SUSTAINABILITY FORUM: The Population and Sustainability Debate

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As part of its third annual SEPTEMBER SUSTAINABILITY MONTH, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs presents the second of three roundtables.

Introduction

Forum Editor, Zornitsa Stoyanova-Yerburgh

 

Environmental sustainability is inextricably linked with population growth and human activity. According to UN projections, our world will be home to more than 9 billion people by 2050 and more than 10 billion by 2100.

The planet is set to become a place of increased competition for livable space, critical resources such as water, and prospects for economic development. The biggest population increases will occur in the Global South, further exacerbating inequities in the distribution of resources and opportunities across states. Many fear that population growth and consumption will also gravely jeopardize our efforts to fight climate change.
 

Yet population policy is a fraught subject, not least because of coercive family control policies in the past. And focusing on numbers only often obscures the fact that population policy is fundamentally about the rights of women.

What ethical standards should guide the debate about reproduction and sustainability? How should current demographic trends inform our thinking about sustainability? Should we focus our efforts on controlling reproduction or, alternatively, over-consumption? Can technology keep developing apace to address the needs of future populations? What policies should be put in place to counteract trends that exacerbate the situation of the most vulnerable populations?

Read the roundtable and add your comments:

(See also additional responses from Lisa Hymas and Mara Hvistendahl)


A Non-Growing Population Is Necessary for True Sustainability

Robert Engelman

Scale and change are fundamental determinants of environmental sustainability, and demographic trends are fundamental to human scale and change. If we ignore these trends or insist that there is no ethical way to affect their speed and direction, true sustainability will be as hard to reach as the end of a rainbow.

Since the essence of sustainability is assuring that the activities of current generations do not threaten the well-being of future ones, the scale and the changes in magnitude of these activities are central. Consider rates of greenhouse gas emission and absorption; of freshwater withdrawals from the hydrological cycle; of water pollution, deforestation, and alteration of the habitat essential to the survival of non-human species. All of these activities have being occurring since humanity emerged, yet only in the past century has environmental unsustainability become a risk on anything more than local scales.

The reason human interactions with the natural world did not seriously threaten that world until recently is that the scale and growth of these activities were easily absorbed or deflected by the planet's great biological and physical systems and processes. Two main human forces have multiplied the scale of our interactions so that they are now beginning to overwhelm natural systems such as the carbon, water and nitrogen cycles, and hence threaten to make life more complicated, difficult and potentially miserable for ourselves and our descendents in future decades. The first force is the growth in our individual impacts on natural resources and the environment (often generalized as consumption). The second force is the growth of us—that is, human population. (Technology is often mentioned as a third factor, but its influence can work in either direction, boosting or depressing individual or population-scale impacts. And in any event, the influence of technology on the environment is expressed only through the other two forces: individual behavior and demographic dynamics.)

Arguably, population is the greater force than per capita consumption in these interactions. There are roughly a thousand times more people on the planet today than at the dawn of agriculture. But even with all our use of fossil fuels and other natural resources, it seems unlikely that the average human being today has a thousand times the environmental impact of individual hunters and gatherers, who depended on large animals and wild plants for their food supply. In any event, it is obvious that no amount of reduction in individual consumption can produce enduring sustainability if population does not stop growing. If we ever succeed in eliminating the gross disparities that today characterize per-capita consumption levels, our success will make even more obvious the eventual necessity of a non-growing population for true sustainability.

The main obstacle to recognizing and discussing the importance of ending population growth to environmental sustainability is concern about ethical implications. How can population growth be influenced favorably in ways consistent with most people's values? Fortunately the answer affords real hope for achieving sustainability: through allowing women the autonomy and the means to achieve their own reproductive intentions without external interference.

 


Family Planning Can Succeed Even in Very Traditional Societies

John Bongaarts and Steven Sinding

As the population explosion got underway in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, policy makers became concerned about the threat it posed to the well-being of these poor societies. In response, many governments in the developing world—with substantial international assistance—implemented policies to reduce fertility, which included a heavy reliance on voluntary family planning programs to provide information about, and access to, contraceptives. This approach permitted women and men to control their reproductive lives and avoid unwanted childbearing. Only in rare cases, most notably in China and briefly in India, has coercion been used.

Throughout the past half-century, the choice of voluntary family-planning programs as a principal population policy instrument (other important measures included investments in education and primary health care) rested on the existence of a substantial level of unwanted childbearing caused by an unsatisfied demand for contraception. Each year about 184 million pregnancies occur in the developing world and fully 40 percent of these (74 million) are unintended. These unintended pregnancies end in abortions (48 percent), unintended births (40 percent) or miscarriages (12 percent), with detrimental health and economic outcomes for women and their families.

Unintended pregnancies occur when women don't want to get pregnant but are not using contraception. Among the reasons for this unmet need for contraception are a lack of knowledge about contraception, difficult access to supplies and services, the cost of contraception, fear of side effects, and opposition from spouses and other family members. Family planning programs reduce these obstacles, thus reducing unintended pregnancies and birth rates.

Direct evidence that family planning programs reduce unmet need and fertility comes from experiments such as the one undertaken in the Matlab district of Bangladesh. In 1977, Matlab's population was divided into roughly equal experimental and control areas. The control area received the same services as the rest of the country while in the experimental area comprehensive high quality family planning services were provided. The impact of the new services was large and immediate. Contraceptive use jumped from 5 to 33 percent among women in the experimental area. As a result, fertility declined more rapidly in the experimental than in the control area and a difference of about 1.5 births per woman was maintained over time. The Matlab experiment demonstrated that family planning programs can succeed even in very traditional societies, a finding confirmed at the national level when Bangladesh subsequently scaled up the Matlab approach nationwide.

Reducing fertility and population growth brings a range of benefits. Fewer pregnancies means fewer maternal deaths. A smaller number of young people stimulates economic growth and reduces poverty by allowing more investments in health and education, by freeing women's time to work for wages outside the home, and by reducing competition for limited jobs. In addition, slower growth makes it easier for societies to address several alarming environmental trends, such as rising food and energy costs, global climate change, widespread deforestation, loss of biodiversity, shortages of fresh water, depletion of soils, and rising pollution levels.

 


Women's Rights Are Key

Laurie Mazur

As human numbers approach 7 billion, the question is, "where do where we go from here?"

The UN recently published new population projections, which envision a range of possibilities for the 21st century. In the UN's low projection, our numbers peak at 8 billion by mid-century, then decline to 6 billion by 2100. By contrast, the medium and high projections envision continued growth for the foreseeable future. According to the medium projection, the world's population would reach 10 billion by 2100; according to the high projection, nearly 16 billion.

Now, I don't believe there is an optimal size for the human population; greater equity and more efficient use of resources would greatly extend the planet's "carrying capacity." Yet, when you consider the resource challenges of the 21st century, 8 billion certainly looks more sustainable than 16 billion.

Take water, for example. While there is no global shortage of water, a growing number of regions are chronically parched. And many of those regions are also where population is growing most rapidly. In the world's most "water poor" countries, population is expected to double by 2050.Slower growth is not a panacea for the world's water problems, but it could ease pressure on scarce resources and buy time to craft solutions.

The good news is that we know how to slow population growth. Over the last half century, we've learned that the best way to slow growth is not through coercive "population control," but by ensuring that all people are able to make real choices about childbearing.

Women's rights are key. Fertility rates remain high where women's status is low. Less than one fifth of the world's countries will account for nearly all of the world's population growth this century. Not coincidentally, those countries—the least developed nations in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, and elsewhere—are also where girls are less likely to attend school, where child marriage is common, and where women lack basic rights.

That can change. Nations can raise women's status by educating girls, by enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage, and by improving women's access to credit, land, jobs, and training. Where women enjoy these fundamental rights, smaller (and healthier) families become the norm.

At the same time, women need the means to make choices: family planning and other reproductive health services. Around the world, some 215 million want to avoid pregnancy, but aren't using effective methods of contraception. Fulfilling that "unmet need" for family planning would require an additional $3.6 billion annually; the U.S. share of the cost (based on a formula developed by UNFPA) is about $1 billion.

And the potential benefits are huge: Improved access to family planning could prevent 53 million unintended pregnancies, 150,000 maternal deaths, and 25 million abortions each year.(See Guttmacher Institute/United Nations Population Fund. 2009. Adding It Up: The Costs and Benefits of Investing in Family Planning and Maternal and Newborn Health. Washington, DC: GuttmacherInstitute.)

Women's rights and reproductive health are vitally important in their own right, as a matter of public health and social justice. They can also help slow population growth and help ensure a sustainable future.

 


Millions of Poor Women are Still Waiting to Reap the Benefits of Cairo

Barbara Crossette

The debate about whether the world needs fewer people to sustain itself too often leads nowhere. It is essentially an argument over numbers: how many of us there are, how much we consume, how many species or woodlands are disappearing. More useful might be an analysis of why populations are actually shrinking or stabilizing in many countries, while growing rapidly in others. Women, the men in their lives, and the inequalities that hamper their reproductive choices should be at the center of the story.

The idea that population "control" can be imposed on people was decisively rejected in September 1994, when 179 nations met in Cairo at the historic International Conference on Population and Development. Lately even China has begun to rethink its already crumbling one-child policy, as officials see their Asian neighbors reduce fertility rates—the number of children each woman has in her lifetime—to China's low levels, without coercion.

The Cairo conference put reproductive choice in the hands of women. That was fine, but unrealistic where it mattered most. In the richer industrial countries women and their partners had long made choices about family size.These personal choices had serendipitous national effects, not least on economic development and the environment.

In developing countries, millions of poor women are still waiting to reap the gains of Cairo. Reproductive health specialists believe that at least 215 million women in developing countries want, but do not have, the health care and contraceptive choices their richer sisters have long enjoyed. Almost all of the children born in this century will be born in poor nations, yet international aid for family planning has gone down precipitously, in part because donors deem it culturally intrusive or morally unacceptable. Dr. Gamal Serour, director of the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research at Al Azhar University in Cairo, told me recently that this amounts to a denial of human rights.

Culture may play a part in barriers to choice, but successful family planning programs in numerous Catholic and Muslim countries prove that religion is not necessarily a bar. Studies in Bangladesh by T. Paul Schultz, an economist at the Yale University economics department's Economic Growth Centre, show this, and demonstrate the economic benefits of choice. But where there is no political will to honor Cairo pledges, millions of unwanted births take place and hundreds of thousands of women die of preventable, pregnancy-related causes and unsafe abortions.

Women in rural villages and city slums in Brazil, East Timor, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, and India have told me that given the chance, they would have two, three, or perhaps four children; many already had five or six. (The fertility rate at which population growth begins to stabilize is 2.1 children.)Many of these women are farmers who see land deteriorating, water and food getting scarcer, and forests disappearing.

By all means, bring down consumption, waste, and the squandering of energy resources in rich societies, and do so in time for the global poor to get more of their share. But more than empty pledges to women living in poverty are needed, so that they too can take part in saving the earth.


Population Alarmism Is Dangerous

Betsy Hartmann

We are currently witnessing a resurgence of population alarmism. Powerful population and environment advocacy organizations primarily in the U.S. and UK are spreading the word in the media, and in advocacy and policy circles, that reducing population growth in the Global South is key to addressing climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, and even political instability. In part, this is a calculated strategy to increase support for international family planning assistance in the face of the continuing conservative assault on reproductive rights. But playing with fear, like playing with fire, is dangerous.

Ironically, this resurgence comes at a time when family size has fallen to a global average of 2.45 children and is projected to fall to two or less in the next decades. The main reason why global population is projected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, and possibly 10 billion by 2100 (a high projection that is disputed by demographers), is that currently there exists a large cohort of young people of reproductive age. High fertility, however, persists in only a few countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, because of deep class and gender inequalities and the failure of elites to invest in education, health care, and other social services, including high quality family planning.

 

Population alarmism threatens to erode the progress made since the 1994 Cairo conference in moving the family planning field away from top-down and coercive population control programs toward a focus on reproductive health and rights. In many countries, programs are still biased against poor women, who often receive disrespectful, bad quality services and are denied real contraceptive choice. When the message that controlling fertility is not only a demographic but an environmental mandate filters down to already prejudiced providers, it will only make services worse. A troubling sign is that the U.S. Agency for International Development is considering re-introducing incentives, including compensation payments for sterilization, into family planning programs (see "The Return of Population Control: Incentives, Targets and the Backlash against Cairo"). Calls to empower women through family planning also ring hollow when the deeper causes of poverty and gender discrimination are ignored in favor of silver-bullet solutions.

The impact of population alarmism on the environmental movement is equally problematic. The relationship between population and the environment is complex. For example, high population density can have both positive and negative environmental impacts depending on the context. Instead of lumping all people into the term "population," one must always ask which people are harming the environment and why. Focusing on women's fertility diverts our attention from the role of industrial agriculture, extractive industries, luxury consumption, and militarism in causing environmental degradation

It also prevents effective action on the climate front. The contribution of greenhouse gas emissions of one person varies by a factor of 1,000 depending on his or her consumption level, and it is mostly nations with very low or slow-growing emissions that have high population growth rates (see "The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change"). Today, the biggest barrier to an effective international climate policy is the failure of the Global North, in particular the U.S., to agree to a significant reduction in carbon emissions. Pinning the blame on overpopulation in the Global South plays into the politics of climate denial.

In this era of climate change, the real challenge is to fundamentally transform inefficient, inequitable, and environmentally harmful systems of resource production, consumption, and distribution in order to sustainably accommodate a population of over 9 billion in 2050. We need renewable energy not stale ideologies. And rather than a top-down demographic imperative to reduce birth rates, advancing reproductive health and rights should be the ends, and means, of international family planning programs.

Read More: Environment/Sustainable Development, Ethics, Women's Rights, World Poverty, Global

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