7 Billion and Climbing: The Population Challenge

World population, according to the United Nations, will reach 7 billion on October 31, 2011, and judging by the coverage that the milestone has received in the print media, the challenge once posed by population growth has been solved. A writer for the Chicago Sun-Times even when so far as to say, "Hoorary! Pop the Champagne."

An article in the latest issue of The Economist ("A Tale of Three Islands: The world's population will reach 7 billion at the end of October. Don't panic.") indicates that the world's decline in fertility has been "staggering," and that, "If you look at the overall size of the world's population, then, the picture is one of falling fertility, decelerating growth and a gradual return to the flat population level of the 18th century."

There it is: problem solved. But before we uncork the champagne, it's helpful to take a quicker look at the latest population projections, which tell a somewhat different story. The UN's latest "medium variant" projection, released earlier this year, indicates that world population will reach the 8 billion mark in just 13 years, rise to 9.3 billion by mid-century, cross the 10 billion mark in 2082 and keep growing.

Just a few years ago, demographers were projecting that world population would begin declining around mid-century. In August of 1999, Max Singer, the founder of the Hudson Institute, warned in The Atlantic that, "Fifty years from now, the world's population will be declining, with no end in sight."

So what's changed? Fertility rates are not falling as fast as once projected. While fertility rates in much of Europe, North America, and East Asia are at or below the generally accepted "replacement rate" of 2.1 children per woman, fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa and many parts of South Asia remain high.

While fertility rates in the developing world are declining, they are not falling fast enough to prevent large increases in population. Africa's population, just over 1 billion today, will reach 2.3 billion by 2050, unless fertility rates fall faster than expected. India's population, currently 1.2 billion, will likely rise to 1.7 billion by 2050, surpassing China as the world's most populous country in 20 years or less.

The principal obstacle to further declines in fertility is that adolescent birth rates in many developing countries remain stubbornly high. In many rural areas, children are married off and begin having children at very early ages.

About 25,000 girls a day become child brides. Leaving aside concerns about population growth, the practice of child marriage is very detrimental to the health and wellbeing of women in the developing world. When girls are taken out of school and become pregnant at an early age, they and the whole community suffer. Increasing access to contraceptives can help these young brides, but not if the husbands demand large families.

The principal problem with rapid population growth in developing nations is not the drain on the world's resources; it's that many of the countries that will double or triple their populations in the next 40 years are already losing the fight against hunger, poverty, and poor health. Unless more is done to expand access to contraceptives and discourage child marriage, many of these countries will become failed states.

Population growth is beginning a dangerous ascent. Twelve years ago when world population reached the 6 billion mark, oil prices were hovering at just over $10 a barrel, the prices of grain and other basic food stuffs were at or near record lows, the world economy was soaring, and it looked as though we had hunger and severe poverty on the run.

Today, with world population about to reach 7 billion, commodity prices for energy, food, metals and minerals have gone through the roof, and the world economy is trying to stave off yet another economic downturn.

The prices of basic food commodities have more than doubled in the last seven years. With more than a billion people living on less than a $1.25 a day, another doubling of food prices could create a famine without borders.

In a world where severe poverty and hunger is on the rise, particularly one that is battling the effects of climate change and struggling with water scarcity, continued population growth is not cause for celebration. It's cause for concern and concerted action.

Instead of slashing support for family planning at home and abroad, we need to ensure that women everywhere have access to contraceptives. We also need to expand programs in the developing world that empower women and allow girls to stay in school. When we have done all that, we can "pop the champagne." Not before.