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Population Growth: An Opportunity to Focus on Sustainable Living

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The UN has chosen to mark the 31 October 2011 as the day the world's seventh billion citizen will be born.

I went onto a charity's website last week and had a go at their online application to find out roughly what number child I was; apparently I was born just shy of the four billion mark. Sadly, there was no sovereign fanfare or news frenzy for my arrival.

However for child seven billion, although they're unlikely to be identified, they will be born into a growing debate charged with cultural and ethical sensitivities about the rights and wrongs of what has been distastefully referred to as 'over-breeding.'

Population Growth is one the latest development hot topics. Everyone's talking about it - behind closed doors that is - as many organisations are struggling with the moral dilemma of not wanting to go anywhere near the idea of dictating to others how many babies they should have.

According to the United Nation's projections, the world's population could reach between 8.1 billion and more than 10 billion by 2050. We increase by nearly 80 million people every year - the numerical equivalent of adding another US to the world every four years. Lots of people are worried about this - and those who are nervous tend to point to the following set of statistics: much of the world's future increase is expected to come from high fertility countries. This includes 39 African countries, nine in Asia, and four in Latin America. Asia will remain the most populous major area in the world in the 21st century according to the UN's report, but Africa is not far behind as its population is growing about 2.3% a year, a rate more than double that of Asia.

There are some in the nervous and worried about population growth corner who are concerned that poor countries are overpopulating the world with babies they cannot afford. I'm far from convinced that this is the core problem.

Rather, a common, more balanced argument is that the world just cannot sustain 7 billion people, yet alone 10 billion: countries will struggle to ensure access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunities in the face of rapid population growth. Plus, there is a case to argue that the countries with the most rapidly growing populations are often also those least prepared to handle the effects of swelling numbers of people.

The organisation, Population Action International, (PAI) highlights that this is not really about numbers, rather the focus should be on the choices that everyone has access to as the world's population grows.

For example, more than 215 million women in developing countries have an unmet need for contraception. This means they would like to avoid getting pregnant but lack access to modern contraception.

Danielle Zielinski, a spokesperson from PAI, told me: 'No one is "the problem." The idea of "overpopulation" suggests that some people are superfluous - this is morally unacceptable. The impact of population growth on the environment is mediated by consumption, technology, urbanization and other factors.' In terms of consumption, it's really the developed world that is responsible for much of the high energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.'

In the last year I've travelled to Kenya, Rwanda and Mali and spent time with local communities. The fact of the matter is that the average American uses about 200 times as much carbon as the average Kenyan, living in a rural village.

The scaremongers have a point - slower population growth could reduce pressure on natural systems that are already overstretched. Research shows that a host of environmental problem - including run away climate change, water scarcity and biodiversity loss - would be easier to address if world population peaked at around 8 billion.

Slower population growth in the developing world is connected to women having the same rights and empowerment that we have here, so they can determine the size of their own families. To accomplish this, governments and donors need to deliver the financial resources necessary to meet the demand for family planning and reproductive health.

That said; let's not point the finger at those who have done the least to over-burden our planet. If the problem is overconsumption, we in the west should see population growth as an opportunity to think about how we can live more sustainably - rather than focusing on developing countries' fertility rates.

Around the Web

Special Series: 7 Billion - National Geographic Magazine

7 Billion People | 7 Billion Actions

World population hits 7 billion on Oct. 31, or thereabouts - latimes.com

World population - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia