It's Getting Crowded on the Good Ship Earth

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If you’re feeling like you need a little space, it may be because you’re sharing the planet with twice as many people as you might have been in 1960. And while governments agree that it looks set to double again by 2050, that doesn’t mean they’re able to agree on how to keep the numbers down. Delegates from 180 countries met at the U.N. Thursday to discuss curbing population growth, but the Vatican and some conservative Islamic countries are leading the charge against moves to encourage sex education and birth control. That opposition has some resonance in the West: "For two years the U.S. failed to pay its U.N. dues because someone on Capitol Hill tacked on a proviso denying funding to family-planning projects in developing countries that provide information on abortion," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell.

Although progress has been reported in bringing down the birth rate in many developing countries, a crisis continues to threaten. "With the world’s population growing by 78 million each year, economic growth is unable to keep up," says Dowell. This condemns the overwhelming majority of the Earth’s population to lives of poverty and squalor. Besides cultural and religious objections, the major obstacle to confront may be economic: "While many European countries actually show negative population growth, in poorer countries having more children in the hope that they’ll support you is a form of insurance," says Dowell. "Building these countries up economically may be the best way to control population growth."