EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures

Chapter 2. Stopping at Seven Billion: Eradicating Poverty, Stabilizing Population

Stabilizing population is the key to maintaining political stability and sustaining economic progress. And the keys to stabilizing population are universal elementary-school education, basic health care, access to family planning, and, for the poorest of the poor countries, school lunch programs.

The United Nations has established universal primary school education by 2015 as one of its Millennium Development Goals. This means educating all children, but with a special focus on girls, whose schooling has lagged behind that of boys in almost all developing countries. The more education girls get, the fewer children they have. This is a relationship that cuts across all cultures and societies. As educational levels go up, fertility levels come down. 46

Closely related to universal primary school education is basic health care, village-level care of the most rudimentary kind. It includes rural clinics that provide childhood immunization for infectious diseases, oral rehydration therapy to cope with dysentery, reproductive health care, and family planning services along the lines of Iran’s rural “health houses.” In the poorest of the poor countries, where infant mortality rates are still high, parents remain reluctant to have fewer children because there is so much uncertainty about how many will survive to adulthood to look after them. 47

School lunch programs are needed in poor countries for two reasons. One, they provide an incentive for poor children, often weakened by hunger, to make it to school. Two, once children are in school, having food helps them learn. If children are chronically hungry, their attention spans are short. 48

We all have a stake in ensuring that countries everywhere move into stage three of the demographic transition. Countries that fall back into stage one are likely to be politically unstable—ridden with ethnic, racial, and religious conflict. These failed states are more likely to be breeding grounds for terrorists than participants in building a stable world order.

If world population continues to grow at 70 million or more people per year, the number of people trapped in hydrological poverty and hunger will almost certainly grow, threatening food security, political stability, and economic progress. The only humane option is to move quickly to a two-child family and try to stabilize world population at closer to 7 billion than the 9 billion currently projected. Against this backdrop, the time has come for world leaders, including the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the President of the World Bank, and the President of the United States, to recognize publicly that the earth cannot support more than two children per family over the long term.


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46. U.N. General Assembly, “United Nations Millennium Declaration,” resolution adopted 18 September 2000; for more information on the Millennium Development Goals, see www.un.org/millenniumgoals; Paul Blustein, “Global Education Plan Gains Backing,” Washington Post, 22 April 2002; Gene Sperling, “Educate Them All,” Washington Post, 20 April 2002; Gene B. Sperling, “Toward Universal Education,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2001, pp. 7–13.

47. Susheela Singh et al., Adding it Up: The Benefits of Investing in Sexual and Reproductive Health Care (New York: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2003), pp. 22–25.

48. Jeffrey Sachs, “A New Map of the World,” The Economist, 22 June 2000; George McGovern, The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time (New York: Simon & Schuster: 2001), Chapter 1.


Copyright © 2004 Earth Policy Institute