In 2012, as the human population reached 7 billion, Robert Engelman, President of the Worldwatch Institute, advanced 9 strategies to halt global population growth. He suggested that humanity had to stop short of 9 billion to accomplish environmentally sustainable prosperity. Ten years later, we have added 800 million people, corresponding to an annual increase of 80 million, the size of the German population. It is time to assess what we have achieved on his points during this 10-year period, and suggest new ways forward.
by The Overpopulation Project
Further progress along the lines suggested by Engelman would significantly lower birth rates in future generations. Yet, these points should not be considered the gold-standard for population stabilization. While working toward them is desirable, both in terms of human rights and sustainability, some influence birth rates obliquely at best, while one of the most impactful actions, advocating for smaller families, is not explicitly discussed. The nine points should not be seen as a comprehensive proposal to achieve a smaller human population. Still, they cover a lot of what needs to be done. How have we fared ?
- Assure universal access to a range of safe and effective contraceptive options for both sexes
Evolving from a public health issue to one of human rights, access to contraceptive options has increased in many countries. In Europe, efforts were directed toward the youth with, for instance, France providing pills free of charge to anyone under 25 from 2022. Across Southern and Eastern Africa, the share of women accessing contraception services has increased by more than seven percentage points in ten years. Yet, the target of the project Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) to make contraceptive options available to an additional 120 million women and girls in the poorest regions of the world was not reached. Larger and coordinated family planning efforts are therefore needed. Moreover, Engelman forgets that access to contraception does not guarantee its actual use, especially in regions where strong patriarchal and religious norms oppose birth control. Nor does the use of contraception guarantee low fertility: Zimbabwe has achieved a contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) similar to Europe but its total fertility rate is still 3.6.
- Guarantee education through secondary school for all, with a particular focus on girls
As an important tool of empowerment, education can potentially provide young people with control over fertility. While the UN highlights major progress in the past decade, especially among girls, Covid-19 caused a dangerous setback 2020-2021. Before the pandemic, the share of youth out of school had declined from 26% in 2000 to 17% in 2018. Yet, only two thirds of youth are expected to complete upper secondary education by 2030. In high-fertility countries, education systems cannot keep pace with increasing numbers of children. In Latin America, the widespread and extended shutdown of schools as part of public health measures seriously hindered children’s access to education. In the developing world, some commentators argue that the rapid expansion of school enrolments has been at the expense of the quality of schooling. And while we should undeniably work toward education for all, this is not viable as the main solution to population growth. Reaching this objective may take much more time than we can afford, and there are more effective ways to reduce fertility across the world, such as directly promoting small families combined with clinics that offer advice on contraception. In turn, a smaller population could help achieve education for all: across regions and cultures, high educational attainment is associated with a smaller family size.
In Iraq, the Al-Haj Secondary School for Girls reopens after being closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Source: UN Development Programme
- Eradicate gender bias from law, economic opportunity, health, and culture
In 2022, gender bias remains, reinforces stigmas, and deprives women of full agency in private decisions such as parenthood. The extent to which this is true varies across the world but women are globally disadvantaged in many respects. First, in terms of economic opportunity, women are not only paid less but also more often informally employed. In addition, women tend to carry a large share of the domestic care burden, an unrecognized but time-consuming activity. Second, because of their lower social status, women are more likely to face health issues and less likely to access health services. As a result of the imbalance, many women are pushed to traditional roles, often linked to motherhood, and cannot truly make choices about their fates. Engelman’s suggestion to eradicate gender bias in order to reduce fertility is well motivated, though progress seems slow. Empowering women is a necessary part of the agenda to stop population growth, and must be planned in effective steps such as the restriction of child marriage.
- Offer age-appropriate sexuality education for all students
While sex education has become a UN policy goal under the SDG Quality Education, this is still not much reflected on the ground. Often, pressure from parents and local communities severely hinders the ability of schools to deliver effective programs. Due to the lack of teachers’ training, too many students are provided with false information: in Kenya for instance, almost two thirds of students were taught that condoms alone cannot prevent pregnancy. Poor knowledge and misconception about contraceptives are common in Nigeria. In El Salvador, where sex education is not mandatory, the rates of teen pregnancies are the highest on the continent. In contrast, Cuba tackled teen pregnancies as well as HIV infections through sex education. In Europe, while programs are well-implemented and often cross-curricular, education fails to address gender issues in sexuality. For most of the world, sex-education comes too late if at all, and often after unplanned pregnancy. Consequently, more action and monitoring are needed. Beside general policies (e.g., SDGs), the quality of sex education programs must be evaluated.
- End all policies that reward parents financially based on the number of their children
In 2022, child allowances remain popular, particularly in developed regions: 34 out of 35 OECD countries have implemented one or more family benefit policies. In total, government child support is provided in 108 countries across the world, and while it can help prevent child poverty, some measures foster higher conception rates. In many cases, these benefits are provided deliberately to increase fertility. In 2021, Poland explicitly designed a generous scheme to reward fertility, attempting to increase birth rates in the country. Yet since 2012, we are witnessing a shift: about half of OECD countries only provide support to parents whose income falls below a certain threshold, or to single parents. In 2013, the UK launched a child benefit program targeting low- and middle-income families, replacing a universal one. Today, as opposed to Engelman, supporters of population degrowth often argue for limitation rather than the end of family support. Due to their effectiveness against poverty, child benefits should still be implemented, but only up to two children. Moreover, we must consider contexts: in India, due to the high costs of dowry, girl child support is a tactical measure against infanticide and child labor. But low fertility is also tactical as, in the longer term, small families help break down these cultural devaluations of the girl-child.
- Integrate teaching about population, environment, and development relationships into school curricula at multiple levels
In environmental education, the imbalance between local and national authorities often leads to ineffectiveness. In the US, the No Child Left Inside Act has not been passed, so states’ efforts to provide environmental education lack federal financial support. In Brazil, environmental awareness is taught as a result of proactive teachers’ initiatives rather than governmental plans, which creates national disparities. In contrast, in India, national education programs are inflexible and cannot be adapted by teachers to include local environmental conditions and issues.
As for population issues, Wynes and Nicholas found that the relevance of low fertility is rarely mentioned in environmental education materials. The authors report an ineffective focus on low-impact individual measures such as hang-drying clothing, rather than effective ones such as having fewer children. Population education is critical everywhere, regardless of societies’ fertility or consumption rates. Given opportunities, university students for instance easily comprehend how population growth threatens wildlife.
- Put prices on environmental costs and impacts
From a carbon tax to subsidies for green products, measures aim to incentivize sustainable behaviors and collect revenues for necessary public spending. However, in the European Union, environmental taxes only account for 5.9% of all taxes and this share has been decreasing. Today, most taxes are paid by households rather than businesses. On one hand, taxation shows households that every individual, and every additional child, has an environmental cost, starting with energy consumption. On the other hand, it may reinforce inequalities as the poorest are more affected by increases in e.g. energy taxes in systems without revenue returns. In developing countries, the lack of administrative capacities to support a tax regime makes this point unlikely to occur very soon. Yet, Ghana has shown that investing in administration pays back: through taxes on plastics, older vehicles, and petroleum, environmental damages significantly decreased over the last decade and part of the revenue was spent on sustainable environmental projects. But Engelman’s seventh point and incentives to lower consumption only marginally relate to fertility decline. In order to achieve sustainability, we must simultaneously reduce population growth and consumption.
- Adjust to population aging rather than trying to delay it through governmental incentives or programs aimed at boosting childbearing
Governments of many low-fertility countries try to delay population aging by boosting their population growth through financial incentives and other promotional campaigns encouraging childbearing. These measures send mixed messages to governments of high-fertility countries, encouraging them to value their youthful age profile and dissuading them from providing family planning. Instead of decrying a “birth dearth”, countries should celebrate the benefits of depopulation and implement measures to decrease the pressure on welfare systems that an aging population represents. Notably, minimum ages for pension eligibility are slowly increasing over the years: for the youth, normal retirement ages will be higher than today in 18 out of 35 OECD countries. This helps deal with population aging in two ways. First, contributions are not declining too fast, as workers fund pension systems through taxes for more years. Second, there are less retired citizens eligible for pensions and thus less public spending on retirement. Yet those adjustments must be part of a coherent framework of measures to succeed. Above all, citizens must learn about the positive environmental and economic effects of depopulation. These include decreased resource use and pollution, larger inheritance shares, and increased employment opportunities for groups previously overlooked by employers.
Elderly man in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Source: World Bank
- Convince leaders to commit to ending population growth through the exercise of human rights and human development
Around the world, political leaders refuse to commit to ending population growth for two reasons. First, an unfounded assumption that the workforce will shrink in proportion to the working-age population leads to fear of economic setbacks. This is misguided, as no population can grow forever. Second, a desire to increase national power. This is also misguided, since conflict and war now depend less on numbers of soldiers and more on weapons and technology.
Despite these obstacles, the last decade has seen important developments in awareness of population growth issues. The work of organizations like TOP, Population Matters, Stable Planet Alliance and others are helping make the matter a priority. Through scientific research papers, academia is increasingly reached. Through simple graphs and articles, demographic challenges are popularized to welcome everyone to the discussion. Through letters to members of parliaments, the network Population Matters Sweden for instance plans to engage with politicians, to raise the issue on the national agenda. In sum, while there is little action on the political side, awareness work is expanding in many countries and reaches important audiences.
As argued throughout this blog post, ten years ago, Engelman presented an agenda to end population growth which relied on broad, and sometimes unrealistic goals. Progress has been made in some areas but must be accelerated to provide hope for the creation of sustainable societies. For a more detailed and comprehensive specification of measures to stop short of 9 Billion, see TOP’s proposed solutions to end global population growth.
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