By Kirsten Stade
ST PAUL, Minnesota, USA, May 25 2023 – A new study estimates that global heating will push billions of people outside the comfortable range of temperature and weather in which we have evolved.
While coverage of the study notes that rapid emissions cuts could greatly reduce the number of people forced to live amid unprecedented extremes, it fails to mention the obvious: that reducing our population would have the same effect.
Not long ago, the idea that human population growth drives both human suffering and environmental decline was considered common sense. That changed in the 1990s in the wake of several egregious population control programs, ranging from China’s one-child policy to forced sterilizations in China, India, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere.
Today, the mere mention of population growth in connection with environmental protection or human well-being gets demonized as “neo-Malthusian” or “eugenicist” – notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of efforts to lower fertility, whether to alleviate poverty or to reduce pressure on resources, have been rights-based and voluntary.
What is most troubling about this mischaracterization is that it deflects attention from the enormous violations of reproductive rights that occur in the name of increasing reproduction.
Pronatalism — the social pressures, religious doctrine, and government policies designed to induce people to have more children – has long been the most prevalent form of reproductive coercion.
Impressed upon people by family members, religious leaders, and politicians pursuing racist, nationalist, military, and/or economic agendas, pronatalism shows up through abortion bans and alarmist messaging that promotes childbirth for certain ethnic groups. The common thread is treating people as reproductive vessels for external agendas.
Over 218 million women worldwide who want to avoid pregnancy have an unmet need for contraception. This troubling reality is the result of both simple unavailability of contraceptives, and of deep-seated pronatalist attitudes–often held by husbands and other family members- that make it impossible for women to use them.
When women are expected to produce large families regardless of their own wants, pronatalism not only denies their reproductive autonomy; it also worsens poverty and damages the environment. A new study by the Swedish Research Council debunks the stubborn misconception that population growth has a negligible effect on climate change since it’s concentrated in low-consumption countries.
In fact, the study finds, population growth is the biggest driver of carbon emissions and is canceling out emissions reductions made through renewables and efficiency. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), population growth is one of the “strongest drivers of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the last decade.”
Population growth and resultant agricultural expansion drive water scarcity, soil depletion, deforestation, land degradation, and damage to ecosystems that humans depend on. The connection between population growth and environmental impacts is clear, yet frequently denied, and this denial has real consequences.
Since addressing population growth fell out of favor in the 1990s, international funding for family planning declined 35 percent and falls far short of meeting global need.
Population denialism is reminiscent of climate denialism in its disregard for science and its failure to acknowledge the suffering of millions. Population deniers invoke Malthus and Margaret Sanger to invalidate population concerns by associating them with infamous sources, while ignoring unimpeachable ones like the IPCC.
While Malthus’ doomism and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb failed to foresee new agricultural technologies that averted the famine and population crash they predicted, population denialists make the opposite mistake.
They adhere to a cornucopian faith that technology will magically solve our problems, and assume that new low-carbon energy sources and unproven interventions like carbon capture will fix everything.
In fact green tech raises serious environmental and social problems of its own. Solar and wind energy and the infrastructure for transmitting the power they generate requires far more land area than fossil fuel plants, with consequences for wildlife and its habitat. Lithium-ion batteries in electric cars and e-bikes use cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by low-wage workers subjected to toxic dumping and en masse displacement.
Population deniers are rightly concerned with equitable development of the world’s impoverished regions, but development will mean more emissions, more water use, more habitat destruction.
If current trends continue, the global middle class is projected to reach 5 billion by 2030. To enable all people to attain a reasonable standard of living without further straining natural systems, we must make access to family planning for all people a matter of urgent international concern.
The good news is that doing so reaps rewards not only for the planet but for human well-being. In every culture where fertility rates have declined, even staggering government investment in pronatalist incentives is insufficient to compel women to go back to the high birth rates they have left behind – an indication that women have a latent wish for low fertility.
This suggests that the path forward lies in acknowledging both the human and environmental toll of high birth rates and resultant population growth, and giving women the universal, free access to contraceptives and abortion care that will enable them to realize their reproductive wishes.
Kirsten Stade is a conservation biologist and communications manager of the NGO Population Balance
IPS UN Bureau