24 Jun 2013: Opinion

Our Overcrowded Planet:
A Failure of Family Planning

New UN projections forecast that world population will hit nearly 11 billion people by 2100, an unsettling prospect that reflects a collective failure to provide women around the world with safe, effective ways to avoid pregnancies they don't intend or want.

by robert engelman

Until just a couple weeks ago, the great global food challenge was how to feed 9 billion people in 2050. But no longer — the number of mid-century mouths just jumped. Now it’s projected to be 9.6 billion, closing in on double-digit billions. And forget about expectations that world population will stabilize this century: By 2100, according to the latest projections, the number of people on the planet will hit 10.9 billion — and will still be growing by 10 million a year.

These hundreds of millions of unanticipated future humans come from the “medium-fertility,” or best-guess, calculations of United Nations demographers, who this month released their biannual projections of future world population. And what a surprise their calculations are, dashing the hopes of optimists who had been assuming that human fertility is falling everywhere and that population growth would end “on its own” within a few decades.

What’s interesting about the new projections, however, isn’t what they say about future populations. Not even demographers, after all, know how
Revised assessments showing larger family sizes in fast-growing, low-income countries can hardly be good news.
many people will be living 50 years from now. What’s interesting is what the numbers say about today’s 7.2 billion humans. Because what the new projections say especially loudly, based in large part on the 2010 round of country censuses, is that women in many of the world’s poorest and most conflict-prone countries are having significantly more children than previously thought, largely because many governments are no longer making family planning a high priority.

Only 10 years ago, based on then-current childbearing trends, the UN Population Division was projecting that there would be no more than 8.9 billion people alive in 2050. That number just jumped by 700 million people — an increase nearly as large as the population of Europe.

Afghanistan’s current fertility rate — the average number of children each woman has over her lifetime — is now estimated at 6.3, compared to 5.1 previously. Women in South Sudan average 5.4 children, up from the earlier estimate of 3.8. For Timor-Leste (East Timor) it’s 6.5, up from 5.7. For Somalia, 7.1 compared to 6.7. For Ethiopia, 5.3 compared to 4.8. And the list of boosted fertility estimates — some reflecting real fertility increases, some just improvements on past estimates — goes on. The UN Population Division raised by a full 5 percent its assessments of fertility in 15 sub-Saharan countries in which most women give birth many times.

In a world of changing climate, shrinking farm plots, dwindling fresh water supplies and growing social stress, these larger assessments of family size in fast-growing, low-income countries can hardly be good news. What the new fertility estimates reflect is not just counting errors but a collective failure to provide women around the world with something they need that men don’t have to ask for: safe and effective ways to avoid pregnancies they don’t intend or want, along with the education and autonomy to put their childbearing decisions into effect.

About two out of five pregnancies worldwide are unintended, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a respected reproductive-health think tank. Intriguingly, the proportion is as high on average in the high-consuming developed world, despite our sophisticated health systems, as in the developing one. An estimated 222 million women in developing countries are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant, yet are not using effective contraception, health surveys show. It would take a mere $8.1 billion — a rounding error in today’s $80-trillion global economy—to supply the family planning services that could shrink this number close to zero, the Guttmacher Institute estimates. But the world spends less than half that.

Pinched funding for family planning and reproductive health reflects larger obstacles to a sustainable world population. In no country have women achieved real equality with men, and in some they are still seen essentially
World leaders have come to see family planning as an issue that is too sensitive to bring up.
as male property. And in few societies is there full acceptance that sexuality is not only essential to reproduction but meaningful and valuable even when reproduction is not a personal intention. Sex education is non-existent in many countries and scarcely adequate in any. Contraception gets confused with abortion and even in the United States is associated with promiscuity — witness the controversies surrounding the contraceptive insurance mandate in Obamacare and the availability of emergency contraception to sexually active girls.

On the other side of the planet, the Catholic Church for years has blocked the government of the Philippines (fertility rate: 3.3 children per woman, second highest in eastern Asia) from providing free family planning services to all who seek them. Although President Benigno Aquino recently signed a bill to do just that, the Church has taken the matter to the country’s Supreme Court. The court put a hold on the law’s implementation prior to its review, and most of the justices are reported to be sympathetic to the bishops’ opposition to modern contraception.

More secular and affluent subsets of the global population can hardly be smug about these matters. The truth is that few of us are comfortable addressing either the need to improve family planning services and sexuality education or the growth of world population itself. Population, in particular has been off the table of public and governmental discourse for two decades. By unspoken agreement, world leaders have come to see the issue as too sensitive to bring up. The worry appears to be that it offends the anti-contraception Catholic Church, as well as some women’s rights advocates and leaders of high-fertility countries, who argue that the consumption of the wealthy is a far greater threat to humanity than continued population growth.

The new UN population projections are a blunt reminder of the consequences of our silence. No end to global population growth is in sight. Nor will one be until we resolve to act on women’s autonomy, the dignity of sex without reproduction, and the importance of a non-growing population to environmental sustainability.

Click to enlarge
Nigeria Population Projections Through 2100

United Nations Population Division
Nigeria’s population is projected to quintuple from 184 million today to 914 million in 2100.
Advocates of pro-active population policies — based on human rights and individual intention rather than on coercive population control — have been making a key point for decades: Without an eventual end to population growth, our physical world of finite natural resources inevitably will witness increases in death rates from disease, starvation, or violent conflict. The demographers of the United Nations seem not to be on speaking terms with their scientific colleagues who study climate change and the planet’s ecosystems and natural resources. At the least, the former are not grasping what the latter are projecting for humanity based on their own expertise.

To be fair, the demographers themselves acknowledge that projections are really at best educated guesses based on past and present human data. John Wilmoth, the UN Population Division’s director, told the Associated Press that “there is a great deal of uncertainty about population trends.” The impact of potentially devastating epidemics — already the world sees more than five new infectious diseases each year, according to a study by parasitologist Peter Daszak and colleagues — is just one such unknown. Nonetheless, pundits, press, and public assume that demographic experts are confidently and competently predicting the future of human population. And this future presupposes that no level of human presence on the planet will ever undermine its capacity to support human life.

So the projections present us with the optimistic presumption that in 2100 human life expectancy worldwide will average 82 years, up from 70 today — despite growing resource scarcity and temperature increases likely to have blasted through the 2-degrees-Celsius ceiling that climate scientists and governments have agreed is dangerous to exceed. Nigeria’s population is projected to quintuple from 184 million today to 914 million in 2100. The country’s development is already hobbled by violent conflict, government corruption, untreated waste, and rampant oil spills — not to mention an inequitable economic reliance on oil that is unlikely to keep gushing at current rates for 87 more years. It’s difficult to imagine Nigeria heading toward 1 billion human beings as the country’s less-than-abundant natural assets of renewable fresh water and arable land shrink by roughly 80 percent on a per-capita basis.


What If Experts Are Wrong
On World Population Growth?

What If Experts Are Wrong
On World Population Growth?
A central tenet of demography is that global population will peak at 9 to 10 billion this century and then gradually decline as poorer countries develop. But, as Carl Haub wrote in 2011, that assumption may be overly optimistic — and if it is, population will continue to rise, placing enormous strains on the environment.
Egypt and Ethiopia are rattling sabers even today over their common dependence on the waters of the Nile as Ethiopia harnesses its flow for hydropower. The countries will see their combined population more than double, from 176 million to 379 million. Jordan is already challenged to share its scarce water supply with an influx of Syrian refugees who have boosted its population of 7.3 million by 500,000. The native Jordanian population alone is projected to grow by that amount in just three years — and by 78 percent by 2100.

People in all these countries are innovative and resourceful. No doubt technological advances we can’t possibly imagine today will contribute to health and long life. Maybe we’ll soon make real progress in addressing climate change and water scarcity. But all those who believe that such large populations are likely to be living in these countries — with 82-year life expectancies no less — at the end of this environmentally challenged century, please raise your hands. The rest of us need to start taking the rights and potential of women, the importance of sex for its own sake, and the impact of human numbers on the environment a lot more seriously than we do today.

POSTED ON 24 Jun 2013 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Sustainability Urbanization Africa North America 


As usual from this writer, an outstanding and clear-sighted analysis.

The trouble is—on top of meeting the 3 huge challenges enumerated here—those who are concerned about population growth now need to fight all kinds of rear-guard actions against those who see falling birthrates and lower populations as an existential threat. The pseudo-crisis of "demographic winter" needs to be refuted vigorously ... and can be, with a bit of innovative thinking about how to reorganize intergenerational duties and how to pay for pensions and end-of-life care for the Baby Boomers who are now "aging out." Would love to hear Engelman's thoughts on that.

Posted by Dave Harmon on 24 Jun 2013

If "No end to global population growth is in sight," the claims of "resource scarcity", a lack of a "sustainable population", and "overpopulation" seem logically impossible. A population does not continue to grow if it cannot support itself. It sounds as if the author is trying to argue "something which only happen if something bad does not occur is actually happening therefore the bad thing which could not occur is actually happening." This logic is quite fallacious.

Posted by Brian P. Rabbit on 24 Jun 2013

An excellent article, but like so many discussions of population, it skirts round the elephant in the room, the un-namable fact. That the problem is not that too many people are being born. It's that in the last 100 years we (in massive numbers) largely stopped dying. What Engelman calls the "optimistic presumption that in 2100 human life expectancy worldwide will average 82 years" is not optimism. That's catastrophe. And of course, who can determine - with the focus on medical advances, health campaigns and tackling poverty - who is to live and who is to die.

Naming this central fact is such a taboo that it's scarcely in the global consciousness. Ultimately Gaia will do it for us, because this is something we simply cannot do ourselves. Hence the constant focus on controlling. A brilliant article, but an unsquarable circle.

Posted by Mark Brayne on 24 Jun 2013

A tragedy that didn't have to happen.

Birth rates have fallen in much of the world -- not just in 'developed' countries, but in, for example, most of Latin America and Asia as well. But our response to these successes has been to deemphasize support for family planning and engage in pointless, fatuous arguments about whether 'consumption or population' is responsible for the environmental degradation we see around us.

That is truly tragic. We may decry excessive consumption, but our efforts to curtail it have met with, shall we say, limited success. Family planning, by contrast, has a solid record of success. Virtually all readers of this article use or have used some form of contraception to limit the size of their families. It's a benefit of 20th century medicine which most of us could not imagine living without. It's a benefit that people in places as far flung as Thailand and Iran have embraced as eagerly as those of us in the 'developed' world. For all our cultural differences, people are people, and the ability to decide when and how many children we have is a benefit with universal appeal.

It's also essential to restoring the health of the planet. One of the great failures of the environmental movement over the past couple of decades is that it did not maintain its support for family planning.

Posted by John McConnaughy on 25 Jun 2013

It is sadly becoming clear that man is no different than any other species, procreating to the carrying capacity of his environment. We lack the ability to control this, so nature will have to eventually set limits like it does for all other species. As we have used technology to override natural limits, it will be an exceptionally steep correction. Not a pleasant prospect.

Posted by John Dyer on 25 Jun 2013

An excellent article by Mr. Engelman. And Mark Brayne's comment that "One of the great failures of the environmental movement over the past couple of decades is that it did not maintain its support for family planning" hits the nail on the head. Whether or not we think there are already too many people on the planet, the fact is the people are here now and they want and need access to voluntary family planning services.

We should be doing all we can to improve lives and protect the environment by promoting family planning, human rights, and rights of nature. And all sectors need to break out of silos and work together - environmentalists, reproductive rights, women's empowerment, and so on - if we are to truly change anything.


Posted by Suzanne on 25 Jun 2013

Malthus was 100 percent right, just 200 years early in the validity of his predictions, due to the magic and once-in-a-planet energy accrued over 150 millions years of fossil fuels.

Humans are no more capable of controlling our population growth than cockroaches.

We are wiley coyote, well over the cliff but refusing to look down. Eventually the ground will approach nonetheless -- and probably very fast the descent!

Hope for a plague that kills off 90 percent of us, more fair and just and less bloody than the hundreds of rwanda-like genocides that await humanity's refusal to acknowledge a planet of finite limits.

Posted by sas on 27 Jun 2013

A frequent Yale E360 contributor, Fred Pearce, has a rather less startling view. WorldWatch has not exactly set the world on fire with its accurate predictions. So I hope Yale E360's editors will try to enlist Pearce in the discussion of this article and the assumptions of the UN assessment it rests on.

Posted by maxdaddy on 27 Jun 2013

I, too, would welcome comment on the new UN populations projections from Fred Pearce. These new data do not seem to support his view, as I understand it, that there is no need for governments to take actions that slow population growth. Worldwatch does not make predictions, incidentally, and there are none I can find in this article. The data presented in it are from the United Nations, which is projecting rather than predicting the future of population.

Posted by Robert Engelman on 27 Jun 2013

It seems to me that the 0.8c of global warming we have experienced since Kyoto in 1995, has already begun to change our existence and our future. There have been so many extreme weather events in the past few years, that disasters are the norm on the daily news. When we blow through our 2c, as we surely will in the next decade or two, one can expect that the extreme weather will increase accordingly. From an earlier Yale Environment 360 article, I note that climate change has well and truly come to the horn of Africa, bringing people into conflict as they simply try to survive. With further global warming, we can expect our food supplies to be threatened by either drought or destructive weather and the people who will suffer the most, at least initially, will be the worlds poor. War, Famine and Death will stalk the land, but I can't see Conquest getting a jersey, because he hasn't been pulling his weight for quite a while. It's not going to be pretty, but we might actually be becoming our own environmental control. It's the collateral damage to other species in the mean time, that saddens me.

Posted by Steve Matthews on 29 Jun 2013

A sobering perspective indeed. Small correction, although it doesn't change the big picture. The fertility rate in Ethiopia has actually decreased from 5.4 in 2005 to 4.8 in 2011. Some good work is done in Ethiopia by providing a wider range of contraceptives through the 35,000 Health Extension Workers that the government has deployed in most regions of the country. If other countries adopt these policies, it will be more than a drop in the bucket of global demographic trends.

Posted by Nils Gade on 30 Jun 2013

A very educative article. FP has been discussed for many years but it is also true that many women who have not benefited from formal education have doubts about FP especially when the church opposes the use of contraceptives. In order to succeed in population management, there is need to promote FP as a benefit for the health of mother and child and not for population control. In addition, there is a relationship between womens education and FP . In our program, in Kenya, women with higher education coupled with higher income tend to have fewer children than women with no education/less income.

Posted by Jane Otai on 05 Jul 2013

The author states that "Nigeria’s population is projected to quintuple from 184 million today to 914 million in 2100". In fact the current population is 162m and the median 2100 estimate is 730m - still mind-boggling but quite a difference. The author is right to highlight the alarming upward revisions of fertility rates in subsaharan Africa. Still, global average fertility rate has been cut in half since 1950. In the less developed regions, they have declined from 6 to 2.7 after staying flat from 1950-70. In the least developed countries, TFR remained flat around 6.6 until 1985 and has since declined to 4.5. These significant changes show that the demographic transition is happening. Subsaharan Africa is the big outlier: TFR flat about 6.5 until 1990 and since then a very modest reduction to 5.4. Simplistically one could say that the region is following the same pattern but decades behind other regions.

As important as the fertility rate is population inertia. Asia and Latin America are expected to reach replacement fertility within one or two decades (Europe and North America are already there). But population inertia (http://www.slideshare.net/amenning/the-human-population-challenge) causes continued population growth for decades more.

Mark Brayne: "That the problem is not that too many people are being born. It's that in the last 100 years we (in massive numbers) largely stopped dying." But the countries with high life expectancy and low child mortality have the lowest growth rates!


Posted by Toni Menninger on 12 Jul 2013

In every other species of animal, nature sorts this kind of thing out. It's called a virus. Unfortunately for too long we have used vaccinations to not catch anything life-threatening. This is indeed a serious issue. Overcrowding is real, and humanity will grow to extremes with nowhere to go. Unfortunately someone in charge will have to handle this, and there is no solution that is going to let him be the good guy. I think the only viable way to handle this is the recall of all vaccines to viral ailments.
Posted by Robert Frayer on 29 Nov 2013

Really nice information.

Posted by pritika on 02 Dec 2013

An interesting article, if highly depressing, and equally interesting posts. As an environmentalist I particularly relate to John McConnaughy's statement that the environmental movement has failed in not advocating for population control, and Steve Matthews' comment that "It's the collateral damage to other species in the meantime that saddens me."

The fact is that whether population rates are growing, falling and/or there is an "inertia" effect, human population is currently at unsustainable levels for all humans to lead healthy, fulfilled lives, and certainly at unsustainable levels for many other forms of life to co-exist, either at all (extinction) or in viable populations.

The global human population will suffer massive losses from extreme weather, epidemics and conflict, but large numbers will remain despite huge suffering this is not true for many other species.

One other thing: organizations like International Planned Parenthood and national family planning organizations need to advertise more for donations — it is actually quite difficult to donate to them. No doubt this is due to the fact that even here in North America there is a conspiracy of silence on the subject of family planning. Canada, of course, wishes to grow its population in order to grow its economy, regardless of its effect on the supposedly pristine environment for which it is renowned.

We in developed countries have the biggest obligation to support family planning, sex education and women's autonomy, I totally agree with Robert Engelman. There will be immediate benefits to the individual families concerned, and the environmental benefits will follow.

Posted by Patsy Cotterill on 19 Mar 2014


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robert engelmanABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Engelman is president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. The Population Institute awarded his book, More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, the Global Media Award for Individual Reporting in 2008. A former newspaper reporter who covered science and politics, Engelman previously wrote for Yale e360 on the environmental impact of soaring populations and growing consumption.



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