For population activist Adjoa Tetteh, the world’s population recently reaching seven billion is not a reason to freak out.
"Some of the conversation about seven billion has been alarmist and scary, but it's important to talk about how this number is an opportunity to do more positive things," said Tetteh, an activist in New York City with the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment program.“There are now seven billion people here, let’s make sure they have access to healthcare, and the rights and means to decide when and how many kids they want to have. Hitting seven billion is an impetus for people to right a lot of wrongs that needed to be righted anyway.”
Tetteh's been leading workshops around New York City about the effects and opportunities of reaching seven billion. She believes it is critical to educate the public on population issues and how they interconnect with climate change, reproductive rights, hunger, health care and many other areas.
Indeed, the efforts of the Sierra Club's Global Population and Environment program are rooted in the belief that the health of our planet is directly linked to the health of our families, and that ensuring women and families have the ability to plan their family size has positive ramifications for individuals, communities, and the environment.
"We're acknowledging people's autonomy, not saying you shouldn't have children," said Tetteh. "We want to make sure you have means to support them in the way you want to."
Bonnie Tillery, a Sierra Club population activist in New Jersey, echoed that sentiment when talking about why she works on this program.
"We can do better - almost half the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. With good sexuality and reproductive health education, that figure can be reduced. Women both here in the U.S. and around the world (215,000 is the figure we hear most often) want to use but do not have access to modern forms of contraception," said Tillery.
"Women do not want to have children they cannot afford to feed, clothe, and educate. For all of these reasons and more I try to educate and advocate on population issues."
For Tillery, population issues and excess consumption are central to the environmental challenges our planet faces. "Here in the U.S. we make up about 5% of the world's population but consume almost 25% of the world's resources – that needs to change," she said.
It's also an issue beyond U.S. borders. Tillery and Tetteh have participated in international study tours with the Sierra Club to see these challenges first-hand.
Tillery gave one example of a trip she took to Madagascar, where the forests are being stripped for charcoal to fuel cooking stoves and for other uses. "If we lose the forests we lose the lemurs and other unique forms of animal life and vegetation. In one area we visited, we saw the Madagascar periwinkle, which has helped treat leukemia. Much of the vegetation in the area is considered medicinal by the surrounding communities. We don't even know a fraction of what is to be found, and we could lose it all due to population pressures for scarce resources."
The Sierra Club Global Population and Environment program is again taking its work international in just over a week at the United Nation's next climate change conference, being held in Durban, South Africa.
Global Population and Environment Program staff member Kim Lovell is presenting a workshop on population, reproductive health, and climate disruption at the 7th Conference of Youth, which is just prior to the UN negotiations. This is a gathering of more than 500 young people and climate activists from around the world who are coming to Durban to ensure youth voices are taken into account at the negotiations.
Sierra Club activists have been working on population issues for the past 40 years and will continue to do so for many years to come.
"There have been changes in the focus of our efforts over this period of time, but the passion to help women, families, and the environment has been consistent," said Tillery.