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 QuestionWhy is the world’s population growing so rapidly

Joel Cohen: Well, I've learned to think about population growth, not as an isolated phenomenon that runs itself, but as part of a system that really has four major components. Population is one, economics is two, the environment is three, and culture is four. And each of those four sphere's of understanding interacts with all three of the others. So I think of these as a triangle, economics, environment, culture, and population on top. Now, if you're an economist, rotate it and put the economics on top, or if you're an ecologist, put the ecology on top, but they all interact and although people think the growth of the population is surging, actually there are at least two different planets on the earth. There's the world in which the population growth rate has fallen very dramatically and there's the world in which the population growth rate has fallen less dramatically. But overall, the global population growth rate has fallen from about 2.1% per year, around 1965, to 1.1% per year. So the population growth rate, that's the interest rate on the bank account, is about half of what it used to be. 

On the other hand, the annual increase, the numbers of people we add each year, it's about 80 million more or less, whereas in 1900, the annual increase was 10 million per year. So rapid population growth on the historic scale continues, but it's slower than it used to be. So you got to keep that in mind. There are two different worlds. There's the world of really low growth, that's Europe and China. China's average number of children per woman per lifetime is about 1.6, 1.7. Europe's is about 1.7. The whole rich world is about 1.7. In some European countries, it's much less than that, it's like 1.1, 1.2, especially Catholic countries, where it's exceptionally low, Spain and Italy. And then there are the countries and Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where the number of children per woman is very large. And the factors responsible for that is probably what you're having in mind, and we believe that it's a low status for women, lack of job opportunities, lack of education, lack of independence for women. 

QuestionWhat areas should we be focusing on to make population growth more sustainable

Joel Cohen: I'd say there are three areas, well, there are at least three areas that need attention and could be, could be dealt with rather inexpensively. So education, nutrition, contraception. I think we need to assure that every child in the world gets a good, not only primary education, but a secondary, a good secondary education. And what good means should really be decided within a lot of different cultures, but I think it should include recognition of the diversity of human values, recognizing that other people have different values and that in itself is a value. But that, I think, is a universal value, recognizing that other people have other values. And people should have a scientific understanding of their own bodies. How does my body work and how does that person's body work and what does it take for health? So that's education and how does that relate to my earlier interest in population? We know that on the average, more educated women have fewer children. It is not true in every society, but it is true statistically across all societies. And I think educating both women and men, because having ignorant men and educated women is not a solution to the problem. The men tend not to behave very well. So educating both boys and girls gives them options that are alternatives to childbearing. It means people can have children if they want to have children and they should if they want to have children. But it means that childbearing is not the only route to status, the only asset that a woman can have for herself. If she is uneducated, the only thing she can do is have children and hope that they'll take care of her in her old age and having other capacities gives her other options. 

So education is one. I've spoken about nutrition. I can't understand why there is no news about the fact that a billion people are hungry every night when they go to sleep and that we have the food to feed them and we don't get it to them. It just drives me nuts. And so this is a second area, we should fee the people we have, we have the means to do it and we've got to get them the capacity to eat. 

And then the third is contraception so that every child that's born is a wanted child. According to a recent survey, in the United States alone, about 57% of births are unintended, and that's just way too high. So those are my three. 

More from the Big Idea for Sunday, January 19 2014

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