Population Education: Lessons for a Changing World

Pamela Wasserman

One of the greatest challenges facing our students at the end of the century rarely finds its way into newspaper headlines or the public consciousness. Instead, we discuss the symptoms of this problem-global poverty, urban and suburban growth, migration pressures, environmental degradation, civil strife, and social inequality. Meanwhile, a silent but steady explosion is forever altering the world around us, threatening both the health of the planet and the quality of life for all its inhabitants. This explosion is not fueled by dynamite or nuclear bombs, but by us-humans.
Sound alarmist? Consider that in the time it takes you to read this sentence, our finite Earth is becoming home to 18 more members of our global family. That translates into 250,000 more people every day, and nearly 90 million more people each year (about the size of Mexico's population). At our current rate of growth (1.5 percent) our global population of 5.8 billion would double to nearly 12 billion in just 46 years. In preparing our students to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, population education needs to be an integral part of the social studies curriculum.

The Silent Explosion
When the British economist Thomas Malthus cautioned the world about the threat of population growth during the late eighteenth century, fewer than one billion people inhabited the Earth, and few could have foreseen the exponential growth of the population that would mark the next 200 years. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, death rates began to fall as advances in medicine, sanitation, nutrition and agricultural technology increased life expectancy. Birth rates have gradually dropped in the rapidly industrializing Northern hemisphere, remaining higher in the developing countries of the South, especially those with agriculturally-based economies.
Many of us remember hearing about the "population explosion" nearly 30 years ago when Dr. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist, drew attention to the issue with his bestseller, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich warned of the dire consequences to our ecosystems and human survival if the population of 3.5 billion continued to grow unchecked. Since that time, the human population has increased by 40 percent and many of our planet's life-support systems are feeling the squeeze.

The size of the human population affects virtually every environmental condition facing our planet. As our population grows, the demand for natural resources increases, adding to competition, pollution and waste. More energy is used, escalating the problems of climate change, acid rain, oil spills and nuclear disposal. More land is required for agriculture, leading to deforestation and soil erosion. More homes, factories, and roads must be built, occupying the habitat of other species and leading to their extinction. Simply put, the more people inhabiting our finite planet, the greater the stress on its resources.

When people do consider the population issue, they usually focus on the world's largest countries, China and India. Because most of the population increase today (over 90 percent) occurs in developing countries, many Americans feel that they neither contribute to nor are affected by the problem. In fact, the United States ranks as the third most populous and the fastest growing industrialized country, adding 2.6 million people each year. That's the equivalent of adding another city the size of Houston annually. While a third of this increase is due to immigration, most U.S. population growth results from having one of the highest birth rates among industrialized countries. Births to teenage mothers alone total a half million each year.

The real issue in charting our future, though, is not just the number of people in the United States or in the world, but the impact we together exert on our environment. Two critical factors in determining this impact are the amount of resources consumed by the average person, and the environmental damage caused in the process of manufacturing the goods consumed. Dr. Ehrlich, still educating the public about population issues, sums it up in the following formula: I = PAT, where I = Impact; P = Population; A = Affluence (Consumption); and T = Technology (Ehrlich 1990). When approached this way, it becomes clear that the responsibility for global environmental impacts is shared by the rapidly growing developing countries and the rapidly consuming industrialized nations.

Our Consumer Society
Though modest compared with many developing nations, population growth in the United States-coupled with our affluent lifestyle-places a disproportionate demand on the world's resources. Our five percent of the world's population is responsible for 30 percent of the world's annual energy consumption, including 25 percent of fossil fuels. On average, one American consumes as much energy as 2 Japanese, 6 Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis or 370 Ethiopians! (Census Bureau, 1994). Industrialized countries comprise one-fifth of the world's population, yet consume 86 percent of the world's aluminum, 81 percent of its paper, 80 percent of its iron and steel, and 76 percent of its timber (Brown 1995).
Evidence of U.S. population growth surrounds us-intensifying traffic congestion, disappearing wetlands and forests to make room for subdivisions and strip malls, and landfills too full to handle the mounting garbage and hazardous waste that Americans create daily. In the last 200 years, the United States has lost 71 percent of its topsoil, 50 percent of its wetlands, 90 percent of its old-growth forests, 99 percent of its tallgrass prairie, and up to 490 species of native plants and animals with another 9,000 now at risk (WRI 1993). We are currently developing rural land at the rate of nine square miles per day, and paving 1.3 million acres each year-an area roughly equal in size to the state of Delaware (Durning 1992; Pimentel 1993). Many attribute these problems solely to wasteful habits and poor planning. Even so, the increasing number of people exercising these habits only serves to compound the problems. Efforts to relieve environmental stress by cutting consumption would be undermined, if not negated, by either continued population growth or stabilization at a size larger than our resources can sustain.

Population Questions in the Classroom
If education is meant to prepare young people for their future, then population education must be a part of it. Young people are very interested in protecting the environment. They have taken the lead in many schools with projects on recycling, energy conservation, and rainforest and endangered species protection. It is vitally important for young Americans to learn how population, resources and the environment are interrelated, and to realize that their personal decisions will affect everyone's quality of life. With a third of the world's population entering their reproductive years this decade, young peoples' personal choices will determine whether or when the population stabilizes and how rapidly natural resources are consumed. World leaders agree. The Programme of Action adopted by 170 global delegates at the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt in 1994 recommended that all nations adopt population education programs.
While population studies cut across disciplines, they are most closely tied to the social studies curriculum, where they are integral to the study of world and U.S. history, geography, global studies, anthropology and economics in grades K through 12. In the new National Geography Standards, for example, population plays an important role in each of the six essential elements, especially the guidelines for teaching Human Systems and Environment and Society. These standards expressly encourage students to understand "the relationships between population growth, urbanization and the resultant stress on physical systems" (GESP 1994). Within the NCSS Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, population studies is a component of many of the ten themes, most notably, 3People, Places and Environment; 8Science, Technology and Society; and 9Global Connections.

Even though many educators have recognized the need to include population education in the social studies curriculum, they often have difficulty finding textbooks that provide adequate information on population trends and the resulting social and environmental impacts. In a follow-up survey of more than 2,000 educators who attended training workshops offered by Zero Population Growth (ZPG) in 1995, 29 percent cited "lack of background on population issues" as a key obstacle to teaching about population issues. In the same survey, 82 percent of respondents felt the textbooks they used did not cover population topics adequately (ZPG 1996). This may be the single greatest barrier to population education, for it has been estimated that more than 90 percent of curriculum is textbook based.

A comprehensive treatment of population issues in the social studies classroom would include an explanation of past and present global demographic trends, and how these trends are connected to social factors such as the status of women, religious beliefs and cultural traditions. There should also be discussion of the economic, environmental and public health impacts of population change. Future projections and a range of proposed solutions to gloomy forecasts could also be presented. These solutions include universal access to education, comprehensive health services, the information and means to plan families, and strategies for reducing resource consumption and preserving ecosystems.

Ideally, population issues should be team-taught with colleagues in life science/biology, mathematics, and even family life education. Life science and biology courses generally cover population dynamics and ecological interrelationships. Math courses may offer problems based on real-world population and environmental data. Health and family life classes often stress individual decision making related to childbearing, and the effects of personal decisions on one's own life and the lives of other people.

The following principles can guide effective population education:

Although most textbooks offer teachers little guidance on population education, some excellent supplementary teaching materials are on the market, plenty of background material is available (much of it for free), and a few textbooks stand out as good resources. Two national nonprofit organizations, Zero Population Growth and the Population Reference Bureau, have extensive population education programs to assist educators. A number of other organizations provide quality background materials and classroom resources (see box).

Whether population and resource consumption trends are addressed as an entire unit or in selected activities, the information and discussion can go far to prepare students for global citizenship in an increasingly interdependent world.

Population Education Resource Organizations

Izaak Walton League
707 Conservation Lane
Gaithersburg, MD 20878
(301) 548-0150
High school level curriculum materials on population and community sustainability.
Population Action International
1120 19th Street, NW, Suite 550
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 659-1833
Glossy wall charts and reports on international population and land use trends.
Population Reference Bureau
1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Ste 520
Washington, DC 20009
(202) 483-1100
Classroom materials for upper elementary through college level; annual World Population Data Chart; teacher training workshops.
United Nations Population Fund
220 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017
(212) 297-5000
State of World Population report (annual).
World Bank Education Department
1818 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20433
(202) 473-1945
Classroom poster kits on population and wealth distribution.
World Resources Institute
1709 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 638-6300
Teacher guides, reports and data sets on population, environment and development issues.
Zero Population Growth
1400 16th Street, NW, Suite 320
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 332-2200
(800) 767-1956
Classroom teaching kits and video for K-12; youth and teen kits, teacher training workshops; fact sheets; bibliographies.

Activity: Everything is Connected

Concept: In nature, everything is connected to everything else. Human population growth, for example, is a factor that can have far reaching effects on the environment and society.Method: Students identify ways in which human society and the natural environment are interdependent by creating a concept map, or "future wheel," as a class or in cooperative learning groups.Objectives:

To create a concept map to illustrate these cause and effect relationships.Skills:

Concept mappingMaterials:

1.Write the concept "More People" in the middle of the chalkboard. Ask students to think about what might be the environmental, economic, or social impacts of more people. You may want to provide an example, such as: "more people" might mean "more cars on the road" or "more houses." Next to "More People," draw an arrow and add one of these concepts. Be sure to tell students that there are no right or wrong answers, but ask them to explain their proposed connections. Also, let them know that the cause and effect relationship can be positive, negative, or neutral.

2.Invite students to come up to the board, a few at a time, to add to this word web. They may add on to the central concept, "More People", or add on to what someone else has contributed. For each concept that a student adds, he or she should draw arrows to any of the other concepts that form a cause and effect relationship. The object is for the class to create a large and interconnected web.

3.When all students have had a chance to contribute to the web, walk the class through it starting from the middle. You may wish to ask individual students to explain their additions to the web, and to find out if other members of the class agree or disagree.

Alternative Procedure: Cooperative GroupsInstead of having students create one large future wheel on the chalkboard, divide students into cooperative groups of three or four and distribute butcher paper and markers to each group. Have each group construct a future wheel, filling the paper as completely as possible. Then have each group put up their future wheel, and allow time for students to view each other's work. You may want to have a representative from each group explain some of the cause and effect relationships on their wheel.Elementary Version: "More or Less" ActivityCut heavy paper into strips and write one of the words from the list below on each card. Lay the cards out on a table at the front of the classroom.On different-colored paper, create 15 cards that read "More" and 15 cards that read "Less." Distribute either a "More" or a "Less" card to each student.Begin making a future wheel by taping to the chalkboard (or pinning to a bulletin board) the words, "More People." Then invite students to come up and select a word card that goes with their "More" or "Less" card. Have students link it onto the web in a relationship that they can later justify. This activity could also be done with picture cut outs from magazines.

Brown, Lester, et. al. The State of the World 1995. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.Durning, Alan T. How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992.Ehrlich, Paul and Anne H. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.Pimentel, David (panelist). "United States Carrying Capacity Overview." Carrying Capacity Network Conference. Washington, DC: 1993.U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States 1994. Washington, DC, 1994.The World Resources Institute. The 1993 Information Please Environmental Almanac. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Zero Population Growth Population Education Program. "Evaluation of 1995 Teacher Training Workshops." Washington, DC: 1996.Recommended ReadingBrown, Lester R. and Hal Kane. Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Population Carrying Capacity. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994.Cohen, Joel E. How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.Cohen, Joel E. "Ten Myths of Population," Discover (April 1996): 42-47.Durning, Alan. How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1992.Easterbrook, Gregg. A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.Ehrlich, Paul R. and Anne H. Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996.Ehrlich, Paul R. and Anne H. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.Galant, Roy. The Peopling of Planet Earth. London: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1990.Geography Education Standards Project. Geography for Life: National Geography Standards 1994. Washington, DC: National Geographic Research and Exploration, 1994.Harrison, Paul. The Third Revolution: Population, Environment and A Sustainable World. Penguin Books, 1992.Kennedy, Paul. Preparing for the Twenty-first Century. New York: Random House, Inc., 1993.Meadows, Donella H. and Dennis L. Meadows and Jorgen Randers. Beyond the Limits. Post Mills, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1992.Mera, Karen, Patricia Sikes and Pamela Wasserman. "Who's Covering Population in Social Studies: A Survey of Secondary Social Studies Texts." Washington, DC: Zero Population Growth, Inc., 1992.Moffett, George D. Critical Masses: The Global Population Challenge. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.Stetoff, Rebecca. Overpopulation. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1993.Wasserman, Pamela and Andrea Doyle. Earth Matters: Studies for Our Global Future. Washington, DC: Zero Population Growth, Inc., 1991.Winckler, Suzanne and Mary M. Rodgers. Our Endangered Planet: Population Growth. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, Co., 1991.

Pamela Wasserman is the Director of Education for Zero Population Growth in Washington, DC. She also chairs the NCSS Special Interest Group, "Teaching About Population and the Environment."