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Conservationists Focus on Population Growth

Every minute, the world's human population increases by 176 people. At the beginning of this century, Earth's human population already surpassed 6 billion; at the end of the century, it could reach 12 billion.

Earth lights

A view from space at night shows human-made lights, making it easy to find the most concentrated human populations. Click here to view the entire map. Go>>

Photograph courtesy of NASA

The implications of such population growth are not new to media headlines. "Between one-third and one-half of the Earth's land surface has been substantially altered by human activities," reported the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

The unprecedented growth rates gave rise to an awareness within the environmental community that population pressures merit immediate action. "Human population growth is the most pressing environmental problem facing the United States and the world," John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, said in a statement to the press.

Conservation organizations are creating special programs to address the marriage of population and the environment; NWF, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and U.S. nonprofit organization Zero Population Growth joined forces to present the Population Activist Weekend, an annual conference held in Washington, D.C.

The sponsoring organizations and conference participants identified global health and HIV/AIDS; energy shortages and increasing consumption patterns; and threats to wildlife and biodiversity as priority challenges precipitated by population pressures.

"We must face the fact that global population growth [has] dire consequences on our environment," said Laurie Mignone of Sierra Club's Global Population and Environment Program based in Washington, D.C.

Figuring Out Population Figures

Representatives from 35 U.S. states met last month at the Zero Population Growth conference to share ideas of how to alleviate the pressures created by increasing population and human consumption. "We want to help give people the knowledge and skills to advocate sound policies and support programs that lower population growth rates and reduce the impact of human activities on a local, national, and international level," said Marcia Lesky, NWF population policy analyst.

Globally, average fertility rates fell from the early 1950s from about five births per woman to the current rate of 2.9. The decreased rate is due in large part to increased educational and economic opportunities for women and the provision of voluntary family planning.

Even with women having fewer children, the human population is "adding approximately a net 168 people to the planet every minute," said Peter Kostmayer, president of Zero Population Growth.

"Explosive population growth and rapid economic development in emerging economies threaten sustainability, wildlife habitats, and human well-being," said Mark Van Putten, president and CEO of NWF.

Future in Hands of Youth

"Future population growth depends on the ability of today's young women and men to make informed, responsible decisions about their health, their families, and their lives," said Margaret Pollack, director of the Office of Population at the U.S. State Department.

For young people to make responsible decisions, many people feel that more assistance needs to be directed to family planning services abroad.

"At least 150 million couples worldwide would like family planning and safe motherhood services, but are unable to obtain these services," said Mignone. "The first step we can take is to increase support for the [family planning] programs."

The United States currently spends less than one half of one percent of its federal budget on foreign aid. And only a fraction of that is spent on international family planning assistance, according to the UN Population Fund.

International family planning assistance provides for educational materials for families, training for clinical and community health care providers, and for supplies such as contraceptives and sterile birthing kits in hopes of slowing the world's population growth rate.

"By enabling access to basic family planning services overseas, the United States can strengthen economies, improve health and safeguard the environment," reports National Audubon Society's Action Network.

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More Information
The World's Population Facts of Life

Population January 2001: 6.1 billion

Births per 1,000 population: 22

Deaths per 1,000 population: 9

Doubling time in years at current rate: 51

Projected Population, 2025: 7.8 billion

Infant Deaths per 1,000 live births: 57

Fertility rate (average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime): 2.9

Life expectancy: 64 (male), 68 (female)

Percent of population under age 15: 31

Percent of population over age 65: 7

Percent of married women using contraception: 60

Endangered/threatened animals: 5,205 species

Endangered/threatened plants: 33,798 species

Percent of land protected: 7

Source: Zero Population Growth Fact Sheet

A Quick History of Global Population Growth

It took humans until about 1800 to reach a global population of one billion. In 130 years the population doubled. Since then adding a billion people to Earth's population has taken less and less time.

1 billion in 1800

2 billion in 1930 (130 years)

3 billion in 1960 (30 years)

4 billion in 1974 (14 years)

5 billion in 1987 (13 years)

6 billion in 1999 (12 years)

Source: National Wildlife Federation