Seven Billion and Global Stresses

A growing population will add pressures to the world and the environment, and there must be greater focus on women’s education and reproductive health, says demographic expert John Bongaarts.

October 31, 2011

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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The United Nations announced in an October 2011 report that the world could expect the seven billionth person by the end of the month. John Bongaarts, a demographer from the Population Council, says that is both "good news and bad news." While the world has proved it can accommodate so many without a complete breakdown, he says, it is also experiencing environmental stress such as the impacts of climate change and growing agricultural needs that don’t bode well for future population growth. Bongaarts stresses voluntary family planning, education, and other social development for women as important factors for stabilizing populations and improving economic development. "When women have six, seven children, they spend most of their lives taking care of children," he says. "But if they have two or three children, they can join the work force and earn wages, which helps their family and it helps the economy."

According to a recent UN report, the sevenbillionth person is expected by the end of October 2011. What’s the significance of this?

The arrival of this moment is both good news and bad news. The good news is that we have been able to accommodate one billion people in the past twelve years and four billion since 1960. These additions have come without a complete breakdown, and that’s been possible thanks to human ingenuity, such as the Green Revolution.

The bad news is that we’re now looking at increasing signs of stress in our environment, and it’s going to be very difficult for [us to manage] the seven billion people already here, let alone the additional three billion that are expected by the end of the century.

What environmental issues are you concerned about?

Rising sea levels [because of climate change], which are expected over this century, will make it more likely that low-lying areas near the coast, particularly in poor countries, will be inundated. It’s often true that the poorest live in the lowest-lying areas because land prices are low there. [Also], high temperatures will reduce the yields from crops. So countries where the hunger levels are already highest will get hit again by lower yields that come from this rise in temperature. And more frequent storms and floods, as we’ve seen in Pakistan and other places in the last few years, will again affect the poorest because they live in the most vulnerable areas.

The most alarming trend, besides global warming, is the rise in the price of food. This has happened in past years. Some of it is due to climate events, but we’re running out of land to grow more food. We also have depleted fresh water reserves, and it will be increasingly difficult to grow more food. The food output--food and feed for animals--will have to double over the next fifty years to keep up with the rising population.

The price will remain high, and that has particularly damaging effects on the livelihoods of the poor people. Particularly in urban areas where food is imported, the rise of food prices will have massive effects, and that’s the reason we’ve been seeing food riots in the last few years in a number of countries. That’s one part of the problem. The second problem is that, in an effort to grow more food, we’ll have more environmental effects--more land degradation, more deforestation, more loss of biodiversity, and more depletion of water and pollution of water. In fact, agriculture is one of our most environmentally destructive activities, and that will get worse over time.

Over the years, a number of measures have been employed to help stabilize population growth, from China’s one-child policy (TIME) to measures giving women more control over their reproductive lives. What’s worked, what has failed, and what challenges remain?

We’re now looking at increasing signs of stress in our environment, and it’s going to be very difficult for [us to manage] the seven billion people already here, yet alone the additional three billion that are expected by the end of the century.

The one-child policy did, of course, reduce fertility, but this is a coercive measure that should not be followed in any other country. The right approach is to provide volunteer family planning programs. The reason for that is that there are large numbers of unplanned pregnancies in the developing world. In fact, the number is estimated at seventy-five million each year. So there are large numbers of women who want to use contraception, and need access and information. That’s the purpose of voluntary family planning programs.

Voluntary family planning programs in many countries have worked very well. The traditional examples are countries in Asia: Thailand and Indonesia. More recent examples [include] Rwanda, which five years ago implemented a strong reproductive health and family planning program (GlobalPost). Neighboring Burundi, equally dense and equally poor, did nothing. So we’ve seen a change of fertility in Rwanda but no change for Burundi. So other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertility is so high, should follow the Rwanda example of what can be done right.

There’s a resurgence of interest in this population issue. Part of the [reason] is that in the 1990s, people expected the African population to decline because of the AIDS epidemic, and that has not happened. The AIDS epidemic has stabilized. That’s partly because treatment is becoming available but also because behavior has changed. Africa is now the most rapidly growing part of the world, and they’ll be expecting a billion more people by 2050. That’s not a good thing.

What are some policy options to address that?

Probably the most important thing you can do is to have governments that really care about people. Once you get a government that really tries to do the right things, things can happen. Rwanda is an example of that. In Ethiopia [also] in the last five years, the number of women whose births occur in a health facility have doubled. It’s gone from 5 percent to 10 percent. Now this is still an astonishingly low number of women who are being cared for while they deliver, but government efforts are moving things in the right direction.

How closely tied is development to fertility rates?

Economic development alone is not the key to bring fertility down. The key is social development together with family planning programs. The reason is that we have examples of countries where they have invested in family planning, girls’ education, high literacy levels, etc., and these are poor countries. Two examples are Sri Lanka and Kerala, in southern India. These [places] have focused on social development and health and their fertility is very low. At the same time they’re poor, and therefore, poverty is not, in this case, an obstacle to low fertility.

On the other hand, we have rich countries in the Middle East where oil revenues have increased the standard of living to very high levels. Fertility remains high because women’s rights remain minimal and social developments are also very limited. So the key to having an impact on fertility for development is to focus on education and women’s rights.