A scary thing will happen this Halloween: the world’s population will reach seven billion people according to a new United Nations Population Fund report. That’s six billion more than existed just 200 years ago and twice as many as 1960. Each person requires food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, and ideally, opportunities for self-fulfillment – a tall order on a crowded planet.
Providing adequately for everyone while maintaining the natural ecosystems that sustain all life has been a challenge in the modern era, and we haven’t done such a great job so far. Species are going extinct at 100 to 1000 times the natural rate, up to 75 percent of coral reefs are threatened and a football field’s worth of rainforest disappears every second. The playing field will get even more complicated as the unpredictable hand of climate change increasingly interferes with our defenses and the next billion players arrive on Earth in only 13 years.
Several films screening at the American Conservation Film Festival bring to life the challenges of the new population era we’re entering. As one of ACFF’s film selectors, I watched all of them, fighting a growing sense of alarm as I did. Climate Refugees portrays the future as a kind of Hurricane Katrina on steroids, with millions of people displaced from areas getting too much water due to flooding (such as Bangladesh) and from areas getting too little due to drought (such as Sudan). Anyone who thinks this is someone else’s problem should take note: desperate people migrate and agitate. Millions will flock across borders to richer countries and those who remain will trigger social, political and economic instability. You can view a trailer of Climate Refugees here and see the film at ACFF in Shepherdstown WV, just 70 miles outside Washington DC, on November 5.
While Climate Refugees paints with a broad global brush, There Once Was an Island presents a detailed portrait of an imperiled community in Papua New Guinea and its search for a new home. Climate change became real for me watching the rising Pacific crash into village buildings and salty seawater swirl around giant taro plants in what was once a productive garden. Not since those shots of polar bears in search of sea ice has climate change felt so real and so now. You can see for yourself here on the trailer for There Once Was an Island or at ACFF’s screening of the film on November 4.
Mother: Caring for 7 Billion addresses the population problem head on, confronting the implications of a world now shaped more by billions of needy people than any other earthly force. It says what hasn’t been said much since the 60’s, even as our numbers have doubled: global population growth is a problem. People consume. A lot. People in developing countries have more children, but those in the developed world consume more resources. This consumption is not sustainable, which is a fancy way of saying that if things don’t change, some people will go hungry and many more species of plants and animals will go extinct. It’s not just about finding an empty spot on your favorite holiday beach. The UN Population Fund report cites a study by the Global Footprint Network, a California-based think tank showing that the world’s annual demand for resources exceeds what it can regenerate each year. It takes about 18 months to regenerate the amount we consume in just 12. And the U.S. is a big part of that. If everyone lived as we do, according to the Global Footprint Network, we’d need five planets to satisfy the demand. You can watch the trailer for Mother: Caring for 7 Billion here and see the film at ACFF on November 4.
Right about now is where I’m supposed to inject the message of hope. Gloom and doom went out of fashion in the 1980’s and the arc of nonfiction writing requires that I end on a positive note. So here it is: the good news is that global fertility rates have actually declined over the past 60 years from about 6 children per woman to 2.5 today (and in some developed countries fertility is below replacement rates, triggering very different concerns about maintaining an adequate labor force). Global population will continue to grow in coming decades because so much of the developing world’s population is young, just entering their child-bearing years, and because people are living longer.
But the back story on declining fertility is the real story. Not surprisingly, the greatest declines in fertility have occurred in places where women are educated and have access to economic opportunities and contraception. Indeed, both Mother: Caring for 7 Billion and the UN Population Fund’s State of the World Population 2011 report zero in on, if not the answer, then certainly one of the Top Ten Things We Can Do to Save the Planet: namely, empower women. This seems fairly obvious. Women are the ones having children. Women who are educated understand their reproductive options and have fewer children, consistently, across cultures. Women who are free to make money and decisions use their skills and power to improve the well-being of their families, helping to break the cycle of poverty and isolation that perpetuates high birth rates over generations. But achieving this preferred state everywhere isn’t easy given the cultural and economic complexities of human society. In places where tradition and other norms prevent women from pursuing education and employment, such as sub-Saharan Africa, fertility rates remain well above 4 children per women.
Empowering women won’t stop climate change or revolutionize how we consume resources (at least not in the short term). But it will slow the trajectory of future human population growth, which conceivably could double again by the end of the century. And who knows. The old saying “it’s a man’s world” is still largely true. Perhaps real change can only come through a woman’s world.