In 2008, I wrote a post titled, “Should We Stop Having Children to Save the Earth?“. This post got a lot of attention. Even the BBC wanted to interview me!
Human population growth is an issue that is personal and public, as people take both sides defending their right to have a large family or defending their choice to be childless, fertility issues aside.
Although I have never read Paul Ehrlich‘s [amazon_link id=”B000EI3XOS” target=”_blank” ]The Population Bomb[/amazon_link], the premise has been well known and taught in any environmental science class since the 1970s.
Despite personal opinions on family size and individual rights, human population growth is still the greatest threat to our environment and climate no matter if you live in a developed country or not.
I bring this topic back up as a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle “Population growth increases climate fear” makes a compelling argument I wish to share:
A quarter of known mammal species, 43 percent of amphibians, 29 percent of reptiles and 14 percent of birds are threatened. African elephants may be extinct within a decade.
A third of world fisheries are exhausted or degraded. Forty percent of coral reefs and a third of mangroves have been destroyed or degraded. Most species of predator fish are in decline.
Ocean acidification, a product of fossil fuel burning, is dissolving calcifying plankton at the base of the food chain.
A garbage gyre at least twice the size of Texas swirls in the Pacific Ocean.
“We’re changing the ability of the planet to provide food and water,” Harte said.
Even scientists who doubt ecological collapse, such as Michele Marvier, chair of environmental studies at Santa Clara University, acknowledge that “humans dominate every flux and cycle of the planet’s ecology and geochemistry.”
Take food. The World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, estimates that by mid-century the world will need 70 percent more food, because as people grow wealthier they eat more meat, requiring more grain to feed livestock.
That will require converting more land to crops, even as urbanization destroys prime farmland. Farms are a big source of deforestation and a big emitter of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Climate change reduces yields by increasing the frequency of droughts and floods. Lower yields will require conversion of more land to farms.
Despite the evidence, family planning is a hot topic that sparks lots of debate. No one wants forced sterilization or strict one child policies like found in Asia, and birth rates are down in half of the world…but that’s only half the world.
But an important exception to falling fertility rates is sub-Saharan Africa, along with such places as Afghanistan and Yemen, where birth rates remain exceptionally high. U.N. demographers sharply raised their population projections last year, adding another billion people by century’s end, to nearly 11 billion, because African fertility rates have peaked at more than five births per woman.
From now until 2050, poor countries will add the equivalent of a city of 1 million people every five days, said a report last year by the Royal Society, a British scientific organization.
So what is the solution? Education.
Human reproduction used to be part of every public school’s curriculum, but sex education is another taboo subject. According to the American Civil Liberties Union:
Through legislation and public education the ACLU is working the ensure that every public school in America offers age appropriate K-12 sexuality education programming that gives young people the information they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
Access to sex ed that includes information about sexuality, human relationships, as well as information about contraceptives, in a manner that is free from shame and stigma is critical to enabling individuals to lead healthy and fulfilling lives, to building a society that embraces sexual diversity, and to the exercise of reproductive rights.
As a nation, we are far from this goal. For the last 15 years, the federal government has poured $1.5 billion into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. These funds have fueled the proliferation of programs that censor information that students need about sexuality, foster shame, and fear, and, by definition, stigmatize LGBT youth and students whose parents are not married or cannot marry. Additionally, many are medically inaccurate; some promote religion; and others promote gender stereotypes.
The National Conference of State Legislatures offers the following information on sex education in the United States:
All states are somehow involved in sex education for public schoolchildren.
As of March 2013:
22 states and the District of Columbia require public schools teach sex education (20 of which mandate sex education and HIV education).
33 states and the District of Columbia require students receive instruction about HIV/AIDS.
19 states require that if provided, sex education must be medically, factually or technically accurate. State definitions of “medically accurate” vary, from requiring that the department of health review curriculum for accuracy, to mandating that curriculum be based on information from “published authorities upon which medical professionals rely.”
It is crazy to me that only 19 states require sex education to be accurate!
We need to get over taboo subjects like population growth and sex education to truly address climate change. Of course, the problem is not solely in America, where the birth rate has dropped to 1.9. Contraception and education is needed around the world.
The San Francisco Chronicle continues:
The Guttmacher Institute said it would cost an extra $4.1 billion a year, little more than a rounding error in the $3.8 trillion U.S. budget, to provide birth control to all 222 million women in the world who want to limit their pregnancies but lack access to contraception.
I think the key phrase above is “who want to limit their pregnancies”. We can greatly affect population growth without imposing policies against individual rights to chose family size. We can educate.
Should we pay for such a program? Yes. We are a wealthy nation. We live on the same planet. We are one.
The US spends almost $700 billion dollars in military expenditures. I think we could find some money in this budget to pay the $4 billion it would cost to provide contraception and education throughout the world.
A fertility rate of 1.5, just below the current average in Europe, would:
— Keep world population at its current level of about 7 billion in 2100.
— Cut world population below 3 billion in 2200.
We can do this without affecting personal freedoms and choices.