Population growth ‘a threat to planetary health’
Share this article:
When Dr Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in 1960, it was part of a forest belt stretching from western East Africa to the west African coast, across equatorial Africa.
But 30 years later, when she flew over Gombe, the British primatologist was shocked to see only a small island of forest surrounded by entirely bare hills.
“There were more people living there than the land could support, the soil was over-farmed and the people were poor and couldn’t afford to buy food elsewhere,” Goodall writes in a new background paper by the Margaret Pyke Trust, setting out why family planning is important for the environment.
In 1994, the Jane Goodall Institute launched a holistic community conservation programme that began restoring fertility to overused farmland and improving clinics and schools.
“We soon realised many families had more children than they could support so they became increasingly impoverished and there was a good deal of malnutrition.
“It was clear reproductive health was very important and so, again using local people, we provided family planning information... When women (and men) are provided with access to family planning information they are able to take control of their own future by deciding how many children they can afford to raise and educate.”
The planet, she writes, has finite natural resources, “and in some places we’re plundering them faster than Mother Nature can replenish them.
“Both the number of people and how we live our lives are fundamental elements of sustainable development, but far more attention is given to the latter challenge than the former,” writes Goodall, a supporter of the UN-backed Thriving Together campaign launched by the trust last week.
“Women everywhere must be able to choose whether to have children, how many children and the spacing between them... But they also need to be equipped with the knowledge as to how their choice affects the health of the planet and the future of their own children and future generations.”
The trust’s paper, Removing Barriers to Family Planning, Empowering Sustainable Environmental Conservation, underpins the campaign, backed by over 150 environmental and reproductive health organisations in 170 countries, many in Africa.
The existence of barriers to family planning is the “most important ignored environmental challenge” today, says David Johnson, the trust’s chief executive.
These barriers are faced mostly by poor rural communities in developing countries, “which prevent women from choosing freely when and whether to have children, threaten family health, create challenges for girls to complete their education and lead to higher levels of fertility and more rapid rates of population growth”, says the campaign’s statement.
These communities often depend most directly on natural resources for their livelihoods, food, water, shelter and cultural practices. “When localised, or combined local and global human pressures on ecosystems intensify, both community health and environmental health suffer.”
The UN projects the global population will climb from 7.7 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050. But future population growth, says the trust, is uncertain, sensitive to small changes in the average number of children per mother.
“If global fertility averages about 2.7 children by mid-century, the world population would stand at more than 10.8 billion,” says the paper.
“Furthermore, if fertility averages slightly above 1.7 children, the population would be 8.8 billion. That would be the population’s peak level before a gradual decline to 7.3 billion, at century’s end.”
Since the 1960s, modern methods of contraception have seen global fertility plunge “not by half a child or one child per woman, but by 2.5 children”.
Nearly half of the world’s population lives in mostly industrialised countries where average fertility has fallen below 2.1 children per woman.
“Then, however, there are the 104 to 107 countries with fertility levels above 2.1 children per woman. In 38 of these, fertility exceeds four children per woman with Somalia above six and Niger above seven.
“The combined population of these 38 countries is approaching 1 billion and this population, much of it in Africa in countries with high biodiversity, is growing rapidly and is projected to do so far into the future.
"These are populations in which barriers to the use of contraception are especially high. And they are areas where efforts to support the use of family planning are particularly likely to contribute to conservation and environmental sustainability.”
But some experts believe linking the ecological crisis to fertility rates in poor, vulnerable regions may be ill-founded.
Sustainability scientist Professor Christo Fabricius says contraception and family planning are basic human rights, however, the link between family size and environmental conservation is complex.
“Globally it’s true that human impacts on the environment are partly due to a combination of the number of people and per capita consumption; that population is increasing in poorer countries and decreasing in richer countries; and that poorer families have more children than richer families.”
The link between good quality of life and conservation is far more complicated.
“Sometimes more people in an area can bring infrastructure, schools and prosperity, with a higher capacity to restore or protect their environment and stronger incentives for women to have fewer children.
“In other cases, too many people can put unsustainable pressure on nature and create widespread land transformation as one sees in many parts of Europe as well as parts of drought-stricken Africa, where climate change has made agricultural production impossible.
“What disturbs me is the allusion that Africa’s poor are the cause of environmental degradation in Africa. The implication that giving African rural women access to contraceptives will ‘save Africa’s nature from Africans’ does not go down well with many people on this continent, especially if the advocates for this argument are living in the UK, where population density is 1.7 times higher than that of a country such as Uganda and where the average person’s ecological footprint (8 global hectares per person) is more than six times that of the average Ugandan (at 1,.24 global hectares per person).”
Fabricius says he supports any campaign aiming to empower people and especially women, to make decisions they believe are good for them.
“Giving rural women access to contraception is a good thing. But linking this to conservation is ill-founded, offensive to many Africans and for that reason might just backfire, as we saw with the recent plea of Tanzanian president John Magufuli for Tanzanian women to bear more children to boost the economy.”
Belinda Reyers, professor of sustainability science at Stellenbosch University, says improving access to reproductive health services globally is vital for addressing human rights, health improvements and achieving more equitable futures.
"Such an initiative comes at an important time as we see reversals and contractions of these basic human rights in parts of the developed and developing world.
“However, as a stand-alone initiative aimed only at addressing population growth, mostly in poor countries, it’s unlikely to have a noticeable effect by itself on current global trends of environmental degradation in the short or even medium term. While we certainly are a very full world, bursting at the seams, one would be hard-pressed to link the current ecological crisis to fertility rates in poor and vulnerable regions only.
“One just has to take a look at statistics on carbon emissions, energy use, food consumption, production and waste to realise how overly simplified a focus on population growth (in poor countries) as a solution is.
“Approximately 10 countries emit over 75% of the world’s CO2, while the bottom 100 countries emit just over 3%.”
It’s time, Reyers says, “we shifted beyond this blinkered focus on population growth and consumption patterns often blaming individuals for the predicament we find ourselves in” to the real culprits.
“In the past 50 years, the human population may have doubled, but the global economy has quadrupled and global trade has grown 10-tenfold.
“This has resulted in enormous environmental losses, often supported by perverse policies, subsidies and incentives favouring profits and devaluing the environment and any damages to it. And judging by current widening inequality, rising hunger levels and persistent poverty and marginalisation, not everyone has been positively affected by this boom period.
“While improving reproductive health services is critical, focusing on such services as the solution to environmental conservation risks taking our eye off these other balls and the need for big changes in economic, financial and trade policies, incentives, actions and values to build good futures for people and the planet.”
Bob Scholes, professor of systems ecology at Wits University, remarks that after four decades of being topic that couldn't be broached, "population growth is back on the 'environmental agenda'.
"While it's self obvious that more people mean more agriculture, more, water use, more cities and roads, more fishing pressure, more waste to be disposed etc, there are a few other issues that get glossed over.
"The world population is highly likely to rise from the current 7 billion, to 9 to 10 billion by 2050-2100. But then it stops growing.
"Global population has not been growing exponentially, as we are all taught at school, for some time. In almost all parts of the world, it has gone through something called the demographic transition, which results in zero net growth, and often declining population.
"The only exception is Africa, which has not yet reached this turning point - but it will. It is not generally population growth policies that achieve this (China, an autocratic state, is the exception).
It is rising wealth, urbanisation, improved health and pension systems, and especially, education and emancipation of women.These things more or less happen by themselves, and are much more powerful than free condoms,
"... For the wealthy, developed, over-consuming world to lecture the poor, under-consuming developing world about having less children is only credible if the developed world simultaneously reduces its per capita consumption, which is the main cause of environmental damage, by a factor of three. I wait with baited breath.
"So this all sounds well-meaning and uncontentious, but it actually has a tinge of colonialism and racism."
Prof Matthew Chersich, an expert in climate change and health at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, agrees that targeting contraception is not the full answer.
This "ignores the fact that those countries where fertility rates are negative are those who have emitted and continue to emit the large majority of greenhouse gases.
"Promoting family planning as a solution to climate change is used by high-income countries or wealthy people as a means of ‘othering’ the poor, especially those in Africa, who they believe are unable to control their reproductive desires, or sexual behaviour. This thinking also pervades the HIV epidemic.
"And indeed these beliefs provide an avenue for wealthier people to abdicate their need to alter their carbon-rich lifestyle. Blaming others is a classic means of alleviating one’s own guilt or unwillingness to change.
"Having said that, unplanned pregnancies are a major cause of morbidities and mortality among women and children, especially in resource poor areas, and initiatives to reduce these are to be encouraged."
Chersich says the real imperative for family planning as far as climate change is concerned is to limit the number of children born in carbon-loving countries. "Family planning programmes need to focus on those settings. Other countries in the world should strongly encourage wealthy countries to have as few children as possible. Each additional child means a whole lot more carbon dioxide and considerable harm to people elsewhere."
Family planning is not an “environmental panacea”, says the trust, but an important part of the solution “especially in the many areas where population growth co-exists with and is arguably a major factor in risk to biodiversity”.
Connections between human behaviour and biodiversity are complex. “While the range of factors connecting human behaviour to biodiversity loss must not be ignored, the effort in this report is to demonstrate the positive contribution family planning can make to the conservation of biodiversity, especially in some critical areas.”
Some might argue that by contributing to smaller families, family planning, too, can lead to greater affluence, "hence more consumption; hence greater threats to climate, nature, ecosystems and species. Some studies have suggested modest effects in this direction, it says.
“However, any such negative impacts of greater affluence appear to be more than offset by those of slower population growth, especially over time.”
There are many areas where population growth resulting from barriers to family planning is a major direct environmental issue.
"There is no doubt that in such areas better access to a wider availability of modern contraception can ease that issue. This is less straightforward than a campaign against single-use plastic or over-consumption, but often family planning provision is the most important way to respond to conservation challenges, especially over the long term.
"The enormous contribution that the development of modern methods of contraception (starting in the 1960s) has made to conservation, is in fact one of the least often recognised or expressed of its many contributions to a better world.
Conservation of biodiversity and barrier-free access for all to contraceptive counselling and services are mutually reinforcing elements of environmental sustainability," says the trust.
World grows by 85 million people a year
By early 2019 the world population reached an estimated 7.7 billion. “The total grows by around 85 million people a year, or more than 1.6 million each week, more than Germany’s total population annually and more than the population of Eswatini weekly,” says the Margaret Pyke trust.
This figure has been constant for decades. Most of the growth occurs in low- and middle-income countries. Africa accounts for about two fifths, while more populous Asia accounts for half.
“The remainder is shared by Latin America and the Caribbean, adding 6 million people a year; North America, adding about 2.6 million; and Europe and Oceania, with comparatively small annual population additions."
None of the major regions, however, have a declining population, it says, adding that population change is not set in stone.
“No one knows how much or how fast human population will grow in coming decades, when and at what size growth will end, or what will happen to population once it peaks.
"More sustainable population outcomes will emerge from removal of barriers to family planning, along with the empowerment of women and better access to education, including comprehensive sexuality education… The conservation of ecosystems and biological diversity will have much to gain.”
Why conservationists should support family planning interventions, according to the Margaret Pyke Trust
-Human population growth and its impacts on urbanisation, farmland expansion, unsustainable use of natural resources and migration due to climate change disasters present well-recognised risks to the survival of ecosystems and species that rely on them.
-Each year sees 85 million unintended pregnancies, resulting in 32 million unplanned births, four million in high-income countries and the rest in middle- and low-income nations.
-Sustained reductions in fertility slow population growth with increasing impact over time and safely spaced, planned pregnancies improve the
chances of survival for mothers and their children.
“Saving lives while also slowing population growth makes family planning a kind of preventive healthcare for families, for humanity and for earth itself,” says the trust.