People and the Planet: The World at 7 Billion

As we approach 7 billion people, Climate Progress is featuring a variety of opinions on population (see links below).by Carl Pope and Carmen Barroso

Any day now, if it hasn’t happened already, the 7 billionth baby will be born on our small planet.

While many may assume that the environmental and reproductive health movements have divergent agendas — the health of the planet vs. the health of the people — we agree on one very simple principle: everyone, whether born into the bustling streets of New York or a remote village in Nicaragua, is entitled to a set of fundamental human rights. These include the right to live in a healthy and safe environment, and the right to decide if and when to have children.

Today, more than ever, those rights are deeply intertwined. The 7 billionth baby will inherit a planet facing enormous threats and challenges. And while environmental and reproductive health organizations have different missions, we know, based on decades of experience, that the health of our planet and our people are inseparable. We can be mindful of our environment and improve the lives of women, men, and youth worldwide.


Environmental justice and reproductive rights are mutually reinforcing; when people have the knowledge, right and tools to decide how many children are right for them, they typically chose to have smaller, healthier families. This has positive ramifications on the surrounding environment and the health of families and communities.


One timely example: Over 200 million women want, but currently lack, access to modern contraceptives like condoms, pills and IUDs. As a result, 76 million unintended pregnancies occur every year. If all the world’s women had access to the basic contraceptives they want and need we’d see a huge increase in human well being, including a 1/3 reduction in maternal mortality, a 1/5 reduction in infant mortality, and a substantial reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that endanger us all. An added bonus: experts tell us that if we gave women this choice, the world’s population would not reach 8 billion until 2050.

Giving women the power to plan their pregnancies is one of the most obvious, and most overlooked, solutions to many of the most pressing problems we’re facing — what many have called the flock of “Black Swans.” Prioritizing women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, is central to meeting the unprecedented challenges of the combined environmental, social and economic crises we face.

When we fully empower individuals and families to make decisions related to reproduction and sexuality, we create more sustainable and just communities. So we see it as a global responsibility to secure access to basic sexuality education and contraception — the tools many of us take for granted — as a means of advancing both reproductive choice and sustainable development. We also know that these interventions are not only the right thing to do, they’re the smart thing to do: We could meet the needs of all 200 million women for $3.7B, and the world would save $5.1B in healthcare costs along the way.


To be sure, funding contraception is just one part of the puzzle. The way we consume and use natural resources and the underlying social inequities of resource distribution and consumption are the other side of that coin, and must be addressed.

But as the largest generation of young people ever comes of age, we see an unprecedented, and fleeting, opportunity to invest in sexuality education and reproductive healthcare for people and the planet. As we have seen in recent events, the bottom line for this new generation is justice and rights for all. It’s time for us to rise to that challenge.

— Carl Pope is Chairman of the Sierra Club. Carmen Barroso leads the International Planned Parenthood Federation for the Western Hemisphere region.

Related Posts: