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week, he reiterated this message, saying global problems “have to be tackled whether we’re eight billion people on Earth, or seven, or nine, and the scale for them is large in any case.”
Instead, the challenge is simultaneously addressing poverty, health, and education while reducing our environmental impact, says Kuznig.
“You don’t have to impose prescriptive policies for population growth, but basically if you can help people develop a nice, comfortable lifestyle and give them the access to medical care and so on, they can do it themselves,” said Richard Harris, a science correspondent for NPR, speaking with Kuznig on Talk of the Nation.
Kuznig’s article highlights the Indian state of Kerala, where thanks to state investments in health and education, 90 percent of women in the state can read (the highest rate in India) and the fertility rate has dropped to 1.7 births per woman. One reason for this is that educated girls have children later and are more open to and aware of contraceptive options.
Whither Family Planning?
In a post on Kuznig’s piece, Andrew Revkin, of The New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, points to The New Security Beat’s recent interview with Joel E. Cohen about the crucial role of education in reducing the impact of population growth. Cohen asks: “Is it too many people or is it too few people? The truth is, both are real problems, and the fortunate thing is that we have enough information to do much better in addressing both of those problems than we are doing – we may not have silver bullets, but we’re not using the knowledge we have.”
Although the National Geographic article and video emphasize the connections between poverty reduction, health, education, and population growth, both give short shrift to family planning. It’s true that fertility is shrinking in many places, and global average fertility will likely reach replacement levels by 2030, but parts of the world – like essentially all of sub-Saharan Africa for example – still have very high rates of fertility (over five) and a high unmet demand for family planning. Globally, it is estimated that 215 million women in developing countries want to avoid pregnancy but are not using effective contraception.
Development should help reduce these levels in time, but without continued funding for reproductive health services and family planning supplies, the declining trends that Kurznig cites, which are based on some potentially problematic assumptions, are unlikely to continue.
As Kuznig told NPR, “you need birth-control methods to be available, and you need the people to have the mindset that allows them to want to use them.”
At ECSP’s “Dialogue on Managing the Planet” session yesterday at the Wilson Center, National Geographic Executive Editor Dennis Dimick urged the audience to “stay tuned – you can’t comprehensively address an issue as global and as huge as this in one article, and within this series later in the year we will talk about [family planning] very specifically.” Needless to say, I look forward to seeing it, as addressing the unmet need for family planning is a crucial part of any comprehensive effort to reduce population growth and improve environmental, social, and health outcomes.
Sources: Center for Global Development, Dot Earth, NPR, Population Reference Bureau, World Bank.
Video Credit: “7 Billion, National Geographic Magazine,” courtesy of National Geographic.