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Pulitzer Center Update September 30, 2013

Ken Weiss on Overpopulation, Hunger and Women's Rights

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Image by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times. Egypt, 2011.
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The statistics outline the story. More than 7 billion people crowd the planet, and by mid-century...

Media file: beyond7billion.jpg
The world's population is expected to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050. Image by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times. Egypt, 2011.

By 2050, demographers predict the world will contain over 9 billion people, and 97 percent of this population boom will take place in poor, developing countries. Will there be enough food, water, and peace to sustain a habitable planet?

This week, grantee Ken Weiss joined us at the Pulitzer Center for a discussion of overpopulation. His reporting on the topic for the Los Angeles Times has taken him to Africa, India, Afghanistan and the Philippines.

He shared the story of a 16-year-old father and his 15-year-old wife in India, who together decided to stop having children after their second was born, despite the pressure from parents and grandparents worried that they only had one male heir; of a 10-plus-person family in the Philippines who lived in a 10-foot-wide and 12-foot-long shack; of a woman in Africa with six children who felt exhausted and wanted contraception.

This last detail exemplifies Weiss' take-home message: that the issue of overpopulation "comes down to women and their power, or lack of it."

"What's good for women is also good for [solving the problems of] deforestation, carbon dioxide levels, hunger, and poverty," he said.

Weiss noted that Catholic women in poor countries are willing to use contraceptives despite the Church calling birth control a "sin," because the women find it a greater sin to have an unwanted child. In the Philippines, for example, Weiss says that 80 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, but 70 percent believe in using contraceptives.

Cultural issues around contraception exist in many countries, even here in the United States, where Weiss points out that there is plenty of work to be done. Other countries such as the Netherlands far surpass the US in preventing abortion and teenage pregnancy, with comprehensive sexual education programs that start at a young age.

Family planning will ameliorate another major problem: world hunger. Weiss pointed out that deaths from hunger exceed fatalities from AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis combined; and on average, a child dies from hunger every 11 seconds. "We produce enough food, enough grain, to feed everyone; but there's a massive distribution problem," Weiss said. But if contraception and education were more widely available, families could have an easier time feeding their children.

Overall, Weiss' outlook is hopeful, as long as we take steps to surmount the problems related to overpopulation.

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