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Sustainable population, minus the control

Empowering women will naturally restore balance.

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In an era of warming climates and cooling economies, Malthusian limits to growth look to be not just real but hard upon us. More people once meant more innovation. Now it just seems to mean less for each: Less water for cattle herders in the Horn of Africa. Less land for farmers from the Philippines to Guatemala. Less atmosphere to absorb the heat-trapping gases the global economy exhales. Less energy and food. And if the world's economy doesn't bounce back, fewer jobs.

This predicament brings back an old sore topic: human population and what, if anything, to do about it. Not that any immediate respite is possible. There are nearly 6.8 billion of us today and more on the way. To make a dent in these problems in the short term without throwing anyone overboard, we'll need to radically reduce individuals' footprint on the environment through improved technologies and, for the well-off, a downshift in lifestyle.

Raw population growth is worrisome enough. Rising consumption rates make it more so. As nations develop, their consumption – and its environmental harm – rises. The average American consumes many times the resources the average African does. Americans are just 4.5 percent of world population, but there are 1.2 billion people in industrialized countries. And another 2.4 billion people in China and India are clambering up the consumption ladder. Today's rapid growth in consumption on top of rapid population growth is a one-two punch that has the environment reeling.

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