Women: Population's Once and Future Key

Thomas Prugh

Four years ago this August, World Watch published its "Population and Its Discontents" theme issue (September/October 2004). Although much has changed since then, it appears that the most important conclusion of that issue-that the best strategy for constraining population growth is empowering women to make their own family-size choices through access to education, economic opportunity, medical care, and family planning services-has only become clearer.

So a goal-fairness toward women-that is valid on its moralmerits also turns out to be pragmatic. The planet faces a range of grave and interlinked challenges, and the study of population issues rapidly leads to issues of poverty, development, equity, and the environment as well. None of these problems becomes more tractable if population is ignored.

So it is unfortunate that population issues have generally enjoyed no more than passing public notice in recent years. Not only that-in light of a projected global population of over 9 billion by 2050-one of the exceptions is the many stories about efforts to raise fertility rates and populations. Certain developed nations with falling birth rates are mounting increasingly desperate attempts to reverse the trend. Worried about declining ratios of workers to retirees, government officials in Italy, South Korea, and elsewhere are offering tax incentives, subsidized child care, and outright bribes to women of childbearing age to have more babies.

These efforts are understandable only in the context of the short views so often taken by government officials. At the global level they are perverse.Any plan that tries to address the challenges of an aging population by forever expanding the ranks of the young is counterproductive; the Earth simply cannot tolerate the load. Moreover, many countries with large cohorts of young people, such as Saudi Arabia, have created tinder boxes of their own unless they can find ways to keep all those restless and underemployed youth out of trouble.

Misjudgments can be found at the other end of the policy spectrum as well. In the United States, in yet another wrongheaded decision, President Bush has withheld the US $39.7 million in aid that Congress authorized for the United Nations Population Fund—for the seventh straight year. That sum amounts to a couple hours’ worth of spending on the Iraq war.

Besides shortsightedness, another obstacle to population progress is double standards. For example, a new poll of U.S. residents (see p. 24) reveals that while young people understand that growing populations strain Earth’s resources and that “global family planning initiatives will help improve the health of our planet and people around the world,” only a third believe that having fewer children of their own will help protect the environment. This shallow view is disturbing, given that a child born into the high-consumption culture of the United States will have many times the impact on the environment as a child born in most other places.

But it’s not all bad news. The articles that follow cannot fully explore this huge and evolving field, but they should give a flavor not only of the risks posed by rising populations but also of the progress that is being made to address those risks. Our readers have repeatedly asked for coverage of these issues. We hope you will take the time to let us know what you think.