Family planning: An important and largely ignored environmental response

Conservationists understand that the growth of human populations is a major factor affecting, and often confounding, their efforts. A sense of fatalism can accompany this awareness, leaving conservationists to wonder what legacy they realistically can leave to future generations and nature itself as human activities continue to expand and intensify. Family planning is a powerful and positive way to respond to this demographic reality, an approach that carries with it better health for families and communities and a critical contribution to better lives and more autonomy for women. Because most of those who work in reproductive health and demography do not actively engage with those who work in conservation, environmentalists might now know that:

  • Seemingly small reductions in fertility (the average number of children born to women) over time lead to massive reductions in the pace of population growth and therefore the size of future populations.
  • Current estimates of unintended pregnancy around the world suggest that hundreds of millions of women would have fewer children and/or would begin motherhood later in their lives if they faced no barriers to their right to use safe and effective modern contraceptive methods.
  • Removing these barriers—from lack of physical access to social disapproval—is a force for environmental conservation that too few in the conservation field currently recognise or harness.
  • Future population growth is uncertain and highly sensitive to small changes in the average number of children per mother. The most widely used United Nations’ projection is that population will grow from today’s 7.7 billion people to 9.8 billion by 2050. If access to family planning services increased, so the average number of children per mother was just 0.5 lower than the UN projection, global population would peak at 8.8 billion in 2050, not 9.8 billion, and gradually decline to 7.3 billion, less than today’s population, by 2100.
  • This is all possible, by enabling the exercise of a well-recognised human right, that people should be able to decide for themselves, whether, when, how often and with whom to bring children into the world.

Family planning is not a panacea for all environmental challenges. But there are many areas where population growth resulting from barriers to family planning is a major direct environmental issue. There is no doubt that in such areas better access to a wider availability of modern contraception can ease that issue. This is less straightforward than a campaign against single-use plastic or overconsumption, but often family planning provision is the most important way to respond to conservation challenges, especially over the long term. The enormous contribution that the development of modern methods of contraception (starting in the 1960s) has made to conservation, is in fact one of the least often recognised or expressed of its many contributions to a better world. Conservation of biodiversity and barrier-free access for all to contraceptive counselling and services are mutually reinforcing elements of environmental sustainability.

Removing Barriers to Family Planning, Empowering Sustainable Environmental Conservation

The Trust’s paper “Removing Barriers to Family Planning, Empowering Sustainable Environmental Conservation: A Background Paper and Call for Action” summarises why removing barriers to family planning is critical for women’s and girls’ health and empowerment, and sustainable environmental conservation.