Today, the world’s population is projected to reach 7 billion – that’s the claim made by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, in its report last week, The State of World Population 2011.
How should we engage with this statistic? What does it mean?
A headline figure such as this is bound to invoke the Malthusian nightmare of popular imagination. And yet, if you look behind the figure you discover that global population growth rates have fallen to 1.15 per cent a year, down from the peak of 2.19 per cent a year in 1963. If the growth rates continue to decline then the world’s population will be on course to stabilise within the century.
The headline figure suggests that more people are living longer and more children are surviving. This is surely something to celebrate. And yet, it remains true, that not everyone has benefited from this achievement or from the higher quality of life that this implies. Disparities exist between and within countries as well and between social groupings.
There are 215 million women of child-bearing age in developing countries who would use family planning IF they had access to it. There are millions of adolescent girls and boys in the developing world who have too little access to sex education and counseling and information about how to prevent pregnancies or protect themselves from HIV.
All of this is to suggest that the issue of population size isn’t just a matter of space, it is also a matter of equity, opportunity and social justice. How we chart a development pathway that promotes equality rather than exacerbates or reinforces inequalities is more important than ever.