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Can World Population Be Controlled? - Facts & Infographic

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On October 31, 2011, the United Nations declared that the world's population reached a new milestone and its all-time high - 7 billion people now inhabit the Earth. That might not sound like an alarming number until you consider that the population just 200 years ago, in 1810, was estimated at 1 billion. With the rapid increase in population, many are worried about the balance of the ecosystem, wondering how many people the Earth can sustain. In order to keep the Earth's ecosystem in balance, and knowing that the Earth has limited resources, most people would prefer a decline in birth rates to an increase in the death rate, but how can the world's population be controlled?

Population Growth

Several factors contributed to the sudden increase in Earth’s population, which had risen fairly slowly until relatively recently in human history. Population growth occurs when the birthrate exceeds the death rate. With advancements in health services, people are living longer lives, thus reducing the death rate.

Growth Rates
Human population is following the exponential growth model, that is, it increases at a constant percentage over time. The growth rate actually peaked from around 1965-1970, when it reached 2.1 percent, but the total annual increase in population was smaller then than it is at today's lower rate, because the total population was smaller at the time. Today's population growth rate worldwide is about 1.1 percent, based on UN estimates, which increases the population by about 75 million people each year. The growth rate is expected to drop to just 0.5 percent in 2050, when the world population will reach about 10 billion.

Growing Numbers
Even though the population growth rate is declining, the total population continues to grow because the population base is larger. In some developing countries, where the average age of the population is lower, they are experiencing population momentum – even though the growth rate is slowing, the total population continues to increase because the percentage of women at childbearing age is high. Even at replacement rates, the number of children born exceeds the number of people dying.

Urban vs Rural
Urbanization is another major factor affecting population growth. Families in rural societies typically have more children for a number of reasons. With poor health services, the risk of dying as an infant or child is greater. But when children are more likely to reach adulthood, studies have shown that women often decide to have fewer children. Historically, families have been larger because some of the children were not expected to live full lives.

In agricultural societies, having more children means more workers. In urban societies, children are a bigger expense and their focus is on education rather than labor. Many women decide to continue their own education and follow a career path, which delays childbirth and results in fewer children.

Other major factors affecting population growth include lack of education and access to family planning resources like contraceptives.

The Earth's Capacity

In some points in history, population growth was seen as a good thing. More people meant more security, more labor, and a stronger, more powerful society. But at a certain point, the increase in people began to have negative consequences on humans and the environment.

Natural Resources
The Earth may not be able to continue to sustain the world's growing population of humans because of its carrying capacity: the number of people the environment can sustain without negative impacts. The Earth and its ecosystem are finite resources – they do not grow with the population. The Earth has a limited amount of land, and though the Earth is approximately 70 percent water, the percentage of fresh water available is much smaller. Though solar energy flows continuously, the amount that reaches Earth is finite, thus it can only support a limited amount of life.

How Many Humans Can The Earth Support?
We don't know the exact number, and estimates vary widely from less than 1 billion to around 1 trillion, with the median at about 10 billion. These estimates depend on a long list of factors, including the way humans choose to live. Consumer culture along with over-consumption will reduce the number of humans the Earth can sustain, while advancements in technology could increase the number.

The idea of the Earth's carrying capacity of humans is complex, because humans affect not only the population of humans, but also the population of animals and the use of land and other resources on the Earth. Further, some have suggested that we embrace the growing population rather than fight it, and begin to look beyond the Earth for other suitable habitats. Though impractical and maybe impossible today, this could be a possibility for the future.

Technological Growth
On the opposite side, some groups like United Families International, argue that the Earth is not in danger of becoming overpopulated, and point out that more people means a larger labor force that we can use to improve society. In response to the carrying capacity, groups such as UFI point to research that shows there is actually enough food to feed the world, but the food is not accessible to everyone. These groups often point to the slowed population growth, and argue that we are actually in danger of becoming underpopulated in the near future.

Further, these organizations point out that as the world has become more populated, the overall quality of life has improved. With a larger population, we have turned to specialization and have continuously improving technologies and a better quality of life than humans had 200 years ago. The growth of the population leads to more great minds that could change the future, even potentially creating new solutions for the problem of overpopulation.

The Consequences of Overpopulation

Overpopulation of humans is already considered responsible for a long list of problems, which can be broken down into two general categories: environmental factors and human rights issues.

Negative Effects On The Ecosystem

This includes pollution of the air, water, and soil, depletion of fossil fuels and other natural resources, deforestation, and the extinction of many species. Over 800 animal species have already gone extinct, according to the IUCN Red List. The acceleration of climate change has also been attributed to overpopulation.

Reduced Quality Of Life

Many factors contribute to the quality of life, which varies across societies worldwide. Certain standards of living must be achieved in order to guarantee quality of life to all humans.

While around 70 percent of the Earth is made up of water, more then 96 percent of the Earth's water is saline. Of the 4 percent of fresh water on earth, almost 70 percent of that is frozen. Many parts of the world do not have access to fresh water and desalination is expensive and impractical. As a result of climate change, many regions have been suffering from desertification.

Higher child mortality rates and low life expectancy can also result from overpopulation, as resources are spread thin when there are too many people. Child mortality and health complications are frequently caused by malnutrition from lack of food and fresh water in third world nations.

In underdeveloped regions, the health risks surrounding pregnancy and abortion are very high, with over 500,000 women dying each year from these factors. Around 8 million babies die each year as a result of their living conditions, primarily in Africa and South Asia, where health care is needed.

In underdeveloped regions, the health risks surrounding pregnancy and abortion are very high, with over 500,000 women dying each year from these factors. Around 8 million babies die each year as a result of their living conditions, primarily in Africa and South Asia, where health care is needed.

Poverty and higher crime rates are also associated with overpopulation, like people stealing resources in order to survive.

Sanitation issues are prevalent in areas suffering from overpopulation, because of greater population density.

The Solutions

What can we do to control the population?

Some people believe that population control is the wealthy imposing unwanted regulation on the poor. Many of the methods for controlling population sizes are also heavily criticized.

Population Control

The term population control has negative connotations, and is associated with oppression by a colonial power or authoritarian government. Government control of family planning has been controversial at best and reeks of eugenics at worst, as well as dehumanizing and a violation of human rights. Despite this, some countries have attempted to or even continue to enforce population control.

The best known example of this is the People's Republic of China's One Child Policy, which limits the number of children any woman is allowed to have to one, with various exceptions. Supporters of the policy have encouraged the United Nations implement a similar policy, or individual countries to recommend voluntary regulation. China's policy, too, began as a voluntary procedure before progressing to monetary fines and more extreme forms of punishment.

First established in 1979, the policy is said to have prevented the birth of 400 million children to date. However, the policy has been heavily criticized for causing of an imbalance of males to females in China. With advancements in modern technology, and a limit of only one child, Chinese parents often chose to abort female fetuses, in order to have a son.

In the 1970s, under the rule of former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, a sterilization program was initiated, where men who had more than two children were forced to be sterilized. In practice, sterilization was forced on poor unmarried men and others in exchange for land or loans. About 4.6 million tubal ligations were said to have been performed on women, an even higher number than that of men who were sterilized. Though the policy was in place for just two years from 1975-1977, the country continues to avoid family planning initiatives.

The New Plan to Combat Overpopulation

With the controversy surrounding imposing legislation on the reproductive rights of humans, the United Nations has been working in other ways to slow population growth. Educating and empowering women has been shown to significantly reduce the number of unintended children born.

In 1969, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) was established to support the world's population, in a mission to ensure that women are given the freedom to choose whether to start a family and that when they do they will be safe and healthy.

In 1994, at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, leaders from 180 countries developed a new approach to combat the issue of overpopulation. Instead of imposing government regulation on the people, the new plan focused on education and women's rights and health. By focusing on empowering women, the plan seeks to give women the right to choose whether to have children, how many children to have, and when to have them. They also work to provide family planning resources including access to reproductive health care and birth control options, while reducing mortality of both infant and mother.

Around 80 million unintended pregnancies occur each year, which makes up about 40 percent of all pregnancies worldwide. According to the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, 49 percent of pregnancies in the United States in 2001 were unintended. Though the United States has reproductive health and education services, religious groups like the Catholic Church have caused birth control and abortion to become highly stigmatized, and have promoted abstinence-only education, in which birth control options are not discussed. Large families are also encouraged by the church, which has probably contributed to the high birthrate in the country.

By making family planning resources available to women the world over, the number of unintended and unwanted children would be dramatically reduced. In turn, other resources would be more readily available to the children who are born.

Women who pursue education and careers are less likely to have many children, in part because they begin their families much later than women whose primary role is to be a mother. Another part of this is that they are educated about family planning and they know the options and resources available to them. In Egypt, since 2008, the government has been working to empower women with education and employment in an effort to reduce the population.

Several organizations and schemes have been created to fight overpopulation, including Pathfinder International, Planned Parenthood, Population Matters and the Worldwatch Institute. The Zero Population Growth movement seeks to sustain replacement rates of the human population, rather than reduce population growth. A “birth credit” scheme has been suggested by American activist Michael E. Arth that would allot a certain number of credits to each woman that could be exchanged for giving birth to a child. The number of children allotted would depend on the number needed to continue zero population growth. If a woman wanted to have additional children, she could purchase a license for additional births, or face fines. This plan could control population growth while allowing some freedom of choice.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement takes things one step further, suggesting that humans should become extinct because the human population is destroying the Earth. An environmental movement, the VHEM's extreme ideology goes against biological tendencies and is not usually considered a potential solution.

Other solutions for dealing with the growing population of humans continue to be discussed and researched.

Is overpopulation a problem? How many people can the Earth support? Would reducing the world population help raise the standard of living? Is it possible to keep the world population under control? What can we do to ensure that Earth and its resources can continue to sustain the population?

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