On 7 billion: imagine if women could choose


So the world’s 7 billionth person was born today.

Media and policy pundits have been beside themselves in the lead up to this moment, eager to say something remarkable about the event and what it means for the future of humanity. The Guardian has been hosting the Crowded Planet series, with some excellent as well as some less helpful posts. No doubt editors and others would argue that this is what makes for a ‘balanced’ debate, even though the series title already positions population growth as a problem.

But just as some debates are over because one side of the argument has been proven beyond reasonable doubt to be sensible on a variety of metrics and measures (think transatlantic slavery and women’s right to vote), it really is time to sort out our approach to population dynamics.

Climate change exists. Women want to have control over their reproductive lives, but don’t. A billion people go to bed hungry every night. These are all true facts. But how they are used to build an argument about the nature and causes of our problems, and therefore what might be viable solutions, can take us in wildly different directions.

The worry that our planet is overpopulated or will be has been around for a few centuries, where the assumption is that we do not have enough resources to go around. Since Malthus, there has been a perpetual line of men – white and rich ones at that – sounding the alarm about the dire consequences of there being more people on the planet. They have predicted the death and destruction of humanity several times, and keep shifting the dates for when this is going to happen, as humanity has proven able to somehow defy their predictions and march steadily on. Overpopulationisamyth has a funny video about this which you can view here.

This is not to say that there are no women saying population growth is a problem. But as with so many issues related to women’s bodies and public policy, we find that the leading – read most powerful and well-resourced – commentators on population-as-a-problem are men. George Monbiot took a more strident approach last week, writing:

If you believe the rich, elderly white men who dominate the population debate, it [population] is the biggest one [problem] of all. In 2009 for example, a group of US billionaires met to decide which threat to the planet most urgently required their attention. Who’d have guessed? These men, who probably each consume as many of the world’s resources in half an hour as the average African consumes in a lifetime, decided that it was population.

Population is the issue you blame if you can’t admit to your own impacts: it’s not us consuming, it’s those brown people reproducing. It seems to be a reliable rule of environmental politics that the richer you are, the more likely you are to place population growth close to the top of the list of crimes against the planet.

Meanwhile, according to the UN, at least 200 million women who want to use family planning methods can’t because they don’t have access to the information and services they need, or because they don’t have the support of their husbands and communities. This means millions of women in developing countries cannot currently choose how many or whether or not to have children.

This lack of control over their lives is a real problem for women. Not because we think it produces poverty or food scarcity, which it doesn’t, but because we have agreed as an international community that women have rights over their bodies, including the right to have control over their reproductive lives.

What if our approach to population took a different tack: instead of obsessing over population growth as a problem, we started thinking about population choice as the problem. How might the world, and the future of humanity, change if women had the right to choose?

Image of a group of lit candles by rogerglenn, shared under a Creative Commons license