2020—the most abysmal year in recent memory—has finally come to an end. Now that we’re onto a new year with a new presidential administration, a new Congress, and a new COVID-19 vaccine, we can set our sights on brighter days (although this week’s sedition attempt was certainly a rough start to what was meant to be a hopeful turning of the page). One of the outcomes of this new government that we’re sure to see is a renewed commitment to programs that will help achieve population stabilization.
President-elect Biden has pledged to repeal the Global Gag Rule and the Domestic Gag Rule and resume funding to UNFPA as soon as he takes office later this month. He has also indicated that he’ll work with Congress to repeal the Helms and Hyde Amendments, although, realistically speaking, we’ll likely be stuck with these terrible policies for a while longer, until we gain a larger pro-choice majority in Congress.
As we welcome 2021 and bask in optimism for the first time in four years, here’s a list of 21 global challenges population stabilization would help resolve. Try to think of another single achievement that would solve so many other problems—if you come up with one, please let me know.
- Biodiversity Loss and Species Extinction
- The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) identified human population growth as a primary extinction threat posed to about 1 million plant and animal species in its 2019 Global Assessment Report. We’re crowding out the planet’s wildlife, and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
- Why are humans an extinction threat to so many species? Because we destroy wildlife habitats to expand agricultural land, we poach protected species, and our activities change the climate in ways that threaten animals’ survival. Another consequence of habitat encroachment, poaching, and climate change? Zoonotic viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19) jumping to humans. Other viruses that have jumped from wildlife to humans have caused diseases including HIV, SARS, Lyme, Ebola, and Bird Flu.
- Climate Change
- The IPCC bases its future carbon emissions projections on various assumptions of future population size and socioeconomic development. That’s because the number of people there are on earth—and how much each of us consumes—determines how many gigatons of climate changing carbon emissions we release into the atmosphere.
- Ocean Acidification
- Carbon emissions don’t only affect the global surface temperature—they also affect the pH of the world’s oceans. Since the Industrial Revolution, carbon emissions have increased ocean acidity by 30 percent, harming the shells and skeletons of sea life. This comes back to hurt the billions of people who rely on seafood for their animal protein and for their livelihoods.
- Another human-induced contributor to climate change is deforestation. According to World Resources Institute, tropical deforestation accounts for about 8 percent of current carbon emissions, but halting deforestation and allowing decimated forests to regrow could “provide 23 percent of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed before 2030.” Deforestation occurs because we clear forests for agricultural land and because we use timber for cooking fuel and building material. More people = more demand for food, fuel, and housing. And, as mentioned above, destroying wildlife habitat brings us into contact with animals that may carry zoonotic diseases and puts plant and animal species at risk of extinction.
- When drylands are repeatedly planted with crops (which depletes topsoil unless nutrients are added), grazed by livestock, and deforested for reasons explained above, entire regions can turn to desert—a process called desertification. When this happens, the soil is permanently degraded and is no longer arable (able to be cultivated). More than 2 billion people in over 100 countries live in drylands that are vulnerable to desertification.
- Air Pollution
- Human activities cause most outdoor air pollution (as opposed to indoor air pollution from cooking over an open flame, for example), and as with any human-induced environmental challenge, the more humans on earth, the greater the challenge. Sources of outdoor air pollution include motor vehicles, heat and power generation, industrial facilities, waste incineration, and residential cooking, heating, lighting, etc.
- As mentioned above, the main source of protein for billions of people around the world is seafood. With a global population that grows by 80 million people a year, the number of seafood consumers is rising year after year as well, which increasingly means that oceans are being fished too aggressively for sea life to reproduce fast enough to replenish stocks. In 2015, one-third of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels.
- Meat Production
- Population growth and increasing affluence in middle-income countries (which, as a group, make up three-quarters of the world’s population), are causing meat consumption to rise. Meat provides people with protein, but its production is the leading cause of methane in the atmosphere—a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon—and contributes to soil erosion, water pollution, and freshwater use, which is a concern in water-stressed areas. Of course, there are also ethical issues surrounding the breeding, raising, and killing of livestock.
- Food Security
- An estimated 690 million people around the world are chronically hungry. According to FAO, “The global prevalence of undernourishment—or overall percentage of hungry people—has changed little at 8.9 percent, but the absolute numbers have been rising since 2014. This means that over the last five years, hunger has grown in step with the global population.”
- Fresh Water Security
- Two billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services. Population growth only intensifies these shortages. Without access to safe, affordable, reliable fresh water, efforts to eradicate extreme poverty and preventable deaths cannot succeed. Unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation kill nearly 300,000 children under five each year.
- Lack of access to sanitation facilities prevents girls from attending school when they’re menstruating and often leads to preventable illness and even death. Worldwide, 2 billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation facilities such as toilets, and 673 million people still practice open defecation. As with any form of infrastructure, keeping up with population growth is an added challenge, especially when services aren’t even sufficient for existing populations.
- Natural Disaster Vulnerability
- Natural disasters that occur in densely populated areas—especially where buildings aren’t constructed to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, etc.—cause more widespread devastation and higher death tolls than those that occur in less densely populated areas. Low-elevation coastal zones—mostly located in developing regions—are rapidly growing, exposing ever more people to sea-level rise, tsunamis, and tropical storms.
- Women’s Empowerment
- As long as women must spend their reproductive decades bearing and rearing children, high fertility will prevent countries from achieving gender equity. When girls can’t finish their educations because of early childbearing and when mothers can’t work outside of the home because of childcare obligations, women’s empowerment will remain an unreachable goal. Women must be able to decide for themselves whether, when, and with whom to have children in order to take control of their lives and compete with men in society, in the labor force, and for political office.
- Maternal Mortality
- Nearly 300,000 women die every year from pregnancy-related complications. As a group, the 47 least developed countries—which are the countries with the highest fertility rates—have a maternal mortality rate 40 times higher than Europe and 60 times higher than Australia and New Zealand. In sub-Saharan Africa, the world region with the highest fertility (4.4 births per woman), the lifetime risk of dying of maternal causes is 1 in 37 (compared to 1 in 3,100 in Northern America). Early and late childbearing and frequent pregnancies are risk factors for maternal morbidity and mortality—as such, increasing family planning use (and access to safe abortion) is one of the recommended strategies for lowering maternal mortality.
- Infant and Child Mortality
- Every year, 3 million children under age 5 die of mostly preventable causes. Nearly half of these deaths (2.5 million) occur in the first month of life; another 1.5 million occur in the following 11 months; and 1.3 million deaths occur in children ages 1−4. Not surprisingly, under-5 mortality is highest in sub-Saharan Africa (78 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 6 deaths per 1,000 live births in Northern America)—the region with the highest fertility. Infant and child mortality rates are declining, and they would decline even faster with better birth spacing and less early and late childbearing.
- Child Marriage
- High fertility places pressure on poor families that lack the resources needed to care for all of their children. Marrying daughters off (typically to older men) is often used as a way for parents to reduce the number of children that they need to feed and otherwise care for. Child marriage perpetuates the cycle of high fertility by increasing the number of reproductive years girls/women spend in marriages—in fact, “a girl marrying at 13 will have 26 percent more children over her lifetime than if she had married at 18 or later.”
- Universal Primary Education
- The developing world has made great progress in enrolling students in primary school, but there are still places where rapid population growth outpaces countries’ ability to procure school buildings, teachers, and supplies. Most of the world’s out-of-school children live in sub-Saharan Africa, which, again, is the world region with the highest fertility rate. UNESCO wrote in 2015, “a number of sub-Saharan African countries find it difficult to keep up with the rising demand for education from a school-age population that continues to grow,” and, “sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in which the number of out-of-school adolescents has grown, from 21 million in 2000 to 23 million in 2013, a consequence of rapid population growth.”
- Peace and Security
- Rapid population growth increases civil strife due to resource scarcity, land disputes, and high unemployment among young men (the result of a phenomenon called the youth bulge). Making matters worse, by 2050, the population is projected to grow by 35 percent in the least peaceful countries while it is projected to decline by 2 percent in the most peaceful countries.
- When populations grow too quickly for their environments to keep up with resource needs and their governments to keep up with infrastructure maintenance and development, people can be compelled to leave home in order to seek a better life for themselves and their families elsewhere. Push and pull factors vary by individual and by country/region, but common ones include job opportunities, armed conflicts, natural disasters, and environmental degradation.
- Social Justice
- Slower population growth levels the playing field for poor people within countries and for poor countries within our globalized world. Equal opportunity in education, employment, land ownership, and political representation depends on people being able to make their own reproductive choices based on their personal circumstances. Complete reproductive autonomy tends to lead to smaller families and slower population growth because when women can plan each pregnancy, they tend to plan them later in their reproductive years and to space them farther apart.
This list of 21 challenges might seem like a melancholic way to ring in the new year, but I am optimistic that we can address each of them via population stabilization by investing our fair share of $1.74 billion* a year in voluntary international family planning programs. Included in that funding ask is $116 million** for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). And now that we are less than two weeks away from having a president who respects reproductive choice, we have a chance—for the first time in four years—to get serious and make that investment in the future of the planet and its people.
* This figure was updated on March 11, 2021.
** This figured was updated on March 17, 2021.