As we advance well into the 21st century, what are we to make of World Population Day, which falls—thanks to a 1989 declaration of the United Nations—every year on July 11?
World Population Day was first informally celebrated in 1987, with the date chosen as the UN’s best guess as to when the world’s population would reach 5 billion people. That’s about a third less than its current size of 7.4 billion. Shortly after July 11, 1987, my daughter was born, an early contributor to the next billion people. Now almost 29 years old, she has seen the world add another 2.4 billion people—about the number of people that were alive on the planet when I was born in 1951. The beat goes on.
So do we celebrate World Population Day, as we might celebrate May Day or Labor Day or Independence Day? Perhaps the appropriate attitude is: “Look at us! We are 7.4 billion points of light!” It is indeed notable that, despite the centuries of alarmism about population growth, we’ve made it to this vast number. And even while doing so, we’ve managed to save and extend human life so that mortality rates for infants and children under five are at historic lows, and life expectancy is at historic highs. These successes to a large extent explain our large global population, coupled with the development of technologies that have allowed—so far—the growth to continue.
On the other hand, humanity in its billions is rapidly altering the earth’s climate, acidifying its oceans, felling its forests, sucking its water tables to ever lower levels, and sending species into oblivion. Birth rates have come down in tandem with death rates, but not quickly enough to bring about an end to population growth anytime soon. Are we still celebrating?
And what about today’s high and unequal levels of resource consumption, which also are a factor in this dynamic? Maybe someone should push in parallel for a World Consumption Day, although that would be even stranger to celebrate. A key reason that the world’s soaring use of everything from oil to meat to plastic causes the environmental problems it does is because it is multiplied by 7.4 billion consumers—particularly by the 2 billion (and growing) of us who lead middle-income or upper-income lives.
So what do we do with (and on) World Population Day? Here are four ideas for activities to consider before the Day ends. Each of them is personally rewarding and arguably good for the world and its human population.
- Be grateful to live in interesting times. There have never been anything like this many human beings struggling to live together—and just to live—on the planet. You’re part of an unimaginably large community, and what you say and do in that community has meaning and influence.
- Embrace this year’s World Population Day theme, investing in teenage girls, and learn how you can help. Women are the less privileged and fortunate sex generally, and the teen years are for many the time of greatest hopes and biggest disappointments. Kept from completing school, pushed into marriages they don’t want and into motherhood before they are ready, tens of millions of teen girls around the world face decades of life that are far more constricted than the ones they had imagined and hoped for as pre-teens.
Yet societies can recognize teen girls’ right to autonomy that is equal to that of teen boys. These girls and young women can have access to years in school as far as their talents and aspirations will take them. And they can have good information about and access to reproductive health care and contraception, with all barriers removed. When these things happen, a world of opportunity opens for girls and young women.
Among the organizations working to make this possible globally, and thus worth getting to know and to support, are the UN Population Fund and the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up program. But don’t forget the teenage girls in your own family and community, perhaps in need of encouragement and help in avoiding the pitfalls and seizing the opportunities around them.
- Learn about and support the concept of population, health, and environment (PHE) projects and those who develop and participate in them. This concept integrates natural resource conservation, food security, wildlife conservation, sustainable livelihoods, and improved access to family planning services. Evidence indicates that this integrated approach may be more effective than pursuing such objectives in isolation. It may not be too late to sign up for a World Population Day webinar sponsored by the Sierra Club and other groups on this important and promising population-related strategy.
- Support organizations that provide family planning services to those who seek them. These organizations rarely mention population. Many don’t even want to be associated with the idea, preferring to stress their objective of helping people achieve their own reproductive intentions. There’s a longstanding tension between two views: One side (oversimplifying some nuances here) views family planning as a strictly personal decision for women and couples that should not be influenced by the desire of others to slow population growth. The other side worries that without a greater sense of urgency about increasing the use of contraception and encouraging the small-family ideal, problems caused directly or indirectly by population growth will only grow worse.
This tension can be eased, perhaps paradoxically, by setting aside these differences of opinion and simply supporting those who work to expand access to and use of contraception. The work of groups like the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and its parent organization, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, has over the years contributed to the fact that most individuals and couples worldwide now use contraception, and average global family size has shrunk from 5 children per woman in the 1960s to 2.5 since today. It’s a major social revolution that goes mostly unremarked. Less known but especially active in forging partnerships to develop PHE projects is Pathfinder International.
With approximately two out of every five pregnancies unintended, the work of organizations like these to make sex and pregnancy safe and intentional is profoundly demographic and environmental. It isn’t that these groups aim at population and environmental sustainability. It just so happens that girls and women almost everywhere (and often, though not often enough, their partners) want to manage the timing and frequency of their own pregnancies and childbirths. Those organizations that help individuals and couples achieve these ends don’t need to say the words out loud. But they are actively contributing to a more livable planet, more peaceful and equitably prosperous societies, and a more sustainable world.
Let the celebration—a subdued and hopeful one, at least—begin.
Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at Worldwatch and director of its Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment project. You can read his latest report, Assessing the Science, free online.