Cover of a research journal article titled Population and the Environment: How Do Law and Policy Respond?
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Exceeding Benchmark Projections

Mar 17, 2017
Cover of a research journal article titled Population and the Environment: How Do Law and Policy Respond?

PMC has pasted the text of an article by PMC’s Joe Bish published in March 2017 by the Environmental Law Institute in their “Environmental Forum” debate series. See the original article and the other five essayists featured  here:

Quadrupling from 1.86 billion people in 1920 to today’s 7.48 billion, the human population has grown in a manner that is both temporally swift and cumulatively massive. In the scientific literature, correlations between this ballooning population and ecological degradation are omnipresent. Biodiversity is in perilous decline. A 2015 study in Science found humanity has transgressed four of nine planetary boundaries, increasing risks that human activity will drive Earth “into a much less hospitable state.”

Meanwhile, the flagship United Nations population projection – the “medium variant” – assumes incremental decreases in global child-bearing to the year 2100, from today’s global average of 2.5 children per woman to 1.99 then. If these assumptions prove accurate, 3.7 billion additional people are expected, totaling a still growing 11.21 billion.

Ecologically speaking, this “business-as-usual” scenario is unacceptable, useful only as a motivational bench-mark to measure progress against. An accelerated slowing of growth, an end to total growth well before 2100, and achievement of a far smaller peak population size than ensconced in the medium variant will define success.

To achieve these objectives, conditions must be created to facilitate far more rapid declines in child-bearing than medium variant assumptions.

 Opportunities are ample: the global measure of 2.5 children is an “average of extremes.” It includes Niger’s high fertility (7.6), South Korea’s low (1.2), and everything in between. Overall, 104 countries have fertility greater than the replacement level of 2.1. These countries are prime candidates for policy interventions.

 Undue confidence in demographic transition theory, which assumes “economic development is the best contraceptive,” will certainly not suffice. Persistently high fertility in economically growing, lower middle-income countries like Zambia and Nigeria – along with well-documented “stalls” in fertility decline across Africa – signal dangerous unreliability in the notion.

 A more instructive effort was engineered by Iran, starting in 1986, when its population was 49 million. With women averaging 6 children, the annual growth rate was 3.2 percent. The government faced prospects of a population doubling in just 20 years – posing monumental challenges for food security, education, and jobs. In response, Tehran adopted explicit demographic goals: by 2009, cut the annual growth rate to 2.2 percent and the fertility rate to 3.5 births per woman.

 To support this initiative, the government deployed print-media, TV, radio, and pre-marriage counseling to educate the public about population growth. Family planning was encouraged to reduce poverty and enhance access to health and education for future generations. The status of women was boosted considerably, as secondary education was opened up to females and university enrollment for women soared.

The results were dramatic. The government’s goals were accomplished by 1993, some 16 years ahead of schedule. Today, Iran’s women average 1.65 children, population is expected to peak at mid-century at 92 million, likely decreasing to 70 million by 2100.

Iran’s success can inform policy anywhere fertility is above “replacement level,” but reformers must remain vigilant against authoritarian restrictions on fecundity. For example, from 1996 to 2000, sterilization without informed consent of an estimated 300,000 Peruvians is attributable to the discredited idea of “population control.” Likewise, cash incentives for child-bearing, as practiced by some countries with sub-replacement fertility, should be out-lawed. Singapore, with a fertility rate of 1.3, currently pays over $6,800 for a third child.

Importantly, the medical definition of pregnancy should guide legal systems everywhere. Pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall; as the Guttmacher Institute notes, this fact distinguishes “between a contraceptive that prevents pregnancy and an abortifacient that terminates it.” In the Philippines, faith-based petitioners have delayed implementation of the progressive Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 for over four years by arguing, speciously, that hormonal contraceptive implants are abortifacients. Hamstrung by such inanity, citizens now face impending shortages of the popular contraceptives. 

Humanity is capable of sparking rapid global fertility decline with justice-oriented, human-rights enhancing interventions. In addition to policies like Iran’s, mass-media “green entertainment” initiatives can educate audiences about small family size decisions and environmental conservation through the use of behavioral role-models, featured in soap operas and video games. Such strategies are recommended by Section 11.23 of the seminal Programme of Action of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.

The need is elemental. Humans have fixed minimum requirements of sustenance and space, yet pursue improved living standards whenever possible. Regulatory oversight to ameliorate environmental impacts of those pursuits are necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve a sustainable civilization. Absent iron-fisted global rationing of material resources – an unattractive delusion – transformative decoupling between human population size and ecological damage is impossible.