The 7 billionth member of the human race has been born.
But what about the 8 billionth baby? What will the world look like for him (or her). We spoke with University of Michigan professor David Lam on Oct. 26, and he provided some insight as to what we might expect. On Monday, however, we spoke with Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, the fourth Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), to find out what we should expect to see in a world of 8 billion.
Question: What will a world with 8 billion people look like? What changes can we expect to see?
“I think looking forward, given what we have in terms of the demography of the world now, with young people being about 1.8 billion — I expect that we will be more interconnected,” he said. “We’ll have more vigor coming from young people. And, as a global community, we will have to respond to the needs of young people better than we have done in the past.”
“If we are going to respond appropriately to their needs, they will have age-appropriate education,” he continued, citing the need for age-appropriate sexual education. “They will have access to jobs...to health facilities, including reproductive health and family planning.”
“Even though there’s growth,” he continued, “the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow.”
“I also expect that we will have more senior people, because aging is going to continue to be an issue,” Osotimehin said. “There is rapid aging in so many parts of the world that we are not contending with now that is going to become a major issue. And the social system is going to have to be reconfigured to respond to aging.”
Osotimehin highlighted the challenges nations will face in addressing cognitive disabilities, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “We have to start thinking now of what kind of support systems society will have to provide in order to accommodate these people,” he said.
In addition to coping with an aging population, the human race will also need to contend with a change in the way we live together. Rather than disparate communities, said Osotimehin, “You’re going to have mega-cities growing, and it is going to continue to be a feature of population dynamics.”
Question: Are the lives of women and girls likely to get better or worse?
“I think it depends on how well we advocate, including the media,” he said. “If we continue to highlight the gender differences that exist across the world...I expect that it will get better.”
“I think we have to be very specific in our messaging,” he continued. “We know now and we have evidence that education is the most important human development intervention that we have. And the minimum of secondary education is what you want to provide to girls. It has many advantages, including reduction of maternal mortality and child mortality.” Osotimehin went on to mention the advantages education had to the population’s overall ability to improve economically, if women and girls are able to be better, more informed contributing members of an overall society.
“Advocacy around that must continue and we must give visibility to those things on a continual basis,” said Osotimehin, “and we must do it in an equitable fashion. ... It is about reaching every girl, and no girl should be left behind.”
Question: What improvements should countries be prepared to make in terms of food distribution?
“I think there is still a lot of potential in Africa for food production and food distribution,” said Osotimehin. “One of the issues that one sees is the ability to move products from one point to the next. So infrastructure must improve to a certain degree.”
“Women farmers are also very important,” continued Osotimehin, “So you also want to empower the women to be able to do more. An educated farmer is a better farmer.”
”It’s important that we have structures in place that ensure there could be collaboration,” he continued, citing the need for these structures particularly in West Africa.
“It should be possible...to have extensive farming across borders to ensure that we can feed ourselves.”
Question: What kind of energy innovation will need to occur in order to keep up with population growth?
“I think there are two levels we have to look at,” he said. “At the domestic level, in the immediate period, look at biomass.”
Biomass energy, according to Osotimehin, should be observed in terms of its ability to reduce energy consumption in developing communities.
“Basically,” he continued, “I would hope that the development of energy going forward in parts of the world would be in clean energy. More wind, more solar, and other forms of energy, which really don’t affect carbon emissions in any form.”
But Osotimehin also had an eye towards the medium term as well. ”What I know might happen in the medium term would be for [developing nations] to use gas, which is easily available. But I hope that they would understand that gas would be a stopgap, and that they would have to go into clean energy forms eventually. Because I would think that the model of development in those parts should be one that actually does not increase the carbon footprint.”
Question: The population is growing and aging. What should nations be prepared to do to deal with this type of change?
“There are two or three aspects of this,” started Osotimehin. “There are countries where you actually have populations that are shrinking, and the growth is negative, in a sense, because they’re having fewer babies than they used to have.” In that scenario, according to Osotimehin, you need to implement a different set of policies than in countries where there is a robust population of young people accompanied by a rapid aging process.
“In the first scenario, where it is just aging and they don’t have young people, I believe that we should continue to work with them to up-stream policy to ensure that they actually encourage young people to have children, because you need a critical mass of young people to run an economy.”
These countries would also need to implement policies that address the needs of the elderly as well, including retirement age, pension schemes, health care, housing and transportation. In some parts of the world, this slate of issues would include nutrition and feeding, Osotimehin said.
Question: What has surprised you most in your role with the United Nations?
“I think the most interesting thing,” said Osotimehin, “is that it has given us an opportunity to actually be able to reach out to people to let them understand the tapestry of population growth.”
“Anywhere I mention ‘7 billion’ most people think of population explosion. Very few consider the other side of the coin, which is about aging. ... Because what contributes to population growth is reduced mortality and our ability to bring all these issues to the fore — including migration, particularly internal migration within countries and the urbanization and movements of people.”
“I’ve enjoyed talking to people and trying to raise these issues in a non-threatening manner, because I think that, for people to understand it, it’s not just about reproductive health and family planning. It’s also about the status of women, education for young girls, our ability to respond to young people who are aspiring to have a voice, and the issues around building cleaner cities and ensuring that we don’t end with slums.”
“It has given us a rich mix of issues to deal with,” Osotimehin said.
Question: What advice would you give the young girl in the Philippines tapped as the 7 billionth person?
“We, as the UNFPA, have not identified any girl, and we don’t want to anoint anybody,” said Osotimehin. “What the ‘7 billion’-day is about is to call attention to all of the issues I’ve just talked about. So that population and development is brought back to the development agenda.”
“Everybody understands that without dealing with people, you cannot have sustainability,” continued Osotimehin. “And we must look at the dynamics of people within different regions to address all of those issues.”
“So, if I was to advise all of the babies around the world today,” said Osotimehin, “I wish them interesting lives.”
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