Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation

Population bomb, bust - or boon?

New York 19.04.2023 Jpic-jp.org Translated by: Jpic-jp.org

On 15 November 2022, the world’s population reached a landmark 8 billion people. It’s a staggering number - but what does it mean? What are the implications for the lives, rights, health and future offspring of all these people? Finally, does the World ‘population bomb’ never go off as feared? New UNFPA report debunks 8 myths about a world of 8 billion.

The long-feared “population bomb” may not go off, according to the authors of a new report that estimates that human numbers will peak lower and sooner than previously forecast, writes Jonathan Watts 27 Mar 2023 in The Guardian. A study, “projects that on current trends the world population will reach a high of 8.8 billion before the middle of the century, then decline rapidly.” While, “Previous studies have painted a grimmer picture. Last year, the UN estimated the world population would hit 9.7 billion by the middle of the century and continue to rise for several decades afterwards,” the study “foresees existing policies being enough to limit global population growth to below 9 billion in 2046 and then decline to 7.3 billion in 2100.” The declining peak could come earlier “with governments across the world raising taxes on the wealthy to invest in education, social services and improved equality”, and the world population “could hit a high of 8.5 billion as early as 2040 and then fall by about a third to about 6 billion in 2100.” By 2050, greenhouse gas emissions would be “about 90% lower than they were in 2020 and are still falling.”

“The new forecasts are good news for the global environment,” but the “falling birth-rates alone will not solve the planet’s environmental problems.” “Declining populations can also create new problems.” “The current development paradigm of overconsumption and overproduction,” are bigger problems than population. So, on what should we focus?  On migration out of control, on the old people’s fear of losing support, on women to reproduce more, or less? We should ask instead: What’s fact, what’s fiction, and what’s the future beyond the figures? 

Myth 1: There are too many people being born

Increasing climate catastrophes, endless conflict over resources, soaring hunger, pandemics, economic devastation: the causes behind these crises are multiple and overlapping. Many point the finger at fertility rates: The world population is too large. But the truth is, reaching 8 billion is a sign of human progress.

It means more new-borns are surviving, more children are going to school, receiving health care and making it to adulthood. People today are living almost 10 years longer than they were in 1990. Changes in fertility rates will do little to change our population’s current trajectory of growth. In fact, the rate of population growth is slowing significantly – which brings us to our next myth.

Myth 2: There aren't enough people being born

Since the 1950s, the average number of children that women are having globally has more than halved, from 5 to 2.3. Two thirds of the world's population live in places with below-replacement fertility rates. Is this an alarm bell? The elderly will use up all our social service resources and nations will dwindle and die? 

No. It is a sign that individuals are increasingly able to exercise control over their own reproductive lives. Falling fertility rates need not result in population reduction overall. Many countries have experienced falling population rates since the 1970s - but have still grown due to migration. And all populations are ageing, the result of welcome increases in longevity.  

Myth 3: These are demographic issues, not gender issues

Populations are about people, and people are currently being born into a world of deeply entrenched gender inequality. Human reproduction should be a choice, but tragically, it often is not. Some 44 per cent of partnered women are unable to exercise bodily autonomy: they are unable to make their own decisions over their health care, whether or not to have sex and have children. Nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended. Half a million births every year are to young girls of 10 to 14 years old. As few as one quarter to one third of women in low- and middle-income regions are having the number of children they planned, at the speed that they planned - if they even planned on having them at all. 

Yet rhetoric and policymakers turn to fertility rates as a preferred solution. How often do they propose solutions which consider the fertility desires of women and girls? Not often enough.

Myth 4: The ideal total fertility rate is 2.1 children per woman 

It is said that 2.1 children per woman is the replacement fertility level, the average rate needed to replace a population over time. This is generally true.

But targeting the number 2.1 a gold standard and fertility policies, is a mistake. Firstly, 2.1 is the average replacement rate for countries with very low infant and child mortality and natural sex ratios at birth, not countries with higher mortality or skewed sex ratios. It also fails to capture changes in the age of women at childbirth and the impact of migration. It is a misleading and unattainable goal. There is no reason that a 2.1 fertility rate will result in the highest levels of well-being and prosperity.

Myth 5: Having kids is irresponsible in a world of climate catastrophes

This logic suggests women in countries with high fertility rates are responsible for the climate crisis. In fact, they have contributed the least to global warming while suffering the most from its impacts.

The wealthiest 10 per cent of the human population is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions, while living in countries with lower fertility rates. What can these statistics say? That reducing fertility rates will not fix the climate crisis; we need instead sustainable levels of consumption, reduced inequalities and investment in cleaner energy sources. 

Myth 6: We need to stabilize population rates

This belief contains the assumption that certain population rates are good or bad. But there is no perfect number of people, nor should we prescribe a number of children that each woman should have. History has shown the damage this kind of thinking can cause, such as eugenics and genocide. The international community today firmly rejects population control efforts, but there remains significant interest in influencing fertility rates.

The United Nations has surveyed governments’ attitudes towards population change over the past decade. One notable finding is the number of countries adopting policies with an intention to raise, lower or maintain the fertility rates of their citizens. These are not necessarily coercive policies; they might be positive for they increase access to health services. But in general, the efforts to influence fertility are correlated with lower performance on democracy and human freedom. The bottom line is that every individual has a fundamental human right to choose, freely and responsibly, the number and spacing of their children. No one, not politicians, not pundits, not policymakers get to take that right away.

Myth 7: We focus on fertility rates because we don’t have data on what women want

Concerns about population are framed around fertility or birth rates, while no one asking what individuals want for their own reproductive lives. Experts fret that data on fertility intention is unreliable, because a woman’s reported fertility desires can change over time, depending on circumstances. People can be ambivalent about issues like family size.

But it also fails to account for what women and marginalized groups need and what opens the door to harms and rights violations. In fact, calls to increase or decrease fertility rates are often efforts to control women’s fertility, rather than to secure women’s and girls’ own control over their choices. Saying “fertility rates are too high” or “too low” neglects the failing of the very people whose fertility we are talking about.

Myth 8: Rights and choices are great in theory, but unaffordable in reality 

Failing to support reproductive rights always comes with costs for women and the most marginalized. We must work towards providing a full range of reproductive health-care services, from conception choice to safe delivery and infertility care. These interventions can help people and societies thrive and prosper.

In the end, is it really about the numbers?

Too many people? Too few? What is the right number? We're asking the wrong questions. What we should be asking is “are people, especially women, able to freely make their own reproductive choices?” The answer, unacceptably often, is no.

The State of World Population 2023 report shows that too many people today are still unable to achieve their reproductive goals. Women’s bodies should not be held captive to choices made by governments or anyone else. Family planning must not be a tool for achieving population targets, but one to empower individuals. “Human reproduction is neither the problem, nor the solution. When we put gender equality and rights at the heart of our population policies, we are stronger, more resilient, and better able to deal with the challenges resulting from rapidly changing populations.” (UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem). Nevertheless, is this a final answer to the problem, or only an entry to do better thinking?

See, Population bomb, bust – or boon? New UNFPA report debunks 8 myths about a world of 8 billion

Photo. On 15 November, the world’s population reached a landmark 8 billion people. The UNFPA State of World Population 2023 report released today asks what this means for their lives, rights, health and futures? © UNFPA/ARTificial Mind/Cecilie Waagner Falkenstrøm

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