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Making Population Growth a Consideration for Sustainable Development Goals

May 21, 2020 • Population, sustainability

Sustainable Development Goals

Like a worn-out motel sign, the world has been trying to tell us for years that it has no more vacancies. The global population is increasing by about 81 million people every year, and the planet simply cannot keep pace.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all UN member states in 2015, laid out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ranging from quality education and zero hunger to gender equality and climate action. Reeling in population growth was not on the list, but when you stop to consider the role of exponential population growth in exacerbating issues such as poverty and decreasing biodiversity, maybe it should have been. 

Many people oppose the idea of taming global population growth. The issue quickly becomes a quagmire, as some see efforts to promote family planning methods in developing countries as colonial or imperialistic. And of course, some religious institutions have objections to contraceptives and abortion and, by extension, any measures to slow and stop population growth.

But if we hope to achieve the 2030 agenda goals of “ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all,” population size and growth must be  considered. Two of the Sustainable Development Goals mention family planning and reproductive rights (good health and well-being, and gender equality), but they do not directly address population growth even though most of the goals will not be achieved without making a concerted effort to flatten the population curve.

Population Growth by the Numbers

Since 1970 the world has been in “ecological overshoot,” meaning aggregate human demands on resources exceed what Earth can regenerate each year. In other words, we’re up to our ears in ecological debt, and every year that debt grows.

From 1960-2000, the world's population doubled. That exponential growth is now a runaway train, barreling toward eye-popping numbers: three more people are added to the planet each second; this multiplies to 150 per minute; 9,000 per hour; 222,000 per day; and 1.5 million every week.

More than 7.8 billion people exist on the Earth. By 2100 the population is on track to hit 11 billion, according to the UN, and that’s assuming steady fertility declines in many countries.

How Population Growth Relates to Sustainability

We expect the Earth to provide land, food, shelter and other resources for a rapidly growing family of 7.8 billion. Scientific evidence across the board—including the changing climate, toxification of the environment, destroyed habitats, and global extinction rates—proves that we are demanding too much of our finite planet. 

Let’s take a look at just a few of the ways population growth inhibits sustainability goals:

  • Ecological degradation: At least seven out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals directly relate to preserving the environment, but with more people on the planet, responsible consumption and production are going to be tough to achieve. Increased population will inevitably lead to more deforestation, decreased biodiversity, and spikes in pollution and emissions, which will exacerbate climate change.
  • Economic stagnation and inequality: Population growth occurs unevenly around the world, with the most rapid increases currently happening in developing countries. Many of these societies are unable to keep up with the rate of growth, and as a result they struggle with unemployment, overburdened schools and hospitals, and strained infrastructure. Plus, when women are forced to stay home and take care of large families, it deprives the workforce of a significant portion of the population. This economic toll only furthers inequality between developing and developed nations.  
  • Decreased education rates: The fourth Sustainable Development Goal is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, but when women are having children at a young age, they are often forced to drop out of school to care for their family. When couples have a large number of children, it can be difficult or impossible to afford a quality education for all of them.
  • Increased strife: The sixteenth SDG on the agenda is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, but the scarcity brought about by economic stagnation and environmental blight often triggers violence and political unrest. We’re already seeing wars fought over water and oil in the Middle East and other regions, and the turmoil is bound to increase as the global population grows even larger.
  • High maternal mortality rates: Countries with high fertility rates logically have high rates of childbirth. These countries also tend to have strained health care systems, women giving birth repeatedly without time to recover, and low female empowerment or education, all of which result in high maternal mortality rates. Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the world’s highest fertility rates, accounted for roughly two-thirds of maternal deaths in 2017, according to the World Health Organization.

Population growth affects nearly every one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and a strong case exists for its explicit inclusion in the agenda. Formally recognizing the impact of the world’s population on sustainability could focus much-needed resources on effective measures to change the current trajectory. 

How to Ethically Influence Global Population

Global population size has already surpassed the point most ecologists and biologists think is truly sustainable. And although many policymakers seem to think this unsustainable growth is inevitable, there are proven ways to impact  population trends.  

The most critical objective regarding sustainable development and population growth is to allow all women unrestricted access to, and agency to use, modern contraception. This includes women in developing countries as well as those in wealthy nations, where each child creates an especially large ecological footprint. 

One of the first success stories involving family planning programs in a developing nation took place in 1977 in the Matlab region of Bangladesh. A portion of the population in Matlab received free health services and contraceptive supplies as well as visits from trained family-planning workers. Simultaneously, a media and outreach campaign addressed societal and family concerns about these measures. When compared with the control portion of the study, the experimental group saw an increase from 5% to 33% in contraceptive use among married women of reproductive age. That jump resulted in decreased fertility rates in the experimental group—a difference of 1.5 births per woman.

Ample evidence proves that spreading awareness about family planning methods and the ecological and economic benefits of having smaller families can change reproductive behavior and decrease fertility rates. No coercive methods of population control are necessary. The combined efforts of spreading knowledge about family planning, increasing access to birth control and health care, and debunking widely held myths about contraception are enough to measurably change the trajectory of the world’s population.

See How You Can Make an Impact 

At Population Media Center, we have found that one of the most effective ways to slow and eventually stop population growth is to spread knowledge through educational entertainment. We’ve harnessed the power of storytelling to create positive behavior change on a large scale for relatively low cost. Contact us today to find out more about how you can help us achieve our mission. 

Get in Touch with  Population Media Center

Picture of Joe Bish

Written by Joe Bish

Joe is the Director of Issue Advocacy at Population Media Center. He holds a Master of Science in Environmental Advocacy and Organizing from Antioch University New England.



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