21 Reasons We Need Population Stabilization in 2021

Written by Marian Starkey | Published: January 8, 2021

2020—the most abysmal year in recent memory—has finally come to an end. Now that we’re onto a new year with a new presidential administration, a new Congress, and a new COVID-19 vaccine, we can set our sights on brighter days (although this week’s sedition attempt was certainly a rough start to what was meant to be a hopeful turning of the page). One of the outcomes of this new government that we’re sure to see is a renewed commitment to programs that will help achieve population stabilization.

President-elect Biden has pledged to repeal the Global Gag Rule and the Domestic Gag Rule and resume funding to UNFPA as soon as he takes office later this month. He has also indicated that he’ll work with Congress to repeal the Helms and Hyde Amendments, although, realistically speaking, we’ll likely be stuck with these terrible policies for a while longer, until we gain a larger pro-choice majority in Congress.

As we welcome 2021 and bask in optimism for the first time in four years, here’s a list of 21 global challenges population stabilization would help resolve. Try to think of another single achievement that would solve so many other problems—if you come up with one, please let me know.

  1. Biodiversity Loss and Species Extinction

    • The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) identified human population growth as a primary extinction threat posed to about 1 million plant and animal species in its 2019 Global Assessment Report. We’re crowding out the planet’s wildlife, and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
  2. Zoonoses

    • Why are humans an extinction threat to so many species? Because we destroy wildlife habitats to expand agricultural land, we poach protected species, and our activities change the climate in ways that threaten animals’ survival. Another consequence of habitat encroachment, poaching, and climate change? Zoonotic viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19) jumping to humans. Other viruses that have jumped from wildlife to humans have caused diseases including HIV, SARS, Lyme, Ebola, and Bird Flu.
  3. Climate Change

    • The IPCC bases its future carbon emissions projections on various assumptions of future population size and socioeconomic development. That’s because the number of people there are on earth—and how much each of us consumes—determines how many gigatons of climate changing carbon emissions we release into the atmosphere.
  4. Ocean Acidification

  5. Deforestation

    • Another human-induced contributor to climate change is deforestation. According to World Resources Institute, tropical deforestation accounts for about 8 percent of current carbon emissions, but halting deforestation and allowing decimated forests to regrow could “provide 23 percent of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed before 2030.” Deforestation occurs because we clear forests for agricultural land and because we use timber for cooking fuel and building material. More people = more demand for food, fuel, and housing. And, as mentioned above, destroying wildlife habitat brings us into contact with animals that may carry zoonotic diseases and puts plant and animal species at risk of extinction.
  6. Desertification

  7. Air Pollution

  8. Overfishing

    • As mentioned above, the main source of protein for billions of people around the world is seafood. With a global population that grows by 80 million people a year, the number of seafood consumers is rising year after year as well, which increasingly means that oceans are being fished too aggressively for sea life to reproduce fast enough to replenish stocks. In 2015, one-third of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels.
  9. Meat Production

    • Population growth and increasing affluence in middle-income countries (which, as a group, make up three-quarters of the world’s population), are causing meat consumption to rise. Meat provides people with protein, but its production is the leading cause of methane in the atmosphere—a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon—and contributes to soil erosion, water pollution, and freshwater use, which is a concern in water-stressed areas. Of course, there are also ethical issues surrounding the breeding, raising, and killing of livestock.
  10. Food Security

  11. Fresh Water Security

  12. Sanitation

  13. Natural Disaster Vulnerability

    • Natural disasters that occur in densely populated areas—especially where buildings aren’t constructed to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, etc.—cause more widespread devastation and higher death tolls than those that occur in less densely populated areas. Low-elevation coastal zones—mostly located in developing regions—are rapidly growing, exposing ever more people to sea-level rise, tsunamis, and tropical storms.
  14. Women’s Empowerment

    • As long as women must spend their reproductive decades bearing and rearing children, high fertility will prevent countries from achieving gender equity. When girls can’t finish their educations because of early childbearing and when mothers can’t work outside of the home because of childcare obligations, women’s empowerment will remain an unreachable goal. Women must be able to decide for themselves whether, when, and with whom to have children in order to take control of their lives and compete with men in society, in the labor force, and for political office.
  15. Maternal Mortality

  16. Infant and Child Mortality

    • Every year, 3 million children under age 5 die of mostly preventable causes. Nearly half of these deaths (2.5 million) occur in the first month of life; another 1.5 million occur in the following 11 months; and 1.3 million deaths occur in children ages 1−4. Not surprisingly, under-5 mortality is highest in sub-Saharan Africa (78 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 6 deaths per 1,000 live births in Northern America)—the region with the highest fertility. Infant and child mortality rates are declining, and they would decline even faster with better birth spacing and less early and late childbearing.
  17. Child Marriage

  18. Universal Primary Education

    • The developing world has made great progress in enrolling students in primary school, but there are still places where rapid population growth outpaces countries’ ability to procure school buildings, teachers, and supplies. Most of the world’s out-of-school children live in sub-Saharan Africa, which, again, is the world region with the highest fertility rate. UNESCO wrote in 2015, “a number of sub-Saharan African countries find it difficult to keep up with the rising demand for education from a school-age population that continues to grow,” and, “sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in which the number of out-of-school adolescents has grown, from 21 million in 2000 to 23 million in 2013, a consequence of rapid population growth.”
  19. Peace and Security

  20. Migration

    • When populations grow too quickly for their environments to keep up with resource needs and their governments to keep up with infrastructure maintenance and development, people can be compelled to leave home in order to seek a better life for themselves and their families elsewhere. Push and pull factors vary by individual and by country/region, but common ones include job opportunities, armed conflicts, natural disasters, and environmental degradation.
  21. Social Justice

    • Slower population growth levels the playing field for poor people within countries and for poor countries within our globalized world. Equal opportunity in education, employment, land ownership, and political representation depends on people being able to make their own reproductive choices based on their personal circumstances. Complete reproductive autonomy tends to lead to smaller families and slower population growth because when women can plan each pregnancy, they tend to plan them later in their reproductive years and to space them farther apart.

This list of 21 challenges might seem like a melancholic way to ring in the new year, but I am optimistic that we can address each of them via population stabilization by investing our fair share of $1.74 billion* a year in voluntary international family planning programs. Included in that funding ask is $116 million** for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). And now that we are less than two weeks away from having a president who respects reproductive choice, we have a chance—for the first time in four years—to get serious and make that investment in the future of the planet and its people.

* This figure was updated on March 11, 2021.
** This figured was updated on March 17, 2021.