I have learned not to scream and jump on her head. I know this woman is compassionate and educated. I know my reply will surprise her. One in four of the world’s children under five—some 165 million children----is physically and mentally stunted due to a lack of food or nutrients. One-fourth of the world’s children. But “only” three million of these children die every year from hunger, with perhaps “only” seven million more from hunger-related disease. The rest are sentenced to a lifetime of diminished potential. They do less well in school. They do less well in work. Almost certainly, they will spend their lives in poverty. In fact, malnutrition is considered one of the greatest causes of poverty, as well as one of its most damaging results.
Population growth is part of that cycle. The very poorest countries have the highest birthrates. The wealthiest have the lowest. When parents know their children are going to survive and flourish, they tend to have smaller families. When women have access to education and employment, they tend to have smaller families. When an entire population feels healthy and well-nourished, they tend to have smaller families.
Here is the good news: much of the world has already reached this point. Globally, the fertility rate—the number of children a woman has in her lifetime— is 2.5, not yet replacement rate but getting close. The reasons for this have to do with greater economic prosperity, literacy, urbanization, and policies that reward small families. In Bangladesh, there is a new saying, “Two are good. One is better.” In Bangladesh, women on average have 2.2 children. In India, that number is 2.4. In Brazil, that number is 1.8. In China, that number is 1.6.
As the next generations have their children and as many of us live longer than ever before, the number of humans in the world will continue to swell before we stabilize. In addition, we will keep seeing an exponential climb in the two billion of us still malnourished. Most of our extreme poor are now in Africa, in countries like Niger where a woman on average has seven children, half of whom are stunted due to malnutrition, with one in five dying before reaching the age of five. In terms of population growth, feeding those children—bringing those families out of extreme poverty—is the real solution.
One of the things that excites me about this new writing project is how clearly the goals of the environmental community and humanitarian community are aligned. I feel like two great concerns in my life are coming together. I am also naturally worried about this proposed book. Who am I, a nature writer from rural New Mexico, to tackle this complex, global problem? How can I corral the politics and acronyms of food aid? What will happen when I go to Malawi this fall? Sometimes my doubts crescendo. This is such a bad idea, and I am going to fail so spectacularly. Of course, I have felt this way with almost every book I wrote. So, there’s that.
Ending the misery of worldwide childhood malnutrition would have enormous consequences. One quarter of the next generation could now learn better, work harder, and engage actively in solving social and environmental problems. Together, that generation could promote gender and racial equality. Together, they could face the challenges of climate change. Together, they would slow population growth. I know—this list sounds brazenly hopeful. Still…whenever we see a child, don’t we have these hopes?