Population experts report that the global population will reach 7 billion on October 31, 2011. Wow! The number is mind-boggling, especially when placed next to the fact that, in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, there were around 3.5 billion people in the world. We're growing at a rate of a billion every 12 or 13 years. The United Nations division's chief, Gerhard Heilig says that, if fertility rates don't decline, the population could reach 27 billion in the next century. Now that's something to imagine!
I'm feeling closed in!
One thing that is clear to me is that there seem to be more people everywhere we go these days. Whether it's a drive across the mountains, a shopping trip to Costco, or a visit to a museum, the crowds are thicker than they were a decade ago. I feel distressed with the increase in people, but just ask most economists, and they will tell you that there's plenty of room for growth. Plus, they proclaim that we need large future generations to support all of us in our older years. At a recent dinner, the conversation came up about population explosion, and an acquaintance who works for a large corporation said, "Haven't you noticed when you're in an airplane looking down that there's plenty of room for more people; all we need is to do a better job of planning." But when I look around me and see the "better" job of planning and decision making that our current and past leaders have done, I say, "No! It's time for a shift in the other direction!"
What would a shift in the other direction look like?
It would mean bringing fewer children into the world and celebrating the population decline as we vigilantly watch the number move down-rather then up-from 7 billion. There would have to be a massive brainstorming across the world to find ways for retirees to be provided for financially other than through the taxes of a younger generation. I, for one, believe that we're creative enough to come up with solutions other than the ones we have now. After all, we've sent men to the moon. Our current system works like this: In underdeveloped countries retirees live with their adult children, while in economically developed nations retirees are funded through systems such as Social Security, which is supported by those still in the work force. At age 50, I've socked funds into this system for 34 years and as a self-employed individual with no company pension awaiting me, I'm certainly counting on the system. But what if this were to be gradually phased out? And what if developing countries got help creating systems for elder care that weren't reliant on having adult children? One developing country that's already having to do this is China, where a one-child policy has been in effect for a long time and where nowadays increasing numbers of young people are choosing No children over One child. And even here, in the United States, there's more and more press about the fact that we'd better not count on Social Security to support us in retirement.
What's the alternative to population decline?
If we don't make a shift, we will continue to see a decline in quality of life-there aren't enough jobs for the workforce; more people each year are going without adequate healthcare; garbage is being shipped from one location to another due to lack of space; our water and food sources are being depleted-and these issues are only going to get worse.
One example of a country in crisis is India, the fastest growing nation in the world. I spent five days this spring there, in the city of New Delhi. The people of India are kind and generous, and their history and culture are rich. I found it difficult to enjoy these gifts, however, because of the crush of people and the conditions in which they live.
Fifty-one babies are born every minute in India, and the life that awaits them is, for most, less than ideal. New Delhi is a city with a brand spanking new, efficient metro system. Step off the train in much of the city, however, and find a sea of rubble the likes of which I'd never before experienced in my travels. Having traveled to China, another developing country, I expected similar living standards, and just like the cities of China, there was pollution obscuring the sun. But in addition to air pollution, New Delhi has crippled children begging at the crosswalks, piles of garbage everywhere, crumbling sidewalks, stray dogs wandering the streets, and masses of traffic zipping in and out of unlined streets. And then there are the slums, holding thousands of human beings who lack clean water, toilets, and adequate housing. Out of the 18 million people in New Delhi, nearly 4 million live in slums, with over 8 percent of the city existing below poverty level. This percentage is actually low in comparison to the fact that over 27 percent of people in India as a whole live below the poverty level. Consider this: if there are 51 births per minute in India, and nowadays, only 7 percent of students there are graduating from high school, how are all of these people going to support themselves? And what will their quality of life be? The reality is that, while India is the fastest growing country in the world, and truly aspires to have a standard of living on par with other developing or developed countries, this is not going to happen without bold government intervention. And India is not alone-we are witnessing the standard of living going down for millions of Americans, and those of us approaching retirement are facing the reality that our golden years will not be as comfortable as those enjoyed by our parents.
What action can we take?
So, I ask, in a time of population explosion with diminished quality of life, why are we still financially rewarding people for having babies? And what can we do to stop the insanity and make a difference in our future? I have a few suggestions, but my primary hope is that, now that the declared day of the arrival of the 7 billionth human has come and gone, we will not go back to our daily grind and forget to make these issues a priority. Let's start a dialogue together and work towards an effective action plan!
1) Speak out to friends and family about family planning issues, including the option of having no children.
2) Write to your representatives to ask for alternative solutions for financially supporting the burgeoning retiring population other than by having more babies to pay into the system.
3) Agree that the population and life quality problems of other countries are ours as well. Ask your favorite international charities to prioritize family planning projects as well as support for greater educational opportunities for women.