Twenty billion more people crammed onto our planet by 2100?
According to the UN, that's what could happen if today's fertility rates don't decline. Almost all of those additional people will live in the poorest countries of the world - those whose governments are already struggling to feed and provide clean water to their citizens, let alone decent educations, jobs and housing. Their suffering and civil unrest will affect everyone, everywhere.
Last week, the UN released its revised population projections. Perhaps scarier than the witches, ghosts and goblins of Halloween is that we will cross the 7 billion population threshold on Oct. 31. We're adding 1 billion people every dozen years - a figure equal to the entire global population in 1800.
Why is population growing so rapidly? For starters, 215 million women in the developing world want to limit or end their childbearing but don't use contraception for one reason or another (no idea that it exists, where to get it, how to manage side effects, how to pay for it, etc.). As a result, millions of women and couples lack what's needed to manage their childbearing. The upside of this daunting news is that with better access and education, these women would likely begin to use contraception and would see a sizeable fertility decline as a result.
It takes a 15 percent increase in contraceptive use to decrease average fertility by one birth. To give some perspective, in strife-torn Somalia, only one percent of married women use modern contraception. The average Somali woman has 6.5 children. The situation in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, isn't much better: the average woman there has 5.7 children, and only 10 percent use birth control.
Real investment is needed in international family planning efforts, especially in the world's least developed countries. The return on this investment would be enormous in improved health, environmental protection and political stability. To take just one example, universal access to family planning by itself could eliminate half of all maternal deaths.
The United States should invest $1 billion annually in voluntary international family planning programs. While the need and demand for family planning is increasing around the world, our commitment has decreased with the arrival of the Boehner Congress. The Obama Administration is doing its best by seeking $769 million for family planning programs in 2012. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans actually proposed cutting family planning aid by more than $200 million - nearly a third of current spending.
If the United States and other donor countries take seriously the dire consequences of rapid population growth on the world's women, children and ecosystems, we just might find our way out of this mess and peak at around 8 billion people mid-century. If we continue with business as usual, we could see a near quadrupling of today's population by 2100.
The future of this planet and its people rests with the people making childbearing decisions today. It should be our top priority to see to it that women and couples can realize their childbearing intentions and have the number of children they want, not the number of children their poverty insists that they will have.
Seager is president of Population Connection, America's largest grassroots population organization. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.