Nowadays, it is hard to read or hear about the environment without coming across some assertion that we have pushed our planet to the cusp of irrevocable damage. Despite this fatalistic vision for the future, many people, from engineers to environmental scientists, have nobly committed their lives to assuaging the effects of global warming through creating innovative low-carbon technologies. While these new technologies might seem the most ostensible way to address our environmental problems, others would argue that the smartest solution actually lies in an already existing technology that we have taken for granted: contraception.
Echoing other researchers’ claims that overpopulation is a significant and oft-forgotten cause of climate change and pollution, a recent research study called “Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost” by the London School of Economics claims that contraception is the cheapest way to deal with climate change. The report asserts:
[E]ach $7.00 spent on family planning over the next four decades will reduce CO2 emissions by more than a ton. To achieve the same results with low carbon technologies would cost a minimum of $32.00. If we just meet that need that women have already expressed for fewer children and access to contraception, we will save 34 gigatons between now and 2050, equivalent to nearly six times the annual emissions of the US. (Kissling).
In other words, taking advantage of contraceptive technology that has improved greatly throughout the past 50 years, such as condoms and the birth control pill, could be almost five times cheaper than investing time and money in still-burgeoning low-carbon technologies. Plus, as the study insinuates, contraception is an already developed and advanced technology that women across the world truly want better accessibility to.
Although the conclusions of this study could be interpreted as controversial, it is undoubtedly intuitive that, as population increases, the demand for resources increases as well. After all, if the population continues to grow, and our exploitation of resources and consequent perpetuation of climate change and pollution stays the same or increases, then why wouldn’t overpopulation bring about further environmental damage? Notably, population has been growing at shocking rates in recent history. Currently, there are about 7 billion people in the world, which is about twice as many people as in 1960 (Connor). Furthermore, the United Nations has predicted that there will be about 9 billion people on the Earth in 2050, meaning that there is an extra 200,000 people every day (Connor). In a world that embraces “tech fixes,” people might assume that population will not be much of a problem in the end (or, perhaps, people from the United States assume that it will only affect “other” nations). But it is unequivocal that we as humans are using far too much of the Earth: The WWF and the Worldwatch Institute in Washington report that humans are exploiting about “20 percent more renewable resources than can be replaced each year” (Connor). John Guillebaud, a professor of family planning and reproductive health and co-chair of the Optimum Population Trust, said that there would have to be four Earths worth of natural resources in 2050 to sustain the projected population at that time (Connor). Additionally, if people continue their current level of consumption, the planet will consequently need more than double the power that it currently has (Krauss). Essentially, overpopulation and current levels of consumption are neither sustainable currently nor does it seem that they will be any time in the future.
Given the seriousness of these findings, Guillebaud and Director of the British Antarctic Survey Chris Rapley have criticized environmental organizations for neglecting the significance of overpopulation. For Guillebaud and Rapley, climate change and worldwide pollution are issues that cannot be addressed until the malignancy of overpopulation is recognized (Connor). In an interview with The Independent, Guillebaud said, “[Population growth] is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Unless we reduce the human population humanely through family planning, nature will do it for us through violence, epidemics, and starvation” (Connor). Importantly, overpopulation hardly seems a conscious or advertent phenomenon: According to the United Nation, about 40 percent of pregnancies worldwide are unplanned (Pindar). As one of many people in the debate about overpopulation, Lawrence M. Krauss writes in his article “How Women Can Save the Planet” that most of these unplanned pregnancies come in countries such as India, Somalia, and Sudan where women lack accessibility to both education about contraception and contraception itself (such as birth control pills, condoms, etc.). As a result, Krauss calls for the United States to invest money in contraceptive education because it can both empower women and, literally, save the planet.
Krauss’s claim seems logical enough, and, with these arguments in mind, family planning looks like an incredibly cheap, productive, and socially healthy way to address our environmental problem. But why have we as a society—or as a cluster of societies within the global community—failed to embrace these methods? And why have we also failed to look at overpopulation as a phenomenon that is inextricably linked to climate change and pollution? Rather simply, it seems like the connection is too controversial. As Rapley says, “So controversial is the subject [of overpopulation] that it has become the Cinderella of the great sustainability debate—rarely visible in public, or even in private” (Connor). Frances Kissling in “Contraception fights global warming” thoroughly explores the controversial implications of seeing family planning as a way to address environmental problems. The article very fairly writes that between 1960 and 1990 arguments claiming overpopulation was the problem perpetuated “draconian measures to control female fertility” in other countries, such as China’s one-child policy (which has potentially questionable human rights questions); forced and unsafe abortions; sterilization after having the first child; and bulldozing houses to punish women who violated population policies (Kissling). And while putting money toward contraception education abroad may seem noble, Frances Kissling tartly states, “There is well-placed concern that once again, the developed world will not deal with its own consumption problem, but instead put pressure on poor people to have fewer children” (Kissling). Kissling also argues that there remains adamant and influential resistance to contraception even though many societies have ostensibly embraced it. Certainly, there have been major paradigm shifts concerning contraception that have enabled women to use this method effectively. According to Kissling, over 90 percent of women in the world use contraception at some point during reproductive age. Since the birth control pill was introduced 50 years ago, the U.S. fertility rate “has dropped by nearly half, from close to four children per woman to two” (Kissling). Within the developing world (except for China), the “use of family planning by women of reproductive age in the developing world rose from 10 percent to 53 percent and average family size from six children to just over three” over the past 40 years (Kissling). Nevertheless, the article states that many people have vilified increased investment in contraceptive education for the United States and other countries. Anti-abortion groups, for example, have labeled family planning as “pro-abortion” (Kissling). Although environmentalists endorsed family planning in the 1990s, anti-abortionists’ attacks on them have caused them today to avoid the issue entirely (Kissling). As evidenced by the London School of Economics study (and, of course, countless other studies over the past 50 years), contraception has benefits in many areas, but, at a social and cultural level, there still remains resistance to recognizing these benefits.
At a time of environmental degradation and, still, gender inequality, it is frustrating and upsetting that we as global community cannot support a technology like contraception. Kissling states in her article that family planning, despite its potentially problematic implications, is something that women across the world sincerely want because it empowers them to take control of their bodies and, in turn, can better their quality of life (Kissling). If that were not enough, the London School of Economics’ research and other studies illustrate how family planning’s benefits are wide-ranging and hardly monolithic. In a poetic way, women and the Earth have been similarly oppressed and abused for too many years. Now is the time to better the health of both. As Kissling states, “If we can’t convince governments to support family planning because it is good for women, perhaps the mounting evidence that contraception is almost five times cheaper than conventional green technologies as a means of combating climate change will do the trick” (Kissling). With the compelling evidence in the London School of Economics’ recent study, we are at a point in which we really can—and truly need to—make changes.
Connor, Steve. "Overpopulation 'is main threat to planet.'" The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/overpopulation-is-main-threat-to-planet-521925.html. 7 Jan. 2006. Accessed 16 April 2010.
Kissling, Frances. "Contraception fights global warming." Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/feature/2009/09/29/climate_change. 29 Sept. 2009. Accessed 16 April 2010.
Krauss, Lawrence M. "How Women Can Save the Planet." The Scientific American. November 2009. Page 38.
Pindar, Richard. "'Contraception cheapest way to combat climate change.'" http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/6161742/Contraception-cheapest-way-to-combat-climate-change.html.
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