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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
Have you noticed a difference in the world lately? Do things feel a bit more… crowded? It’s not your imagination. According to the Population Division of the United Nations, the seven billionth human on earth – that’s #7,000,000,000 – will be born this upcoming October 31st.
But this milestone is scary for more reasons that just its accidental coincidence with Halloween. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental nonprofit which works to secure a future for threatened species, “overpopulation and over-consumption are the root causes of environmental destruction.” More humans means more land development and more resource use; for non-human species, it means less habitat, less food – less of absolutely everything. This catastrophic overload of the planet’s resources has inspired the Center to launch the 7 Billion and Counting campaign, intended to bring awareness to the pressure that human beings are putting on the world’s ecosystems. Within this campaign is the Endangered Species Condoms project, a unique and amusing approach to spreading the word about the effect humans are having on imperiled species, and what we as individuals can do to stem the flow (so to speak) of population overgrowth.
The Museum spoke with Amy Harwood, the Center’s overpopulation campaign coordinator, on what seven billion people means for our earth, and what the Center is trying to do about it.
What is the goal of the 7 Billion and Counting campaign?
The goal is to get people to start to connect species extinction to the issue of [human] population growth. Population growth has been an issue for a long time, obviously. There’s been a lot of people working on that issue, and we feel like this component of that issue has been missing. So our hope with this campaign is to elevate it and bring it into people’s minds.
How dire is the threat of human overpopulation to the earth and to the other species that share it with us?
We are currently witnessing a massive species extinction. Some scientists believe it’s the fastest extinction that’s happened on earth. It is totally caused by humans’ impact. The Center for Biological Diversity has been working on that issue [of endangered species] for a long time. We have been working on some of the impact of over-consumption, things that you hear a lot more about: resource use, fossil fuel energy, impact on wild lands… We’re hoping that this becomes another part of that work and continues to further our work on protection for species.
Is anything being done by governmental agencies across the world to bring awareness to this issue?
I think that the history of population growth with regards to government involvement is tricky, because a lot of people think of things like the one-child policy in China. I think that has left a big black eye on this issue, in terms of oppressive policies. But the way we see it is, this is an opportunity for government to see the benefit of making sure that women have access to family planning resources and are empowered to actually take advantage of them, and are actually getting provided education about those access points. To us, working on those policies is really part of the solution, and if we can bring species protection into the incentives for getting those policies the support that they need to remain, then I think we have something new and fresh that people are going to be responding to really well.
Where did the idea for Endangered Species Condoms come from?
[laughs] You know, I wish I could take credit for it, but we started it a little over a year ago. It was one of those late-night ideas that seemed crazy – just crazy enough to work. It’s been an incredible project to work on. I think it was a pretty big risk for the Center to take that on, but it has really come back around for us and proven to be very successful. People’s responses are just wonderful; I think it’s one of surprise and also one of awareness. People know that this is an issue but they’re not hearing much about it, and I think that [the condoms] spur a really good start for conversation.
I know you have volunteers that pass them out, so I don’t know if you’d know this, but what kind of reaction do you get from people who these are passed out to?
We actually do get pretty good responses from the distributors about how that goes. We have a form on our website, EndangeredSpeciesCondoms.com, that allows people to send back information about how it went. We’ve gotten some really interesting responses. I think that this issue is a real hot-button issue. People have really diverse reactions to it at first. But the thing that we’ve found is, because there’s sort of an element of playfulness or silliness to the condoms in terms of just that surprise that I was just talking about, it presents a really great way for people to start that conversation that might otherwise be sort of intimidating or too difficult to bring up with people, not knowing how they’ll respond. So that’s been, I think, really the success, that people have been able to use them as those conversation starters that we were so hoping [the project] would be successful at.
And they’re being distributed all across the United States?
Yes. We have actually distributed over 350,000 in the last year or so. They have shown up in all fifty states, and we’ve used thousands of volunteer distributors. So this past week when we launched our 7 Billion and Counting campaign, we put in a request for distributors to sign up again, and I’ve already had thousands of people e-mailing me to be distributors again, and new distributors as well, which is exciting. Our goal is to have another 100,000 distributed by October, and we’re aiming to get them up in all fifty states again as well.
Is there a particular state that this has been most successful in?
You know, it’s really interesting. I had always kind of thought that we would hear [back] from people in more urban centers, or people in states that are maybe more liberal-leaning, but it is amazing. I get contacted by people all over the country. I mean, just [in] random little towns all over the country, people are intrigued by this project. So, from an organizing perspective, the outreach really couldn’t be better on it.
So how much time do we have to change our ways as a species before the damage to the earth is irreversible?
That’s a good question for a scientist; I’m not sure I have the answer to that. There are a lot of theories that we may have passed the point of it ever going back to the way it was. . . . There are even scientists that are actually starting to place a new name on this [current mass extinction event] because of the impact that humans have had. We’ve literally changed the earth to never go back to the way it was before. I think that that can get pretty scary and dire, but I wouldn’t be here working on this campaign if I didn’t think that we do have an opportunity to make a change. The world population reaching seven billion is a great opportunity to start highlighting this issue and getting people to start thinking about it more as something that they can be involved in and less of just something that’s happening in another place and not their problem.
So what can people do as individuals to stem this huge, overwhelming, worldwide problem?
A lot of the time, with any sort of change-making campaign, you want people to talk about it and you want them to ultimately take action. And sometimes it’s hard to just say, “Oh, well if people are talking about it, then maybe it will make a difference.” But with this campaign I really, truly believe that any way that we can get people to start having this conversation and actually get so that it’s not such a taboo subject to bring up really is going to start that change. There are policies and real-world solutions that we can be supporting, in terms of funding for family planning and access to birth control. But I think that the conversations that need to happen are really the action that we should be focusing on right now, because it’s not something that people are talking about. And so the things that we’ve put up as part of this campaign, we think of as those conversation-starters. So the condoms, obviously, I just talked about that one; but we also launched a billboard ad in Times Square, hoping that, you know, in one of the biggest cultural crossroads in the United States, people will be seeing that ad. We’ve also put up a suggested guide for how to host an event about this issue or take some actions in the next couple months to take advantage of that moment of seven billion, when there’s going to be a lot of press and people may be thinking about it otherwise. We also have an interactive map that’s on our website now, so that people can look and see what endangered species may still be eking out an existence in their area. To us we find that, as you bring up individual species, people start to get more curious about those species and more interested in finding out what is threatening them. So what we’re hoping is that people will take that map and get more engaged on a local level, in terms of connecting population growth to the species extinction crisis that we’re witnessing.