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A global perspective that highlights the positive effects of family planning
Read in Ned | August 18, 2017
By Roberta Brown-Jones
“If a sustainable population for Earth turns out to be less than the 10+ billion we’re headed to, or even less than the 7 billion we already number, how do we design an economy for a shrinking population, and then for a stable one—meaning, an economy that can prosper without depending on constant growth?” (from Countdown p. 32)
With our current administration’s assault on, among other things, contraception and family planning, I decided to re-read a book on the effects of overpopulation, feeling it was a pertinent discussion to revisit. Alan Weisman’s 2013 book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? provides a well-researched, global perspective that highlights the positive effects that family planning has had on families and the environments they live in.
Weisman’s framework for thinking about overpopulation and its effects on our planet is based on four questions: 1) How many people can the land (and our planet) really hold? 2) Is there an acceptable, non-violent way to convince people across cultures and religions and political systems that it’s in their best interest to limit population growth? 3) How much ecosystem is required to maintain human life? and 4) What species or ecological processes are essential to our survival?
He applies these questions to various places on the planet, noting that technological optimism often leads people to believe in miraculous solutions. Even wildly successful methods for assuring the continuation of burgeoning human populations often end up killing off other species unintentionally. In solving one problem, we cause another.
Due to medical advances, life expectancies in many places have doubled. This, as well as larger populations giving birth, has allowed the power of exponential growth to expand the Earth’s population at what many believe, is an unsupportable pace. The increased numbers are even more detrimental to our environment given rampant increases in consumption. Because of this, many concerned scientists and leaders suggest that we should strongly encourage family planning, and even (more radically) mandate it. By doing this, they believe the population can be kept at a sustainable level, one that allows humans to both have a decent standard of living and the resources to support them and other species sharing the planet.
Weisman provides a wealth of statistics showing that when countries and their governments decide to support family planning, birth rates drop dramatically, sometimes from 8-10 children per family down to 2 or 3. One example of effective governmental support of family planning that surprised me was Iran. In the past, leaders there encouraged women to be fruitful in order to populate their military. This campaign was so successful that Iranian economists started to see the deleterious impact of the burgeoning population on the national budget. They convinced the Ayatollah that quickly reducing their population was necessary for Iran to provide services and education for their now huge population. So, the new marketing campaign, plastered on public squares and preached in prayer sessions, became “One is good. Two is enough.” Sending doctors out on horseback throughout the country, they offered free condoms, pills, and tubal ligation surgery to every woman who wanted them, without requiring their husband’s approval. Women often cited that one important benefit in reducing family size was that daughters would have more opportunities to become university educated. The program was voluntary and so successful that Iran received a United Nations Population Award. In stark contrast, the current U.S. government is undermining family planning efforts worldwide, making women have to travel farther away in order to find such services.
While much of Weisman’s reportage is dire, he also tries to demonstrate how bright, energetic leaders can often help to create innovative solutions, including educating and empowering women and providing more alternatives for both male and female contraception. Countdown is a book that should be read by all who wish to support sustaining a planet worth living on.
Roberta Brown-Jones is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.