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Washington, D.C. -- Earth Day turns 39 this year. Many people stop counting their birthdays after they turn 39, but it's important that we continue this annual observance. For now and decades to come, we will need to remind people that the "pale, blue dot" that we call Earth is a fragile eco-system, whose health we ignore at our peril.
The Earth is not just getting older, it's getting more populous. Global population at the time of the first Earth Day in 1970 was 3.7 billion. Since then, we've added another 3.1 billion people to the planet, an increase of over 80 percent. And, if current projections hold true, we may add another 2.5 billion people to the planet before Earth Day turns 80.
It's not just more people on the planet. It's more people consuming more food and resources, more animal species going extinct as a result, and more danger that we are altering the earth's climate in potentially catastrophic ways.
A few years ago, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, created a stir when he wrote a paper suggesting that the current geologic period, the Holocene Epoch, should be renamed the Human or Anthropocene Epoch. Paul Crutzen argued that human activity had become a major climate-changing force. In support of his proposal he pointed to the tenfold increase in human population over the past three hundred years; the even sharper increase in the livestock used to feed humanity; the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting release of massive amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the large scale synthetic fixing of nitrogen in the soil resulting from the widespread application of commercial fertilizers.
Today, less than a decade after Crutzen wrote his paper, it's clear that human activity is altering Earth's climate. What's less clear is what we are going to do about it. While many women in the world today want to limit the number and spacing of their children, they face big obstacles, including cultural barriers, a lack of education, and a lack of access to modern methods of birth control. Even in this country, many women, particularly teenagers, lack adequate access to family planning services. That's one reason why U.S. birth rates on the rise again. In the developing world, family planning services are frequently in short supply; that's why fertility rates are still very high in some of the poorest countries.
Family planning, wherever it's practiced, can help bring human population into balance with a healthy global environment. That's an Earth Day message that we can all embrace.