How Many People Is Too Many People?

What can nations do to prevent population from outstripping resources?

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In this Tuesday, May 1, 2012 photo, two-year-old Aliou Seyni Diallo eats dry couscous given to him by a neighbor, after he collapsed in tears of hunger in the village of Goudoude Diobe, in the Matam region of northeastern Senegal.

If there's one thing we can agree on, it's that there are certainly a lot of us. But how much of a growing population can the earth really support – comfortably and without destroying it, that is?

I caught up with Alan Weisman, an award-winning author, journalist and former University of Arizona professor at a talk this week in New York City at the New York Academy of Sciences about his latest book, "Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth," which seeks to answer this existential question.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 7,113,749,767 people on the planet, with another million arriving about every five days. The United Nations estimates that the world population at the end of the century will be around 11 billion, and many fear that the planet's natural resources are insufficient to accommodate such growth.

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Weisman is one of them. He rejects the thesis, advanced by "technological optimists," that human ingenuity and technological development will fix the problems overpopulation presents. Ingenuity and development require resources, he says, and resources are finite.

For example, with nearly 1 billion malnourished people worldwide, much of the agricultural industry remains focused on producing a "commodity" and not "sustenance." Rising temperatures threaten food security in regions like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and hunger is undoubtedly going to become an even bigger issue than it is today.

But hunger isn't the only problem compounded by population growth. Emissions, climate change, unemployment and regional instability due to resource insecurity are magnified as well. We have redefined the concept of "original sin," Weisman said in his remarks – just being born increases the magnitude of the problem.

If, as Weisman posits, population growth is inextricably linked in today's world with national security, what's the solution? One answer on offer is through family planning development initiatives and women's empowerment.

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The U.S. has, in many respects, taken the lead in this arena, Weisman says. Washington has been one of the biggest funders of international family planning programs for nearly half a century, primarily through USAID programs. Beginning in 1965 with a plan to reduce birth rates through its War on Hunger program, its current work highlights 24 priority countries, mostly in Africa and South Asia.

Family planning programs have faced numerous hurdles in the past, though, most of them stemming from the domestic debate within the U.S. over abortion rights. "During the Reagan administration," Weisman said in his remarks, "much of our funding stopped. It was called the '[global] gag rule' – we refused to fund any program anywhere that even talked about abortion as a possible alternative for a woman." The gag rule has waxed and waned between administrations, with Republicans often enforcing it and Democrats removing it. Citing some of USAID's accomplishments, such as providing contraceptives to an uncontrollably booming Costa Rican population in 1966, "[the USAID program] is really one of the better things my government has done," Weisman said. "I hope we keep doing it." A similar back and forth has occurred with U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund.

But contraception and family planning aren't the only tools the U.S. can use to help stem the population boom: there's also education. Women's empowerment and education, specifically women's education, should be a core component of U.S. foreign aid and U.S. foreign policy, says Weisman. It's a case where the U.S. can "have its cake and eat it too," because it both educates women generally, thereby building stronger civil society, and staves off unhealthily rapid population growth. Not only, as Weisman says, is "this…a way to empower women," but you also "give women the opportunity to choose how many children they want."

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Better education, both general and reproductive, and higher primary school completion rates have the proven effect of empowering citizens while limiting birth rates. Conversely, poor education and lower primary school completion rates – take, for instance, the 40 percent of adult African women who have no education, compared to 20 percent in Asia and 10 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean – tend to lead to higher fertility rates. Mali, Niger and Chad are perfect examples of this connection.

Finally, the U.S. should continue to treat the population boom as a national security issue. Like climate change and food insecurity, rapid, uncontrolled population growth can be a security threat inasmuch as it adds to a climate of instability. "We can't have a secure planet if populations are going out of control," said Weisman. As a result, population growth has been treated largely as a national security issue since the Eisenhower administration. Take the National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM 200) from December 1974, which noted:

Where population size is greater than available resources, or is expanding more rapidly than the available resources, there is a tendency toward internal disorders and violence and, sometimes, disruptive international policies or violence. The higher the rate of growth, the more salient a factor population increase appears to be.

It all boils down, as one of Weisman's interviewees said, to "population, population, population."

Hannah Gais is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and editor of  ForeignPolicyBlogs.com . You can follow her on Twitter  @hannahgais .