Think of the words “population control” and disturbing events in human history come to mind. Given the precedents set by Nazi eugenicists and numerous ancient infanticidal cultures, capping the number of humans allowed to be alive at any time may seem like an egregious violation of human rights. But successful family planning initiatives show that there are humane ways to keep a growth rate in check, and some scientists have even made the case that we must do it in order for the human race as a whole to survive. As climate change continues to threaten the well-being of the entire planet, argue scientists in a recent opinion piece in Science, it’s time to take population control more seriously than ever.
The greatest driver of climate change is greenhouse gas emissions, which the Science Forum authors, which include renowned demographer John Bongaarts, Ph.D., of the Population Center and Brian C. O’Neil, Ph.D., of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, argue can be reduced by limiting the number of people who can emit them. Of course, they aren’t suggesting we revert to history’s brutal techniques to cap populations to mitigate climate risk. Rather, they suggest the whole world double down on family planning — the range of strategies that allow people to choose how many kids they have. But even this strategy is a sensitive topic for many people, which is why, as Bongaarts explains to Inverse, it’s necessary to get the conversation going.
“Given this current situation and the sensitivities surrounding reproductive rights, the purpose of our Science Forum comment was to get the climate community and in particular the IPCC to take population policy more seriously,” he says. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, thus far, has focused on reducing emissions and planting more forests but hasn’t considered population control in any meaningful way. But as the melting ice caps and endless wildfires illustrate, the IPPC’s current efforts clearly are not enough.
He and O’Neil are making their case, says Bongaarts, “not because we think slower population growth is the most important way to respond to the climate change issue; it is not. But it can help, and it has many other benefits to the well being of many women and families around the world.” Slowing future population growth “could reduce global emissions by 40% or more in the long term,” they write in the article, adding that a smaller population would make it easier for nations to adapt to the inevitable lifestyle shifts climate change will bring.
Among the population control measures they outline in their article are providing better public education for women and girls as well as establishing voluntary family planning services that help women choose when and how often they get pregnant. They acknowledge that even these programs are controversial, noting that many religious and social groups oppose one key tool for family planning — contraception — out of the belief that it promotes promiscuity. It won’t be easy to get everyone on board with this idea, but the best strategy, they write, is to promote a “human rights” approach to population control — one that emphasizes the right of an individual to choose the size of their family — so that the effects on emissions dovetail with improvements in individual well-being.
Implementing population control as a response to climate change will be no easy feat, practically and intellectually. Critics of population control, whether geared toward climate change or not, have pointed out that it is fraught with issues of classism, sexism, and racism. A complicating factor will be deciding where it needs to happen, which remains an open question. “We are a long way from any developed or developing country seriously considering a ‘population control’ policy with the main objective of mitigating climate risk,” says Bongaarts.
Developed countries, he acknowledges, already have population control methods, but they’re working so well that many of those nations are actually concerned about population decline. In sub-Saharan Africa, Asia (excluding East Asia), and Latin America, however, populations are “projected to grow substantially — and emissions with them, the authors note in the paper. The current drivers of climate change, however, are largely developed nations. Who, then, is responsible for dealing with the consequences?
“I am not aware of any developing country explicitly investing in family planning programs to reduce climate risks,” Bongaarts says, noting that many developing nations do have family planning programs in place, only they’re not specifically geared toward mitigating climate change. “The developing world rightly blames the rich world for causing the problem,” he says.
Only time will tell whether the IPCC will seriously consider population control to mitigate the worsening effects of climate change. Depending on how you look at it, and from where you stand, embracing family planning could be a lot easier — or a lot harder — than reducing reliance on fossil fuels or red meat consumption.
Until governments figure out whether and how to enforce it, the goals of population control may be worth factoring into your personal choices. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, an organization also focused on nonviolent population control, poses a central question to its members: Do you really need to have another kid? For many, the answer is yes, and that’s fine; but for others, it’s far less clear. Bongaarts notes: “In the US and in other rich countries an important step would be to reduce unplanned pregnancies (half of all US pregnancies are unplanned).” If we’re willing to keep our populations under control to save humanity from climate change but also want to maintain our respect human rights, we’ll need to acknowledge that doing so will come down to serious personal decisions, which will not be easy to make.