Evidence mounts that world population will not stabilize, as some forecasters thought it would, by 2050. The UN recently released a study projecting an 80 percent probability that world population, now 7.2 billion, will rise to between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion by the end of this century.
Some say not to worry, and claim that we’ll find some way to accommodate these increases if they happen. Their optimism, however, seems to ignore the magnitude of the possible numbers. If the projection of 12.3 billion is accurate, this means that within 85 years Earth will add 5 billion people, a total twice the total of Earth’s entire population in 1950.
Currently, the numbers we have are placing serious stress on two key sources of food: fertile topsoil and the oceans. Largely as the result of human activities, soil erosion is a growing problem worldwide. When topsoil washes away, agricultural production declines. Chemical fertilizers can make up for some of the loss, but they have significant limitations. The oceans once seemed to offer an inexhaustible supply of seafood, but today overfishing is seriously threatening this supply.
Thus it is not unreasonable to consider what steps people might take to keep global population growth well below the UN’s projection. Certainly one possibility is family planning. Unfortunately, this phrase for some people has unpleasant connotations, one being the sort of coercion, including mandatory abortions, imposed by China’s one-child policy.
But family planning need not involve coercion or abortion. The fact of the matter is that there are many people throughout the world who would like to limit the size of their families, but lack effective means to do so. A report by the Guttmacher Institute states: “Between 2003 and 2012, the total number of women in need of birth control because they wanted to avoid pregnancy increased from 716 million to 867 million – and most of that growth was among women in the 69 poorest countries, where birth control is already difficult to come by.”
Some governments and private organizations are responding to this need. One of the latter is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Melinda Gates says that her goal is to put family planning “back on the global agenda” by making methods of Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC) available to women who would like to use them. These methods, including implants, are much more effective than the pill and require little or no subsequent action once they are in place. They do not prevent a fertilized egg from developing, which some view as abortion. Instead, they prevent sperm and egg from uniting.
There is resistance to family planning in Muslim countries, where birth rates are high. But this resistance is not uniform, as there are differences of viewpoints among Muslims. Even Iran’s radical Islamic leadership decided in the 1980s that population growth was outstripping resources and approved family planning. The birth rate sharply declined. Recently the leadership decided to reverse course, and – at least to some extent – discourage birth control. Many Iranians, however, disagree.
Aside from assisting family planning, one thing our government can do to help stabilize global population is to cut immigration sharply. The same applies to other countries now receiving large numbers of immigrants. When people in developing countries believe they can escape their problems by leaving, they will avoid confronting them. With world population now growing at the rate of 82 million a year, mostly in poor countries, immigration is not a realistic option to deal with excessive population growth. A yearly mass exodus of anything close to that number quickly would swamp the receiving countries.
If most people are to prosper, they must find ways to do so within the limitations of their own countries. Appreciation of those limits will overcome most objections to voluntary family planning.