• Ideas
  • climate change

Global Population Size Should Not Be Cause For Alarm, But a Rally Cry For Change

4 minute read
Kanem is the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations sexual and reproductive health and rights agency

On Nov. 15, the world’s population will hit 8 billion.

In many ways, this is a global success story, representing the culmination of longer life expectancies, fewer maternal and child deaths, and increasingly effective healthcare systems.

Yet at every milestone of population growth, we witness panic and inflammatory headlines warning that the number is too high—too much for a planet staggering under rampant inequality, humanitarian crises, and climate change. This agitation may feel especially resonant in a world that is increasingly unequal and continuously buffeted by emergencies. But the sheer number of people alone is not cause for alarm.

While the world’s population is growing, it’s important to note that the rate of growth is slowing down and has been since 1964. In fact, more than 60% of the world’s population already lives in a country experiencing low fertility rates, a result of many different factors including an increased ability to plan and prevent pregnancy and, in some cases, elevated rates of emigration.

Regardless of the trends, looking exclusively at population numbers comes with two great dangers.

First, focusing on numbers alone treats people as commodities, stripping them of their rights and humanity. We have too often seen leaders setting targets for population size or fertility rates, and the grievous human rights abuses that result. Let’s be clear: When we talk about the “problem” with fertility rates or an “ideal” population size, we are really talking about controlling people’s bodies. We are talking about asserting power over their capacity for reproduction, whether by influence or by force, from policies where families are paid to have more children, to egregious violations like forced sterilization, often suffered by ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities.

Read More: How Far Our Climate Goals Have Slipped Out of Reach, In a Single Chart

Second, purely looking at numbers can obscure the dynamics of power and privilege at the heart of many population debates. Take climate change, for instance. In the past, people have pointed to population growth as a force behind higher emissions rates. However, the evidence shows that emissions are overwhelmingly attributable to the wealthiest countries, not those where population growth is highest. If we get sidetracked by focusing on population trends instead of directly addressing the drivers of climate change, inequality, and other global crises, we run the risk of coming up with the wrong fixes—ones that have the potential to infringe on people’s right to choose whether or when to have children.

Instead of repeating the pattern of population alarmism, let us use this milestone as a rallying cry. We must look closely at the progress that has been made—longer lives, better health—and acknowledge that it has not been experienced equally. At both the global and national level, social and economic inequality remains pervasive. We need to move away from a world in which one’s nationality, gender, race, or economic status act as key determinants of their quality of life.

Rather, we should be clear about the problems we are facing and invest in the appropriate solutions. To improve the quality of life for the next billion, we must strive to ensure that every birth is intended. That means ensuring that every adolescent can navigate their reproductive choices so that they can stay in school, enter the workforce, and achieve their full potential.

To tackle climate change, we need to find ways to change how we consume and produce goods and services. To keep up with the needs of a growing population, let’s invest in smart and sustainable infrastructure and services. For aging countries concerned about labor shortages, we can address the barriers faced by women, migrants, and older people seeking work.

Ultimately, progress in reducing inequality and addressing the other great challenges of our day will not be found in any perfect number, not of the global population nor of a single family. The answer requires something else entirely—looking past the number of people to the real challenges confronting us.

To cultivate a future in which every young person is educated, empowered, and employed, we must make critical investments in tested and proven solutions.

This will require greater cooperation at all levels, and a focus on human rights and choices. And while it will not be easy in our fractured world, it is necessary. By recognizing and supporting the innate value and rights of every individual person, we can build a world in which all 8 billion of us are able to thrive and prosper.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.