On November 15, the world’s population will reach 8 billion.
In many ways, it is a global success story, culminating in longer life expectancy, fewer maternal and child deaths, and increasingly efficient health care systems.
Yet at every stage of population growth, we see panic and inflammatory headlines warning that the numbers are too high – too many for a planet reeling under widening inequality, humanitarian crises and climate change. This excitement can feel especially resonant in a world that is increasingly unequal and constantly buffeted by emergencies. But the sheer number of people alone is not cause for alarm.
As the world’s population grows, it is important to note that the growth rate is slowing down and has been since 1964. In fact, more than 60% of the world’s population now lives in a country with low birth rates, the result of many different factors, including increased ability to plan and prevent pregnancy and, in some cases, increased levels of emigration.
Regardless of trends, looking exclusively at population numbers has two major dangers.
First, focusing only on numbers treats people as commodities, depriving them of their rights and humanity. Too often we have seen leaders set targets for population size or birth rates and the gross human rights violations that result. Let’s be clear: when we talk about the “problem” of birth rates or the “ideal” population size, we’re really talking about controlling people’s bodies. We are talking about the exercise of power over their reproductive capacity, whether through influence or force, from policies where families are paid to have more children to egregious abuses such as forced sterilization often suffered by ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and people with disabilities. .
Second, looking only at numbers can obscure the dynamics of power and privilege at the heart of many debates about population. Take climate change for example. In the past, people have pointed to population growth as the force behind higher emissions. However, the evidence points to this emissions are largely due to the richest countries, not those where population growth is highest. If we get sidetracked by focusing on demographic trends rather than directly addressing the drivers of climate change, inequality and other global crises, we risk coming up with the wrong solutions – ones that have the potential to violate people’s right to choose if and when to have children.
Instead of repeating the pattern of population anxiety, let’s use this milestone as a rallying cry. We need to look carefully at the progress that has been made – longer lives, better health – and recognize that it has not been experienced equally. Both globally and nationally, social and economic inequality remains widespread. We must move away from a world where one’s nationality, gender, race or economic status act as key determinants of quality of life.
Rather, we need to be aware of the problems we face and invest in the appropriate solutions. To improve the quality of life of the next billion, we must strive to ensure that every birth is intended. This means ensuring that every adolescent can navigate their reproductive choices so that they can stay in school, enter the workforce, and reach their full potential.
To tackle climate change, we need to find ways to change the way we consume and produce goods and services. To keep up with the needs of a growing population, let’s invest in smart and sustainable infrastructure and services. For aging countries concerned about labor shortageswe can address the barriers faced by women, migrants and older people looking for work.
Ultimately, progress in reducing inequality and addressing the other great challenges of our time will not be found in any perfect number, not in the world’s population, not in a single family. The answer requires something else entirely – to look beyond the number of people to the real challenges we face.
To cultivate a future where every young person is educated, empowered and employed, we must make critical investments in tried and proven solutions.
This will require greater cooperation at all levels and an emphasis on human rights and choice. And while it won’t be easy in our fractured world, it’s necessary. By recognizing and supporting the innate values and rights of every single person, we can build a world where all 8 billion of us can thrive and prosper.
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