Population Matters

The Perfect Storm: The View from Italy

April 17th, 2012

Donato Speroni, an economist and a highly respected Italian journalist who has been writing since 1962, and who currently writes  for Corriere, a leading Italian newspaper, has co-authored a new book with Gianluca Comin.  Titled “2030: ‘La Tempesta Perfetta’”  (2030: The ‘Perfect Storm’), the book looks at the challenges facing Italy and the world as a result of climate change, population growth, and the world’s increasing demand for food, energy and water.  The title of the book is derived from a speech given two years ago by John Beddington, the United Kingdom’s chief science advisor, who warned that these converging trends constitute a “perfect storm.”

In a few weeks we will be devoting some coverage to Speroni’s “Perfect Storm,” along with a brief review of an earlier book that he wrote that takes a critical look at Gross Domestic Product and other indicators of human wellbeing and progress.

Earlier this week, Speroni wrote a blog for Corriere in which he talks about the work of the Population Institute.

The following is our translation of his blog:  (Our apologies for any errors in translation).

Save the Planet with Greater Respect for Women

It may not seem like much, but sustainability can be achieved through responsible family planning policies. In launching its latest campaign, the Population Institute in Washington uses the slogan: “Fertility rates are not written in stone”.  Expanding access to family planning services, difficult but not impossible, might slow population growth, stabilizing it at eight billion inhabitants of Earth in 2050, instead of nine billion. Main instruments: defending women’s rights, fighting child marriage and early pregnancy, providing information on contraceptive methods. Desired result: less pressure on resources of the planet.

The Population Institute in Washington was founded in 1979 by Rodney Shaw, pastor of the Methodist Church.  It’s still fighting battles in the United States in favor of birth control and abortion rights, but it also works internationally. On its website there is a “population clock” that signals the relentless increase in world population.

Two years ago, the Population Institute helped to publicize the predictions of John Beddington, the United Kingdom’s chief scientific advisor, who warned about the risk of a “perfect storm” in the next two decades that could result in a serious setback for human civilization. In doing so, the Institute released a special report that was designed to stimulate discussion in schools about the challenges that humanity will confront in the future. This publication, translated in Italian, is annexed to the end of the book “2030 – the Perfect Storm,” which I wrote with Gianluca Comin.

Recently, the Institute marked the passage of the seven billion mark (which was reached at the end of 2011) with the release of a new report: “From 6 to 7 Billion- – How population growth is changing and challenging our world.”   Robert J. Walker, the President of the Population Institute, also released a PowerPoint presentation highlighting key findings of the report.

This latest report looks beyond 2030 to 2050. The Population Institute provides a wealth of data about the challenges that the planet is facing: not just peak oil, but peak production of raw materials, shortages of food and water, climate change, and biodiversity loss–all of which have potentially catastrophic effects on humanity.

What’s new about the report is not the catastrophic projections, which coincide with the predictions made by others, but the glimmer of hope that it offers with respect to population forecasts. Until now, when talking about sustainability, it is almost always assumed that the earth’s population will exceed nine billion by 2050. According to the Population Institute, however, “demographic forecasts are not written in stone”: even small changes in fertility rates can make a big difference in the rate of population growth and its stabilization.  According to this Washington-based Institute, “If fertility rates had not declined as sharply as they did in the last half century world population today might be 9 billion or higher,” but our demographic destiny was changed by the spread of family planning services and information. In the future, if the fertility rate falls significantly faster than currently expected, world population could reach a peak around eight billion and then begin to decline.

But can this be achieved? The Population Institute says the answer is “yes.”

The UN estimates that worldwide there are 215 million women who want to avoid pregnancy but do not use modern methods of contraception. Providing these women with information and planning services would cost only three billion euros a year, a small fraction of what the world spends on development assistance. The spread of contraception alone will not produce a sharp decline in fertility rates, but it  can when combined with measures aimed at delaying age of marriage and encouraging smaller families.

The Population Institute cites experiences in different countries: for example, a Population Council initiative in Ethiopia called Berhane Ewan (Amharic: a light to Eve) that fought the practice of child marriage by boosting the school attendance of young women and giving them health instruction that could be beneficial for life. Girls who complete the program receive a gift, for example, a goat. But there are also other approaches: for example, the spread of radio soap operas that promote respect for women, educate women about family planning, and promote a shift in desired family size. These programs have played a significant role in the decline of fertility in countries like Mexico and Brazil, and they show great promise in sub-Saharan Africa, where gender inequality and cultural and social barriers to reducing fertility remain very strong.

We know that family planning policies meet much resistance, not only by the Catholic Church. But Babatunde Osotimehin, former Minister of Health in Nigeria, now Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, told the Huffington Post:

I have come to the inescapable conclusion: If we are to tackle the consequences of growing populations, we need to invest in adolescents and young people now.  Investing in education, health and skills of young people can save lives, and increase productivity and prosperity. When adolescents girls are educated and healthy, and can avoid child marriages, unintended pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, they can contribute fully to society and pave the path for development.

In short, the disagreements about methods of contraception, however serious and absurd, should not hinder a wide range of actions in order to contain birth rates.