Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

You don’t have to be a demographer to understand the fundamentals of human population growth. In fact, everyone must come to understand these issues if we’re going to ensure a positive quality of life for generations to come. So, to dispel common misconceptions, as well as to enhance and refine what you may already know, Population Connection has carefully researched and prepared answers to some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).

How many people can Earth support?

Nobody knows how many people Earth can support because this depends on so many different factors, especially those related to lifestyle and consumption habits. At Population Connection, we focus on quality, not quantity of life.

Maybe the question we should be asking is, “How many people can’t the Earth support?” For example, at present the Earth can’t support the 29,000 children who die every day, mostly from preventable causes. The Earth can’t support the 1.1 billion people who don’t have access to safe drinking water. The Earth can’t support the 2.6 billion people who don’t have access to basic sanitation. The Earth can’t support the 805 million people—11% of the global population—who are chronically hungry .

More important than trying to figure out how much our Earth can endure, we must ask, do people have access to food and water? Are they healthy? Safe? Educated? Content? In short, what is the quality of life for people around the world, including for those who are the most marginalized? It is within this last question that Population Connection finds its mission.

But isn’t it true that the entire population of the world could fit inside Texas?

Yes, and you could fit 20 people in a phone booth, but how comfortable do you think they would be? You could fit all the cars of the world onto the freeways of Los Angeles, but could they function? It’s one thing to “fit” into an area, and it is an entirely different issue for people to live and thrive in that same space. The “Population in Texas” fact is often cited by people who do not understand the concept of carrying capacity. Carrying capacity estimates the number of people a certain area of land can sustain without compromising its viability. The carrying capacity of Texas’s 167,187,840 acres doesn’t even come close to accommodating the world’s population of 7.2 billion.

In fact, if the entire population of the world actually lived within the Lone Star borders, each person would have just 0.02 acres of land on which to grow food, live, work, shop, go to school, and dispose of waste. According to Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, it would take 0.17 acres of arable land just to feed one person a vegetarian diet without the use of pesticides or other chemical bolsters.

The truth is, people need much more than just the land they are standing on. In order to be healthy and safe, they need space that far exceeds the .02 acres that Texas would offer.

Why should we be concerned about population growth rates of 1, 2 and 3 percent a year? Doesn’t that mean the population is growing very slowly?

The current global population growth rate of 1.15% may not seem significant, but consider this: With a base of 7.2 billion people, a growth rate of 1.15% means that our population grows by 82 million people a year!

Doubling time is a useful way of observing the impact of a country or the world’s growth rate. For example, in the African country of Chad, the population is growing at a rate of 2.98%. At this rate the country’s population will double in just 23 years. That isn’t much time to build roads, houses, schools and sanitation facilities to accommodate twice as many people. If the world’s present growth rate of 1.15% were to remain constant, the Earth’s population would double in 61 years.

In order to calculate the approximate doubling time of a population, divide the annual growth rate into 70. For example: 70 divided by 1.15 (global growth rate) = 61 years

Is overpopulation a problem only in areas where population density is high?

No. High population density, as found in many urban areas, does not necessarily indicate overpopulation. To the contrary, urban areas offer hope for human development and protection of natural resources because they can support large numbers of people while limiting the impact on the natural environment. The expansion of cities is inevitable, offering many economic, social, and cultural benefits. Urban migration can be used to the advantage of the environment through reduced per capita consumption—of dwelling space, personal vehicles, and private outdoor space (yards).

Increasingly, cities develop “sprawl” whereby populations spread to the peripheral areas of a city, live in expansive spaces, and commute to city centers for employment. These low-density, suburban areas can be particularly pernicious to the environment and our limited resources—they use up larger tracts of land, necessitate a high degree of automobile usage, and require more building materials, water lines, and roads than compact cities.

Why should Americans be concerned about population growth in other parts of the world?

The United States has a long history of involvement in the health and development of poor, developing countries around the world, through our foreign assistance and diplomatic relations. Hardly anything affects health and development more than the rate of growth of the population.

In addition, the environmental, economic, and social impacts of population growth do not recognize national boundaries. What occurs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America has implications for the United States (and this is certainly true vice versa).

An example of the interconnectedness of our planet’s environment is the rapid destruction of tropical rainforests, which is exacerbated by human population growth. The “lungs of the Earth,” rainforests benefit everyone through their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. As population increases, so too does the demand on the wood and other goods rainforests provide. The demand on farmland and grazing land increases as well, and rainforests are often burned to the ground when cultivated land must expand to feed a growing population. This reduces the capacity of rainforests to help slow climate change, which affects us all, regardless of which country we call home.

What role does the U.S. play in population issues?

The U.S. plays a leading role in population stabilization efforts by providing funding and support for family planning initiatives, domestically and internationally. However, while there is a strong consensus that the U.S. government should fund and support family planning programs around the world, we are contributing much less through foreign assistance than is needed to eliminate the unmet need for family planning that exists in the developing world.

The U.S. spends less on international family planning as a proportion of GNP than any other industrialized nation. The U.S. Congress must represent their constituents by fulfilling promises of aid. International family planning programs depend on U.S. money, and failing to stand by our word and proffering promised funds has serious ramifications on millions of lives overseas.

Recent calculations by the Guttmacher Institute show that fully meeting the need for modern contraceptive services in the developing world would cost $9.4 billion. The U.S. share of that is over $1 billion, but we currently only provide $610 million.

If all women who want to avoid a pregnancy used modern contraceptives and all pregnant women and their newborns received care at the standards recommended by WHO, the benefits would be dramatic. According to the Guttmacher Institute, compared with the current situation:

  • unintended pregnancies would drop by 70%, from 74 million to 22 million per year;
  • maternal deaths would drop by 67%, from 290,000 to 96,000;
  • newborn deaths would drop by 77%, from 2.9 million to 660,000;
  • the burden of disability related to pregnancy and delivery experienced by women and newborns would drop by two-thirds; and
  • transmission of HIV from mothers to newborns would be nearly eliminated—achieving a 93% reduction to 9,000 cases annually.

Domestic support for low-income family planning programs (e.g. Title X) is also lacking, despite the fact that most Americans feel the government should provide voluntary family planning services as part of low-income women’s health care. We support an increase in Title X funding, which would help to reduce unintended pregnancy in the United States. Currently, half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended or unwanted.

Why are developing countries experiencing rapid population growth while developed countries are growing more slowly or not at all?

The differences in growth can be explained by different levels of development and varied social customs. A country’s birth rate is strongly linked to its degree of industrialization, economic development, and availability of quality medical care. Also, social customs pertaining to educational attainment, women’s status, and family size affect rates of population growth.

Beginning in the early 20th century, developed nations improved living conditions through advances in medicine, sanitation, and nutrition. These advancements led to declines in death rates, increases in life expectancies, and increases in infant and child survival rates. More people were surviving to their reproductive years than ever before. Birth rates remained high and the population swelled.

Along with increases in living standards came urbanization, which rendered large families less practical and more expensive. Machinery was used more frequently to plant and harvest food, reducing the need for rural families to have as many children to work on the farm. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, birth rates dropped dramatically as people realized the advantages of having smaller families. Thus, the developed countries have completed the demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates.

Developing regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia and Latin America, are still home to large agrarian populations; therefore, real incentives for having larger families still exist. And without a social security system in place in most of the developing world, people have many children to ensure that there is someone to take care of them in their old age. While death rates have fallen in many developing regions due to advances in health, birth rates still remain high—these regions are in the middle of the demographic transition, which is the period during which populations grow the fastest.

Is the U.S. imposing its own values about reproductive health and family planning on other countries?

Not at all. The U.S. generally provides assistance to other countries through two avenues: the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

UNFPA assists governments and organizations at the receiving countries’ request. The agency maintains a democratically organized and implemented agenda, agreed upon by the 179 countries that took part in the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994. UNFPA extends assistance to countries at their request and works in partnership with governments, all parts of the United Nations system, development banks, bilateral aid agencies, non-governmental organizations, and civil society. Under internationally agreed upon population and development goals, each country decides for itself what approach to take in order to meet the specific needs of its residents. At the Cairo conference, developing countries agreed to provide 75% of the funding needed to provide family planning to everyone who wants to use it in their countries, and the industrialized nations agreed to provide the remaining 25% of the funding.

USAID grants assistance to foreign organizations that apply for funding and technical assistance. There is no U.S. funding for family planning in any country where it is not specifically requested by either the government or a local organization.

Is religion an obstacle to population stabilization?

Certain religious institutions (namely, the Catholic Church) do condemn the use of artificial birth control, but a vast difference often exists between the official position of a religion’s organized leadership and the actual practices of its followers. Just consider the fact that Italy and Spain have among the lowest fertility rates in the world!

In the United States, 98% of Catholic women over the age of 18 report that they have used a modern form of contraception at some point in their lives. The same goes for self-reported followers of Protestant religions.

However, this is not to say that organized religions’ leaders do not influence population matters. The Vatican has been successful in its lobbying efforts to curb contraceptive use in the U.S., from getting the government to fault on previous commitments to population stabilization, to succeeding in diverting funds from family planning programs. The Vatican has affected population matters abroad as well, such as in Africa where Catholic bishops have actively opposed condom use, an act with serious implications in the face of the AIDS pandemic.

In Muslim societies, there are diverse views on family planning. The Islamic Republic of Iran implemented one of the most successful family planning programs in the history of the world, bringing the country’s fertility rate from 6.9 children per woman in the late 1960s to 1.9 in the early 2000s.

In the book World War III, Michael Tobias writes that many Muslims “insist that family planning is inherent to the Qur’an itself” and that birth control is approved of in Islamic religious texts. A more predictive factor of fertility rates appears to be the status of women—studies have shown that fertility rates are higher among Islamic countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, where education and jobs are less accessible to women, than they are in other Muslim nations, such as Tunisia and Turkey.

Although religion can play an important role in family planning decisions, urbanization, education levels, economic opportunities, and the availability of contraceptive services and supplies can have even more bearing.

How does improving the status of women affect population growth?

As girls and women gain access to education and employment, their health improves, their options expand, and they have smaller families than women who are denied access to education and employment.

The number of children a woman has is not determined by biology alone. Less tangible factors—health, religion, culture, and economic and social standing—are more influential. In many societies women are valued primarily for their role in reproduction, hold little or no political or economic power, and are provided with inadequate health care and education. Women in these societies tend to have higher fertility rates. But in areas where women have more autonomy, they generally have more power and resources to control their fertility and birth rates go down. Elevating the status of women worldwide is vital to lowering fertility rates and, ultimately, stabilizing global population.

The key to such empowerment is education, one of the strongest forces of lasting change. Educated women have increased opportunities and are more likely to enter the labor force before marriage, thus marrying later, delaying childbearing, and having fewer children overall. Additionally, educated women are usually more aware of and have better access to medical services, including family planning, and have greater confidence and ability to use them.

Kerala, India exemplifies the change education can proffer. Here, women have a near-100% literacy rate, affordable and accessible health care (including family planning), and most of the same educational and economic opportunities men enjoy. As a result, this economically poor area has a fertility rate as low as most industrialized nations, including the U.S.

How does the HIV/AIDS epidemic affect global population?

There are an estimated 35 million people currently living with HIV, and about 39 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses worldwide since the disease was first recorded. Each year another 2.1 million people become infected.

In addition to the horrible impact on individual lives, HIV/AIDS is drastically altering demographic distributions, such as age and sex ratios within countries’ population profiles. The most direct demographic impact of AIDS can be seen in the dramatic lowering of life expectancies in the worst-affected countries. The nine countries (all in sub-Saharan Africa) with prevalence rates above 10% have life expectancies between 45 and 52 years (with the exception of Namibia, which is an outlier at 60 years).

Arguments about population “benefits” from the AIDS crisis should be met with staunch reproach. AIDS is not solving our population troubles; it is only exacerbating problems. Quality of life issues, already sensitive in many of the areas hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, are experiencing dramatic setbacks. AIDS is affecting every aspect of life:

Economy

Unlike many other diseases, HIV/AIDS affects people in their prime working ages, disrupting businesses and the economy; markets are declining, productivity is down, and operating costs are rising.

Health Systems

Patients are crowded out as more beds, resources, and staff are required by AIDS patients. Health care staff is not immune to infection themselves, and their deaths to AIDS noticeably affect the health systems in those countries.

Education

HIV/AIDS affects the education level of the population in high-prevalence countries, as children must leave school to care for infected family members, are orphaned and left without means to attend school, or die themselves from the disease.

Families

Victims of AIDS often leave behind spouses and children who depended upon their support. Children often drop out of school in order to work in their place, and grandparents are often left with no choice but to care for grandchildren when their parents leave them orphaned.

Government

Budgets are affected as community resources are redirected to social services for those affected by HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS estimates that $35.6 million will need to be invested in low and middle income countries in order to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

How does a growing population affect biodiversity?

As the human population grows, we displace more and more species, putting them at risk for extinction.

Biodiversity refers to the wide variety of living organisms and their complex interdependency for survival. It is an important measure of the health of an environment because if one species—whether plant or animal—shows signs of stress, then entire life systems may be threatened. These systems ensure the continuation of the planet’s most critical functions, including conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen.

Research has concluded that humans are destroying natural habitats at least 1,000 times faster than natural rates of extinction. Species are decreasing exponentially as human population rises. Seventy-five percent of the historical growth of population and 75 percent of the loss in global forest cover took place in the twentieth century. In the United States, land conversion (such as deforestation and logging) and wetlands and coastline development contribute most to species loss.

Pollution, over-harvesting, and animal grazing also exacerbate the demise of certain species. Because of the demands of both large-scale mechanized agriculture and the great needs of subsistence farmers, increased food production depletes our already waning supply of topsoil. Higher population densities in traditionally agricultural areas further frustrate this trend by reducing the amount of available arable land on Earth.

The adverse effects of population growth and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources are especially significant in some of the most biologically rich countries of the developing world—known as biodiversity “hotspots.” As it stands, an estimated 240 acres of natural habitat is destroyed every hour as a direct result of the growth in human populations.

Around the world, disruptions in ecosystems could give rise to global warming, acid rain, increased sea levels, and destruction of the ozone layer. In addition, unfettered population growth can upset biological ecosystems that provide humans with much needed medicines, nutrition, and fuel, as well as other recreational and commercial services.

Won’t slowing population growth negatively affect our country’s economic, political, and social well-being?

A large population size does not necessarily produce a world power or a healthy economy. As Dr. Nafis Sadik, former Executive Director of the UNFPA, asks, “What society has bred itself into prosperity?”

Even with a fertility rate below replacement level, the U.S. is still one of the fastest-growing industrialized countries in the world, adding 3 million people to its population annually. Meanwhile, we are faced with air and water pollution, traffic-choked highways, crowded classrooms, and a shortage of affordable homes. Population stabilization is the first step toward achieving better lives for present and future generations. Adding sheer numbers to our population will not strengthen our nation. Instead, we need to focus on implementing policies that improve the quality of life for all people and promote sustainable growth. These include providing quality education, caring for the sick and the elderly, working to eradicate poverty, cleaning up the environment, and seeking alternative sources of energy.

If Americans choose to have fewer children, won’t this cause the demise of our Social Security system?

Problems with the Social Security system cannot be solved by constantly producing more children. Children come with costs to our social programs as well—expenditures on schools, day cares, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), health care, etc. The debate needs to focus on the fundamental demographic changes that are transforming our country.

Our current system relies on outdated definitions of “dependency,” “productivity,” and “aging.” When Social Security was established, the average American male lived to age 68 and received Social Security at age 65. Back then, workers could expect to live only a few years beyond retirement. Today, people live longer and play productive roles in society well past age 65. The system is outdated.

Policies and programs must be adjusted to ensure that we can meet the needs of the elderly while maintaining a Social Security system that will be viable well into the future.

In this country is it a matter of the “wrong” people bearing children?

Theories maintaining that there are “right” or “wrong” people bearing children are misguided and will only serve to deter progress and cooperation in population awareness and education.

In fact, in terms of environmental impacts, affluent, conspicuous consumers could be considered the “wrong” people. Such people require far greater resources to maintain their lifestyles than those living on restricted incomes. This is not to suggest that maintaining poverty is the solution. The challenge remains in identifying and eliminating those patterns of wasteful overconsumption that compromise the needs of future generations.

However, some people continue to think that recent immigrants and racial minorities are largely to blame for the population and environmental pressures in the United States. Demographically speaking, lower-income African Americans and Hispanics do have, on average, more children than middle-and upper-class whites. This trend may reflect a cultural preference for larger families, but it may also be highly correlated with a lack of access to education, economic opportunities, and reproductive health care.

Labeling people as “right” or “wrong” along demographic lines only diverts attention from the real problem: insufficient access to affordable family planning information and services for everyone. In recent years, stagnating levels of funding for low-income family planning programs in the U.S. have diminished access to crucial health services for men and women.

What is the most effective family planning policy?

Population Connection firmly believes that only voluntary family planning programs are effective and sustainable. Coercive measures, which include forced abortions, sterilizations, and sex selection, are unethical, immoral, and unacceptable. The most effective family planning programs give men and women the freedom to choose whether and when to have children, completely on their own terms.

The disparities in reproductive patterns among particular regions in India, for example, result from differing approaches to family planning. Southern areas, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have drastically reduced fertility rates through voluntary and collaborative approaches. In contrast, some of their northern counterparts, including Punjab and Haryana, have high fertility rates and much lower levels of female education and general health care, despite (or perhaps due to) a tendency to use “heavy handed” family planning interventions, including coercion.

Family planning programs should be developed with respect for the fact that, quite often, people prefer to have fewer children, but simply lack the means to do so. Coercion is neither acceptable nor advantageous—giving women and couples the freedom to choose is the best policy.

Does supporting family planning mean you are anti-child?

Just the opposite, actually. Population Connection is concerned with improving people’s quality of life, including for children. We recognize that everyone experiences benefits from family planning—not just women.

The most important way that children benefit is through increased survival rates. Family planning allows mothers to space births farther apart, which improves infant and child health outcomes. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the infant mortality rate is 117 per 1,000 live births when the birth interval is less than two years, 64 per 1,000 when births are spaced 2-3 years apart, and 47 per 1,000 when births are four or more years apart.

Family planning also allows women who are too young or too old to safely carry a pregnancy to avoid becoming pregnant in the first place. Physically immature adolescents are at higher risk of giving birth to premature and low-birth-weight babies, and they are also more likely to have obstructed labor because their birth canals are not large enough for their babies’ heads to pass through. Babies born to older women are also more likely to die, due to maternal anemia, malnutrition, and reproductive system damage from previous births. Reducing high risk pregnancies to women outside of their optimal childbearing years is a very effective way of lowering infant mortality rates.

The socioeconomic benefits to children of lower fertility are many—increased nutrition and schooling perhaps being the most important.

Is Population Connection a pro-choice organization?

Proudly, yes. We believe the decision to carry a pregnancy to term is best left to each individual woman, with the input of her doctor and partner.

Safe, legal abortion should be available to all women. Of the estimated 42 million abortions that occur each year, nearly 22 million are unsafe—unsanitary, self-induced, or performed by poorly trained providers. These unsafe abortions result in the deaths of 47,000 women each year. Those women who survive often experience long-term health problems, ranging from chronic pelvic pain to infertility.

At the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), world leaders agreed that unsafe abortion is a major public health concern, and that governments should work to eliminate the practice.

What was the Cairo conference, and why is it important?

The UN-organized 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), called the “Cairo conference” or simply “Cairo,” brought together 179 countries to reaffirm the importance of slowing population growth for social and economic development. The Cairo Conference was the third UN Conference on Population {The United Nations previously held international conferences on population in Bucharest (1974) and Mexico City (1984)} and was the first to focus on meeting the needs of individuals, rather than simply achieving demographic targets.

The result of ICPD was the creation of the Program of Action, a 20-year plan promoting, among other things, universal access to quality and affordable reproductive health services; reductions in maternal, infant, and child mortality; and closing the “gender gap” in education. Cairo put an end to the concept of “population control.” It recognized that smaller families and slower population growth depend on free choice and the empowerment of women.

In acknowledging the importance of advancing women’s status worldwide, the Program of Action, underscores the “empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of their political, social, economic and health status,” not only as an end in itself, but also as a vital part of achieving a sustainable population balance. Population Connection supports the Cairo consensus and urges the United States government and other world leaders to fully implement its agenda.

Where does Population Connection stand on U.S. immigration policy?

Population Connection believes that the United States government should view immigration in a global context, and focus its attention on the factors that compel people to leave their families and native homes in the first place.

Foremost among the root causes of international migration are population growth, economic stagnation, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, poverty, and political repression. Unless the United States successfully addresses these international issues, no domestic policy will effectively prevent people from seeking entry to the United States. Population Connection, therefore, calls on the United Stated to focus its foreign aid on these core issues and work cooperatively with other nations to address international migration.

What can one person do to reduce population growth?

There are many things that individuals can do to help achieve population stabilization. Here are just a few:

  • Write, email, or call your lawmakers—become a constituent voice for change! Urge your state legislators and U.S. members of Congress to increase funding for domestic and international family planning programs. Work with your local school board to bring school-based comprehensive sex education to your community’s students—teens who know how to effectively prevent pregnancy are usually more than happy to do so!
  • Raise awareness of population issues in your community. Most people have never thought about how population growth affects the issues they care about—you can change that! Write a letter to your local paper, contact local radio and television stations, or volunteer to give a lecture or lead a discussion group on population issues at a local high school, church, or community center. Simply initiating a dialogue with your friends, coworkers, and neighbors is invaluable to instigating change.
  • Think about your own desired family size and how to best achieve it—educate yourself about family planning methods and find the one that’s best for you and your particular situation (which may change over time). Your reproductive destiny is yours to decide—make the most of that freedom!
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Since 1968, Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth or ZPG) has been America's voice for population stabilization—we are the largest grassroots population organization in the United States!

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