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Think about it: Population

Part 4: Overpopulation and David Attenborough's feminist solutions

A few years ago, David Attenborough described humans as "a plague on the Earth". The world's population has tripled in his lifetime already.

How did we get here?

Population was pretty stable at about 1 billion people for about 10,000 years. People were lucky if two of their children survived the plethora of diseases and dangers thrown at them. The population graph only started its steep escalation around the year 1800.

What happened was that we got better at surviving disease.

How far can we go?

There's no consensus. The United Nations Population Division projects world population to peak at over 10 billion at the end of the 21st century, but others argue that global fertility will fall below the replacement rate in the 2020s so that world population will peak below 9 billion by 2050 and then slowly start to decline. A 2014 study in Science says global population will reach 11 billion by 2100, and growth is likely to continue into the next century.

What's the problem?

In his BBC Documentary How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?, Attenborough explains that human population density is a factor in every environmental problem he's ever encountered.

Environmental problems include carbon emissions, deforestation, species extinction. But there are many problems for humans too - especially water shortages and food scarcity.

Attenborourgh says that if we don't do something, the natural world will. Take famines in Ethiopia: “What are they about? They're about too many people for too little piece of land. That's what it's about. And we say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That's barmy.”

Cities growing, too

Urbanisation is a trend that runs parallel to population growth. There are now more humans living in cities than not. This number is growing too. Done well, urban living can be efficient and economic - giving people access to jobs and potential to live within a smaller environmental footprint. Done badly, it looks like slums and smog and sprawl.

Change is a tool for correction.

The good news is that slowing population growth could be a powerful tool for curbing climate change. Project Drawdown is a group of researchers, business leaders and policy makers trying to figure out how we can reach  "Drawdown" which is the point when greenhouse gasses begin to decline. They've put family planning and educating girls into the top 10 workable solutions available today. Together, these two solutions could reduce CO2 emissions by 120 gigaton by 2050 - that's more powerful than offshore and onshore wind power together.

Who's gonna fix it? Women, of course.

You may not think of David Attenborough as a famous feminist. But here's what he has to say about fixing population growth. "I think that those most concerned in this matter should have a vote in this matter - and that's women. If women have the political right and control over their own bodies, and in areas where they have that and they have the vote and education and literacy and proper medical facilities, birth rate falls. So that should be a lesson to those of us in wealthy parts of the world to help those of us in less wealthy."

Fertility rates around the world reflect Attenborough's observations.

So, as the Drawdown Project has concluded, it's not about forcing a one-child policy solution. It's not about rich countries telling poor countries to stop having children. It's about empowering women, educating them, making family planning and health care available.

Educating women and girls, their report says, not only makes for better lives for these women and their communities,  "It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth.”

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