To many, it’s obvious population growth is a key factor, arguably the key factor, in environmental degradation and resource depletion, contributing heavily as well to poverty and human conflict. Unfortunately, some environmental groups and writers, and some fighting for social justice, deny or consciously avoid the obvious. Often they realize population growth is a fundamental driver of ecological and social problems, but choose deliberately to avoid the topic. Their reasons vary, but fit generally under the heading, “politics.”
There are, for instance, women’s groups with whose concerns I sympathize, but which have decided the population issue distracts from their work promoting the rights of women. There are environmental writers who carefully skirt the topic of population growth in the belief that the notion of “population control” has become associated with totalitarian or eugenic measures, making any environmentalist who utters the word “population” vulnerable to easy criticism.
In both instances, activists or writers have opted to play politics rather than speaking the truth. It comes down to this: Credible research and respected scientists tell us human numbers are closely linked to environmental degradation. That is the truth as science sees it. To avoid discussing population as a problem, then, is to hide the truth. People trying otherwise to help with our ecological challenges, arguably the greatest challenges in human history, are putting politics ahead of the truth.
Major report highlights the results of a decade of neglect
What’s been the result? A report from earlier this year speaks to that question. Issued by the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development, and Reproductive Health, it was Titled Return of the Population Growth Factor: Its Impact upon the Millennium Development Goals. This spring, Science featured an article on the report.
The report presents the findings of a call “for empirical evidence from professional, academic and institutional sources worldwide, asking whether growing populations were affecting achievement of the [UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)].”
A long list of experts supplied evidence. To offer a small sampling, they included Dr Ndola Prata, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley; Dr Hassan Yousif, UN Economic Commission for Africa; Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State; Dr. Martha Campbell, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley; Prof. John Cleland, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Dr Alex Ezeh, The African Population and Health Research Center; Dr Paul Van Look, Director, Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization; Prof. Michael Lipton, Poverty Research Unit, University of Sussex; Prof. Joseph Speidel, Bixby Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy, University of California, San Francisco; Prof. Chris Rapley, British Antarctic Survey; Prof. Aubrey Manning, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Edinburgh; and organizations such as the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs; the UN Environment Programme; the World Health Organization; the UK Department for International Development; The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Population Action International; Gramin Vikas Trust, India and Overseas Development Institute; African Foundation for Population and Development, Nigeria; UN Economic Commission for Africa; and Homeless International.
Good intentions, tragically flawed strategy
The authors precede their findings with an informative section titled “The Lost Decade,” referring to the last ten years of neglect of the population problem. This neglect has roots in the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. There, at the urging of women’s and human rights groups, was initiated a new emphasis:
No longer was population to be discussed in terms of national population figures, but instead the world would concentrate on the rights of the individual and particularly women, to decide when, how many and how often to have children – recognising that women and girls in many developing countries are often marginalised by having less education than males, and fewer opportunities to participate in civic matters and the political process…. A strategy for implementing this bold plan to empower women, was to move attention away from numbers of people, population growth and family planning and the coercion that these terms were seen to imply, to the more comprehensive language of reproductive health.
The report argues that the association of family planning with coercion was unfair. In the 1970s and 1980s “nearly all national family planning programmes in developing countries were voluntary and extremely popular.” Unfortunately, at the same time, China and parts of India implemented draconian measures to control population growth. The latter drew the bulk of the attention and the rest of the world has since paid for two countries’ (albeit the two with the largest populations) poor decisions. “Far less attention,” write the report’s authors, “was drawn to the negative health and economic impacts on women who are compelled to bear many children for lack of contraceptive options – this is continued suffering on a very large scale.”
Thus, though well intended, this shift of attention away from population and numbers of people (instead of simply directing additional attention and resources to the rights and welfare of women) was, in retrospect, a tragically flawed decision.
A major setback
The authors emphasize that the resulting lack of funding for and attention to family planning services, particularly in the poorest nations, has been a major social and environmental setback which must be reversed if we are to have any hope of meeting the UN’s MDGs. (They focus on family planning services, though it should be mentioned there are, of course, additional humane approaches to addressing population. One example is the use of entertainment media to communicate the advantages of smaller families. These are tragically underfunded as well.)
Results of the neglect of population have included severe reductions in family planning budgets, a slowing or stalling of contraceptive use, especially in Africa where use today is greater than 10% in only two countries, and a shift of attention, promoted by the conservative media, away from tragically high population growth rates in the world’s poorest nations, to the declining birthrates in Europe and Japan. Additionally, experts cited in the report link the lack of attention to population to the increasing disparity between rich and poor.
Population and the UN’s MDGs
The UN’s MDGs are:
- Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
- Achieve Universal Primary Education
- Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
- Reduce Child Mortality
- Improve Maternal Health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other Diseases
- Ensure Environmental Sustainability
- Develop a Global Partnership for Development
Because the MGDs were developed in 2000, during the “lost decade,” perhaps it’s not surprising they failed to take into account the influence of population on the attainment of their stated goals. The report’s authors are clear about the resulting problem: “The evidence is overwhelming: the MDGs are difficult or impossible to achieve with the current levels of population growth in the least developed countries and regions.”
The Science article on the report summarizes why the MGDs will be unmet without renewed attention to population growth. Some examples:
- MDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. It will be almost impossible to reach the target of halving the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 2015 without a large-scale recommitment to family planning. In sub-Saharan Africa, partly as a result of rapid population growth, the number of people living in extreme poverty rose from 231 million in 1990 to 318 million in 2001…
- MDG 2: Achieve universal primary education. Voluntary limitation of family size is also essential… Children in large families, especially girls, are less likely to enter school, more likely to drop out, and are sick and hungry more often than children from small families… In the poorest countries as a whole, two million additional schoolteachers are required each year to keep up with population growth…
- MDG 4: Reduce child mortality. Given the same level of health care, a child born less than 18 months after an older sibling has a death rate two to four times that of a baby born after a 36-month interval…
- MDG 7: Ensure environmental sustainability. The roots of environmental degradation are found in consumption patterns among the world’s economic powerhouses and rising demands of growing local populations…. Sir David King noted that, “the massive growth in the human population through the 20th century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor.”
And from the report, concerning MDG7: “Today, 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. As population grows, the UN estimates two thirds of the world’s population will face moderate to high water shortages by 2025.”
There’s a great deal of information in the report on the relationship between population and each of the MGDs.
Little hope without renewed attention to population
In sum, the report asserts:
Without addressing the issue of population growth and high fertility in the poorest regions of the world, these regions have little chance of achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Rapid population growth has a detrimental effect on the MDGs. It is also often a factor causing civil conflict and migration. Except for a few oil rich states, no country has pulled itself out of poverty while maintaining high fertility.
The authors conclude:
Urgent action must be taken to ensure family planning provision becomes an integral part of all efforts to reduce poverty, improve mothers’ and children’s survival and health, and to forestall further damage to the natural environment. The large and well-documented unmet need for family planning must be addressed.
They end the report with a number of specific recommendations such as to increase funding for and eliminate barriers to family planning.
Thus the All Parlimentary Group’s report represents an call by scientists and institutions worldwide for a renewed international focus on population growth. Here’s the concluding statement from the authors of the Science article:
Between 2005 and 2050, the world population is projected to grow by 2.6 billion–a number roughly equal to the total global population in 1950 (2.5 billion). Decisions made now can influence the growth rate. If the rates are not altered, hundreds of millions of families will suffer from poverty, hunger, inadequate education, and lack of employment opportunities, all of which might otherwise have been avoided.
One hopes the report will make its way to those environmental writers and groups as well as political leaders who actively avoid the subject of population growth.
Image sources: advencap, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license, focus2capture, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license