Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Girls Grow

National Geographic Special Series: 7 billion
It seems only a few years ago that I was in a classroom, telling students that the world's population had just reached 6 billion. In fact, it was 1999, and that classroom is now gone. Still, the time between that milestone and last week's estimated arrival at 7 billion was short. With any luck will have been the shortest such interval, a quick decade of growth in what E.O. Wilson has called the Bottleneck century. Between 1950 and 2050, the world population will have roughly tripled, and though the earlier predictions of Paul Ehrlich and others were of a J-shaped curve that would rocket us toward oblivion, the sigmoidal (S-shaped) curve on which we are embarked is no global picnic. Somewhere, we need to find the resources to feed, clothe, and -- increasingly -- entertain three people for every one person who was on the planet at the end of the second Great War.

Given the attention generated by this milestone, it is timely that scholars at the University of Chicago released Girls Grow, a report on the importance of supporting women and girls in rural communities. Equity in the education, health, and nourishment of girls in underdeveloped rural areas worldwide is a humanitarian imperative in its own right. Cultural relativism goes too far when it allows generations of women to be marginalized, sometimes brutally. Not only are the results inhumane, but failing to invest in the human capital of girls contributes to the perpetuation of poverty. The importance of investing in the capacity of girls is captured in the subtitle of the report: A Vital Force in Rural Economies.

Some economists continue to suggest that population growth should not concern us at all, partly because of their propensity to assume resources not in evidence and the failure of many in that field to realize the fundamental difference between open-ended, linear processes that characterize many human endeavors and the closed-loop process that define the natural systems of which our economy is only a subsidiary part.

Another commonly-cited cause for optimism, however, is that greater numbers of people mean greater potential for innovators. It is true that Kenya environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai was born in a high-growth country. In creating future leaders, however, the care taken in the education and encouragement of girls is far more important than overall population numbers.

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