Nine strategies to stop short of nine billion population

Posted: 10 July 2012

Most analysts assume that the world's population will rise from today's 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050 -- but it is quite possible that humanity will never reach this population size,  Robert Engelman argues in the latest State of the World 2012 report from the Worldwatch Institute.

In the chapter "Nine Population Strategies to Stop Short of 9 Billion," Engleman outlines a series of steps and initiatives that would, he says, all but guarantee declines in birthrates-based purely on the intention of women around the world to have small families or no children at all-that would end population growth before mid-century at fewer than 9 billion people.

"Unsustainable population growth can only be effectively and ethically addressed by empowering women to become pregnant only when they themselves choose to do so," he writes.

World contraceptive use

Examples from around the world demonstrate effective policies that not only reduce birth rates, but also respect the reproductive aspirations of parents and support an educated and economically active society that promotes the health of women and girls, says ther Worldwatch president. Most of these reproduction policies are relatively inexpensive, yet in many places they are opposed on the basis of cultural resistance and political infeasibility.

Steering clear of the language and approaches of ‘population control’, or the idea that anyone should pressure women and their partner on reproduction, Engelman outlines nine strategies that could put human population on an environmentally sustainable path:

 Gender bias

  • Provide universal access to safe and effective contraceptive options for both sexes. With nearly two in five pregnancies reported as mistimed or never wanted, lack of access to good family planning services is among the biggest gaps in assuring that each baby will be wanted and welcomed in advance by its parents.
  •  Guarantee education through secondary school for all, especially girls. In every culture surveyed to date, women who have completed at least some secondary school have fewer children on average, and have children later in life, than do women who have less education. 
  •  Eradicate gender bias from law, economic opportunity, health, and culture. Women who can own, inherit, and manage property; divorce; obtain credit; and participate in civic and political affairs on equal terms with men are more likely to postpone childbearing and to have fewer children compared to women who are deprived of these rights.
  • Schoolgirls learning about RH and sexuality, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Photo: Don Hinrichsen
    The Secondary school in Ulaan Baatar is dominated by girls. Here they are learning about RH and sexuality.
    © Don Hinrichsen
    Offer age-appropriate sexuality education for all students. Data from the United States indicate that exposure to comprehensive programs that detail puberty, intercourse, options of abstinence and birth control, and respecting the sexual rights and decisions of individuals, can help prevent unwanted pregnancies and hence reduce birth rates.
  • End all policies that reward parents financially based on the number of children they have. Governments can preserve and even increase tax and other financial benefits aimed at helping parents by linking these not to the number of children they have, but to parenthood status itself.
  • Integrate lessons on population, environment, and development into school curricula at multiple levels. Refraining from advocacy or propaganda, schools should educate students to make well-informed choices about the impacts of their behavior, including childbearing, on the environment.
  • In quantifying the cost of an additional family member by calculating taxes and increased food costs, couples may decide that the cost of having an additional child is too high, compared to the benefits of a smaller family that might receive government rebates and have a lower cost of living. Such decisions, freely made by women and couples, can decrease birth rates without any involvement by non-parents in reproduction.
  •  Adjust to an aging population instead of boosting childbearing through government incentives and programs. Population aging must be met with the needed societal adjustments, such as increased labor participation, rather than by offering incentives to women to have more children.
  • Convince leaders to commit to stabilizing population growth through the exercise of human rights and human development. By educating themselves on rights-based population policies, policymakers can ethically and effectively address population-related challenges by empowering women to make their reproductive choices.

If most or all of these strategies were put into effect, Engelman argues global population would probably peak and subsequently begin a gradual decline before 2050. This, in turn, would help to ensure the sustainable development of natural resources and global stability into the future. By pursuing policies that defend human rights, promote education, and reflect the true economic and environmental costs of childbearing, the world could halt population short of the 9 billion.

Worldwatch's State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity , released in April, presents a selection of ideas for achieving environmental sustainability globally while meeting human needs and providing jobs and dignity for all.