Population Matters

A Pivotal Moment

November 20th, 2009

The challenges posed by rapid population growth and rising material consumption are enormous.  Our current trajectories are simply unsustainable; much depends–including the future of the Earth’s climate–on how, and how fast, we lower them.

On the consumption side, prospects are not looking good.  The Copenhagen Climate Conference convenes in two weeks, and already world leaders are bracing for failure.  Pundits caution that the best outcome will be continued deliberation. Any kind of binding international agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is several months away…and possibly years.  Meanwhile, the glaciers and ice caps of the world are melting at alarming rates.

On the population side, global fertility rates continue to decline, but global population is still projected to jump from 6.8 billion today to 9.2 billion or higher by 2050.  But population projections and fertility rates are not written in stone.  As Laurie Mazur notes in a recent book:

Nearly half the world’s population–some 3 billion people–is under the age of 25.  Collectively, their choices will determine whether human numbers–now at 6.8 billion–climb to anywhere between 8 and nearly 11 billion by mid-century.

The book, which is edited by Mazur, is entitled A Pivotal Moment:  Population, Justice, and the Environmental Challenge. For anyone who wants to obtain a better understanding of the population challenge in all its complexities, this is a must read. With more than 30 contributors, the book offers a wide range of opinions and perspectives on one of the most important challenges humanity will ever face.

While all of the contributors regard our current circumstances as a “pivotal moment,” there is disagreement, often sharp, about the way we frame and address the issue of population.  Those differences are important and not to be ignored.  But more than anything else, I was struck by the sense of urgency that pervades much of the book.

In her introduction, Laurie Mazur writes:

Last fall, no acorns fell from the oak trees in our backyard.  Nor, for the first time in memory, did they fall throughout much of the eastern United States.  The honeybees that pollinate our crops have been decimated by a mysterious “colony collapse disorder.”  The Chesapeake Bay…is in its death throes….Of course the bay may recover, the bees and acorns may rebound.  But there is growing sense today that the natural world is unraveling, that we have crossed a threshold, or are peering over the edge.

My favorite quote, however, is from Gus Speth, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies:

Humanity is fast approaching a fork in the road.  Beyond the fork, down either path, is the end of the world as we have known it.  One path beyond the fork continues us on our current trajectory. Presidential Science Advisor John Gibbons used to say with a wry smile that if we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we are headed.  And right now we are headed toward a ruined planet.  That is one way the world as we know it could end, down that path, and into the abyss.

But there is another path, and it leads to a bridge across the abyss.  Of course, where the path forks will be the site of a mighty struggle, a struggle that must be won even though we cannot see clearly what lies beyond the bridge.  Yet in that struggle and in the crossing that will follow, we are carried by hope, a radical hope, that a better world is possible and that we can build it.

We are, as the title of the book suggests, at a pivotal moment in human history.  Let’s hope that humankind as a whole–not just the contributors to this book–are willing to confront the choices we now face.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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