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Assessing the Evidence: Family Planning as a Contributor to Environmental Sustainability

“There are truly global-scale environmental challenges, and they need to be dealt with by thinking of solutions at the same scale,” said Thomas Lovejoy, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, at the Wilson Center on June 29. The interaction between human population and environmental degradation is one of these challenges.

Date & Time

Jun. 29, 2016
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET
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“There are truly global-scale environmental challenges, and they need to be dealt with by thinking of solutions at the same scale,” said Thomas Lovejoy, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, at the Wilson Center on June 29. The interaction between human population and environmental degradation is one of these challenges.

But in fact, there is a worrying tendency to avoid discussions on population and how access to family planning affects the environment, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability: Assessing the Science.

“There is a certain sort of wisdom that people seem to see that family planning is valuable…because they can see directly that it is helping to relieve the pressure that is otherwise growing on natural resources,” said Bob Engelman, senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and lead author of the report. But taboos around reproductive health and an honest fear of forcing fertility decisions on others make academic discussions about population and the environment difficult. As a result, rigorous research on the interactions between family planning, population growth, and the environment is rare.

Two years ago, Engelman set out to challenge the hesitation to address population-environment dynamics by doing a systematic evaluation of all peer-reviewed research on how rights-based approaches to family planning relate to environmental issues, including climate change adaptation and mitigation, water and food security, and biodiversity. The hope was to highlight good existing work and encourage more on what Engelman called a “wicked problem.”

A Comprehensive Accounting

The Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment, or FPESA, enlisted 25 researchers from around the world to review more than 900 articles deemed potentially relevant to population and environmental change. Of these, they identified 414 for closer analysis, which were slowly whittled down to 50 for full assessment and annotation. They could not find one that directly tested the hypothesis that family planning is beneficial to the environment.

The lack of data is not indicative of a bad hypothesis per se, said Engelman, but rather, due to a missing “sub-discipline that looks at family planning as something that might help the environment.” In other words, people aren’t even asking the question, making it difficult to prove right or wrong. “There wasn’t a paper that, for example, even hypothesized, let alone demonstrated, that family planning was harmful to the environment or that it was irrelevant.”

“Rights are the basis, and in fact the only basis, through which family planning could be beneficial”

FPESA did find quality research on how population dynamics impact greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, biodiversity, and water quality; how women, when they are able to dedicate less time to child rearing, contribute more to environmental sustainability; and how lower fertility rates improve food security, women and girl’s access to economic opportunities, and school attendance.

The FPESA report approaches family planning from a distinctly rights-based approach. Engelman noted that “sexual and reproductive health and rights are the basis, and in fact the only basis, through which family planning could be beneficial.”

“Even though there is not an ironclad case that could convince everyone…that family planning is an absolutely critical investment for environmental sustainability,” Engelman said, “there is abundant support for that idea and very, very little refuting it.”  

While the FPESA report does not include work that hasn’t been peer reviewed, Engelman emphasized the valuable research in “grey literature,” including much on integrated approaches to family planning and sustainability, like population, health, and environment projects. “Peer review is limiting,” he acknowledged, noting that non-peer reviewed analyses repeatedly found that “integrated projects did better than projects that were either just family planning or just marine conservation,” for example. Expanding their screen to include non-peer reviewed studies was not feasible in this case but could be done in a future report.

All Data, Too Little Heart?

If there is, as Engelman says, “a certain ‘duh’ factor” in considering the relationship between population, family planning, and environmental sustainability, then Cat Lazaroff, the managing program director of Resource Media, wants to explore how people can be motivated to take action.

Resource Media is a mission-based communications firm that seeks to improve the health of people and the environment through storytelling. Lazaroff acknowledged the importance of building up the scientific evidence base but said there’s also a moral argument that resonates more with many people: family planning can change people’s lives in profound ways.

“Data alone about the facts between family planning and the environment can miss the point,” Lazaroff said. “The parts of the brain that are activated when you ask people to make decisions are the emotional parts of the brain.” She said stories and pictures can lead people to the data so there is a fuller, more complete understanding of the situation that encourages informed action and decision-making.

Engelman agreed on the importance of story, and said “the plural to anecdote is data.” A purely story-based approach can be dangerous, Engelman said, leading people to make decisions due to emotions and without facts or logic. Data is the key to gaining research funding and getting more scientists working in related spaces to consider population dynamics, but story is critical in getting people to care about those results. “We are called in our moment in history to work on this issue and I’m hoping this report will demonstrate the scientific basis that will enable us to see that it makes sense to do that.”

A “Wicked Problem”

Understanding the interaction between access to family planning, population, and the environment is especially crucial now as human impact on the environment soars, Engelman said. “It is important and it’s incredible that at this time, when environmental problems are as urgent as they are, when we have something that in all probability does make a contribution through benefiting individuals in enabling them to realize their own reproductive intentions, that it then has benefits that ripple out for the good of all humanity and indeed for the planet.”

“The parts of the brain that are activated when you ask people to make decisions are the emotional parts of the brain”

Nonetheless, Engelman called the connections between population and environmental sustainability a problem that is not necessarily “fixable.” Women should alwayshave the right to plan their families however they wish and, to a certain extent, the environmental effects of current population growth are unavoidable. It “may not be a problem we can solve, but this is a predicament that we can respond to,” he said, in part by meeting existing unmet need for family planning and working to reduce the effects of consumption.

Feeding into the complexity, Alaka Basu, a senior fellow at the UN Foundation, noted new dimensions to population and environment connections that are little understood and require more research, like how some situations might incentivize people to have more children. “As environments get more fragile and more vulnerable with population pressures, it is precisely higher fertility that might be a coping or resilience strategy, especially in the absence of other forms of security and insurance,” she said.

She pointed to the recent spike in farmer suicides in India caused by drought. “The ones who seem to be better able to cope with this calamity are the women who actually have this diversified portfolio of sons who can be sent to the city to work, of daughters who can help in other ways.” Smaller families may not be able to adapt in the same way.

Simply providing families with access to family planning is not enough to stop the destruction of the natural world, Basu said. “We need to do this with two other things in mind: one is promoting the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity,’” of providing material needs as simply as possible without the high levels of consumption seen in developed countries. And secondly, “providing basic social security and risk insurance to the families who are going to suffer from the impact of population pressure on the environment.”

The large unmet need for family planning around the world should not be seen as a failure, but rather as a “sign of success,” Basu added. “We have created an unmet need…The next step is to meet the need.”

Event Resources:

Written by Cara Thuringer, edited by Schuyler Null and Roger-Mark De Souza.

Cover Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Safe Motherhood Program/UK Department for International Development.

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Brazil Institute

The Brazil Institute—the only country-specific policy institution focused on Brazil in Washington—works to foster understanding of Brazil’s complex reality and to support more consequential relations between Brazilian and US institutions in all sectors. The Brazil Institute plays this role by producing independent research and programs that bridge the gap between scholarship and policy, and by serving as a crossroads for leading policymakers, scholars and private sector representatives who are committed to addressing Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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