Category Archives: Women’s Rights

The NSA, Planned Parenthood and Your Right to Privacy by Steven Conn

A crucial Constitutional conundrum: Is there a "right to privacy?"

A crucial Constitutional conundrum: Is there a “right to privacy?”

Not a week seems to go by without more revelations about how the NSA (or recently the UK’s GCHQ) monitors our electronic communications. Who knew that all the time I waste watching old movie clips on YouTube was so interesting to the guardians of our national security.

And not a week goes by it seems without some state legislature in some Republican-controlled state considering yet another bill to intrude on and harass women who need to get abortions. Indeed, to judge by the sheer number of such bills since 2011 you might conclude that women’s pregnancies constitute the biggest problem that the nation faces. There is apparently no need to regulate the financial industry, or toxic chemicals that spill into rivers or the shale drilling business, whose rail cars keep blowing up—those things will sort themselves out. But pregnant women gone wild … they’re the ones the state needs to restrict.

On the face of it these two phenomena don’t have much in common with each other. But they are, in fact, connected by a crucial Constitutional conundrum: Is there a “right to privacy?”

The privacy question has come up mostly in our discussions of the NSA and the new digital world we all inhabit. Beyond the problem of whether our surveillance laws, written during the age of rotary phones, are hopelessly outdated, we have discussed what kind of privacy any of us can now expect when virtually everything we do (or is that everything we virtually do?) leaves an electronic footprint.

But privacy, at least as a legal matter, is also at the center of the debate over abortion and family planning more broadly.

In the 1965 case “Griswold v. Connecticut” which overturned that state’s ban on the sale of contraceptives, the Supreme Court found that there was a basic right to privacy in the “penumbras” of the Constitution. Those “penumbras” included the 9th amendment’s language that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and in the definition of personal liberty found in the 14th amendment.

That legal reasoning became the basis for the Court’s series of reproductive freedom decisions culminating in “Roe v. Wade” in 1973. It’s worth remembering that Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the Court’s majority opinion, had once served as legal counsel for the Mayo Clinic. For him, the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship was a paramount concern and he did not want states to interfere with that relationship.

Since those decisions, the so-called “Originalists”—those legal thinkers who believe the Constitution should only be read according to what the writers originally intended—have been howling. And they are, strictly speaking, right. There is no specific right to privacy in the Constitution—not like there is for speech and religious worship. If the right isn’t there in the text, so the Originalist reasoning goes, and if Congress has not passed a law defining such a right, then you don’t have it.

It is reasonable to assume that the founders never articulated this right, because it never occurred to them that it was necessary. They had a much more rigid separation between the “private” and the “public” than we do now, and they were primarily interested in defining the rules of the public realm. The Supreme Court in the 1960s and ’70s found a right to privacy in these contraception cases and in those penumbras, therefore, because they believed that by forcing itself into people’s bedrooms and doctor’s offices the state was violating a principle we had all simply taken for granted: we are entitled to privacy.

This issue might be easily resolved were we to add a” right to privacy” amendment to the Constitution, and there have been a handful of desultory attempts in that direction over the years. They haven’t amounted to much, nor are they likely to go anywhere precisely because of the abortion issue. Anti-abortion activists know full well that as soon as we all have a clear Constitutional guarantee of privacy, their ability to meddle in our private lives will evaporate.

The contested nature of our privacy rights presents a dilemma for those of us who want the NSA to stop eavesdropping on our cell phone calls too. If conservative judges are successful in eroding the right to privacy by allowing any number of humiliating restrictions on women trying to get abortions (of the sort issuing forth in red states right now), then it will be tougher for the rest of us to argue that our internet searches should be protected from government surveillance.

The revelations about the extent of NSA snooping have put the issue of our privacy on the front page. Those of us who care about reproductive rights have a political opportunity in this. For a generation the reproductive freedom movement has cast the issue as a matter of “choice.” That language resonates with our democratic ethos and our consumer culture. “Choice” is an American birthright, and so it should be.

But perhaps now feminists should start emphasizing the language of “privacy” more than we have in the past. In so doing, we can find common cause with those who want to defend our privacy in the electronic world as well. After all, the choices we make about our reproduction can only mean anything if they are made in the privacy of our bedrooms and doctors’ offices. Before we can protect choice, we need to defend privacy.

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-conn/the-nsa-planned-parenthoo_b_4886630.html

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Ghana: Health Minister Calls for Teaching of Family Planning in All Schools

Madam Sherry Ayitey, Minister of Health for Ghana.

Madam Sherry Ayitey, Minister of Health for Ghana.

The Minister of Health, Madam Sherry Ayitey has stressed the need for the Ghana Education Service (GES) to introduce the teaching of family planning in schools to enable the adolescent to know much about their reproductive health.

According to her, the reported huge numbers of teenage pregnancy occurred as a result of lack of knowledge about the importance of family planning among the youth and that the teaching of the subject would help reduce the stigma associated with health education in the society.

Madam Ayitey, who was speaking at the National launch of the 2013 National Family Planning Week celebration in Ho, observed that the time had come for education on family planning to be regarded as a major development issue, because high population rate in the country would definitely have negative effect on national development.

She stressed that the theme for the Family Planning Week, “Your Future, Your Choice and Your Contraceptive” was timely, noting that the issues of girls’ education ought to be regarded more seriously, particularly when large numbers of abortion and maternal deaths are teenagers in the country.

Madam Ayitey said the teaching of family planning in schools ought to be seen as very important because it would go a long way to equip the youth particularly teenage girls to make an informed decisions concerning sex.

The Health Minister continued that traditional authorities and religious leaders should regularly invite expects in family planning in their communities regularly to educate the people on the need to produce the number of children that they could take care of.

According to her, in the world’s poorest countries, contraceptive health and family planning for adolescents have become a taboo, and in many parts of sub-sahara Africa, the issues of family planning and adolescents’ sexual health have been completely ignored, leading to pregnancy and childbirth complications

Madam Ayitey noted that there were still large numbers of the youth who did not gain admission to either Colleges of Education or the universities because of the large population rates, as well as the huge numbers of unemployed youth who completed school or dropped out of school due to early pregnancy.

She said the adherence to family planning education would go a long way to help in dealing with major development problems as reduced population would ensure effective development adding that her outfit would in future include other maternal health issues to the National Health Insurance Scheme to deal with reproductive health that would reduce maternal death.

The Director of the Ghana Health Services, Dr. Ebenezer Appiah Denkyirah said a number of activities had been lined up throughout the country to create the needed awareness about family planning and reproductive health and urged Ghanaians to visit health facilities anytime to be provided with the best family planning that would suit their needs.

Dr. Appiah Denkyirah emphasized that family planning helps to control population growth as well as protect people from contracting sexually transmitted diseases which should not be seen as the preserve for only women and asked men to actively participate in family planning activities with their wives to ensure a healthy family and society.

The Deputy Volta Regional Director in Charge of Public Health, Dr. Winfred Ofosu said family planning would help the nation to grow its population in a sustainable manner as a household, a community and a country in accordance with the resources of the nation.

The Volta Regional Minister, Joseph Nii Laryear Afortey Agbo, noted that family planning had become increasingly important, cost-effective and high yielding intervention that exists in the world.

Source: http://allafrica.com/stories/201402102023.html

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Book review: Life On The Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

If you look around the United States, even in the overcrowded, overpacked and gridlocked cities of America—you won’t hear conversations about overpopulation. Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and more cities feature enormous brown clouds blanketing their cities with an airborne toxic soup that every citizen breathes with every breath. Brian Williams reports on the horrific traffic jams on the East Coast, but he won’t mention the overpopulation factor causing them. Same with Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley, Wolf Blitzer, Megyn Kelley, Robert Siegel and all the top anchors on all the media reports!

They convey that none of us should question unending growth. It’s like a 450 pound fat man on “Biggest Losers” TV show who can barely walk, knows he’s going to die of a heart attack—but he decides to follow the American mantra of “Sustainable Growth” and keeps shoving Big Macs with double cheese, French fries and a Big Gulp down his gullet until he reaches 550 pounds and beyond.

Both his path and the United States’ path can only end up in the same condition: human misery, suffering and ultimately collapse. But in the case of human overpopulation around the planet, we humans destroy millions of other creatures along the way to our own destruction.

In Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation by Professor Philip Cafaro of Colorado State University and Professor Eileen Crist of Virginia Tech, we find top authors and scientists attempting to alert humanity to its impending future viability on this planet.

In Chapter 4, Martha Campbell asks, “Why the silence on overpopulation?”

“By 2050, human population is projected to reach as high as 10.5 billion,” said Campbell. “Uganda is projected to grow from 33.8 million to 91.3 million. Niger from 16 million to 58 million, and Afghanistan from 29 million to 73 million.”

That’s not all the growth! India adds 11 million net gain annually to its 1.2 billion (in 2012), while China adds another 8 million net gain annually. Both countries expect to explode to about 1.6 billion. If you have watched NBC lately, Brian Williams reported on the air pollution cover Shanghai and Beijing. He hasn’t covered the water pollution, but the Ganges and the Yangzi Rivers feature open sewer pipes that turn into 20,000 square mile dead zones at their mouths. How do I know? I sailed on both rivers and the water-plastic-debris-trash-human waste made me sick to my stomach.

"OverLoaded Train" in India, more and more people are crammed into the same space, trying to live, breathe, grow food, find jobs and enjoy 'quality of life'.  In a country of 1.26 billion people (and still growing rapidly!) is there any room for tigers or elephants or other creatures?  Photo from churchandstate.org.uk

“OverLoaded Train” in India, more and more people are crammed into the same space, trying to live, breathe, grow food, find jobs and enjoy ‘quality of life’. In a country of 1.26 billion people (and still growing rapidly!) is there any room for tigers or elephants or other creatures? Photo from churchandstate.org.uk

At 82 million, Egypt, a country that cannot feed itself in 2013 and relies on grain imports, expects to hit 150 million by mid century. Do we need to guess their fate?

“In 1900, Ethiopia had 5 million, in 1950 it had 18.4 million, in 2010 it had 85 million and is projected to reach 173 million by 2050,” said Campbell. “Their rapid population growth figures in the decimation of nearly all of Ethiopia’s forests and consequently climate change.”

On a personal note, I researched to find that Africa houses nearly 1 billion people in 2013, but expects to reach 3.1 billion within 90 years. Can you imagine every human scavenging every last creature on this beautiful continent for food? Nothing will be left of all those wonderful creatures. In 1900, Africa sported 12 million elephants. Today, 475,000 remain and their numbers are dwindling fast due to poachers.

Campbell calls the subject of population “delicate” because it involves sex, cultures, religions and serves inequities around the world. Such religions as Islam, the Catholic Church, and many others don’t take kindly to birth control.

Campbell discusses the six reasons for the population “Perfect Storm” facing all life on this planet, especially humans causing it.

  1. While birth rates fall, the sheer number of humans causes growth, due to ‘population momentum’.  Right now that momentum adds about 1 billion people every 12-13 years.
  2. Overconsumption of water, resources, animal life, arable land and resource exhaustion accelerate with the population momentum.
  3. Anti-abortion activists, religious leaders and conservative think tanks have intentionally reduced attention to population growth.
  4. Many folks think that disease like AIDS have stopped population growth. Not so!
  5. Even after the Cairo population conference and the Rio debates, there is still not enough financing of family planning programs on a global level. Cultural and religious practices still dominate women in too many places.
  6. The dominant “endless growth” paradigms of countries like Canada, America, Australia and even Europe—maintain a death grip on any discussion of overpopulation.
"Garbage Family"  Despite China's rapid economic growth and strict no-migration laws, there remains a marked disparity between the country's wealthy and the poor. This family, originally from Guizhou Province (far-western China) moved to the rich Delta Yangtze River coast in search of a better life. They currently work in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any re-sellable items.  In a country of 1.35 billion people (and still growing!) -- is there any room for Pandas or any other wildlife?  Photo and commentary by Sheilaz314/Flickr/cc

“Garbage Family” Despite China’s rapid economic growth and strict no-migration laws, there remains a marked disparity between the country’s wealthy and the poor. This family, originally from Guizhou Province (far-western China) moved to the rich Delta Yangtze River coast in search of a better life. They currently work in a Jiangsu landfill, sifting through garbage in search of any re-sellable items. In a country of 1.35 billion people (and still growing!) — is there any room for Pandas or any other wildlife? Photo and commentary by Sheilaz314/Flickr/cc

Campbell said, “Use of family planning prevents death from unintended pregnancies and from induced abortions. Children from smaller families are more likely to enter and stay in school.”

This chapter brings home the enormity of the power of cultures and churches and corporations to squash the population discussion. It shows that cultures and beliefs trump and override reason, empirical evidence, common sense and logical action.

Thus, 10 million children and 8 million adults die of starvation and starvation related conditions every year around the globe. Another 18 million stand in the doorway of death in 2013. All life on the brink?  If we do nothing about overpopulation, iit’s only a matter of time.

Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents—from the Arctic to the South Pole—as well as eight times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. He presents “The Coming Population Crisis facing America: what to do about it” at <www.frostywooldridge.com>.  His latest book is: How to Live a Life of Adventure: The Art of Exploring the World, copies at 1-888-280-7715.

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Respect Women’s Choices by Dr Richard Grossman

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter

“What does a woman want?” ~ Sigmund Freud

Freud’s question obviously has many answers. Some women are happy with their role as wife and mother, the picture that some men still have of “the perfect woman”.

My mother, who was born in 1903, decided her future when she was just eight. She told me that she asked her third grade teacher what they had just read. “That is a story” was the teacher’s reply.

“No, what is it called when you study all sorts of stories?”

“That’s called ‘literature’.”

“When I grow up, I want to teach literature”. And she did for almost 40 years in the Philadelphia Public Schools.

She graduated from high school at 16. Her father believed that the woman’s place was in the home, so disapproved of higher education for my mother. Nevertheless, she went through teacher training with no support from her family. She had to be top in her class to receive one of only two scholarships. At age 18 she was teaching a class of 40 fourth graders.

During the past century a woman’s role in US society has changed drastically. For instance, when I entered medical school in 1965 there were only six women in my class of 125. Now there are equal numbers of men and women in medical schools. My specialty, OB-GYN, used to be ruled by men but now women make up the preponderance.

More important, women increasingly take leadership roles. Whereas males used to preside over politics, we’re seeing more and more women in Denver and Washington. Many captains of industry and of education are now women. Indeed, it was Dr. Dene Thomas, the first female president of Fort Lewis College, who inspired this column.

In our country the movement for women’s suffrage started in the late 19th century. Colorado was early in recognizing a woman’s right to vote—in 1893! This movement ended in 1920 with passage of the 19th Amendment to our Constitution. It reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Unfortunately there are still people who think that a woman’s place is at home, and women must be subservient to men. Some candidates in the last election came up with some really stupid statements.

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” As a specialist in reproductive health, I am not sure what “that whole thing” refers to, but I suspect that Mr. Todd Akin was referring to a woman’s ability to conceive.

Thirty years ago I investigated a statement in the antiabortion literature. Antiabortion people maintained that women don’t get pregnant from rape. I tracked down this untruth to a statement that 200 women who had been raped were followed and none of them conceived. The man who started this falsehood admitted to me that it had no basis in reality. The reality is that rape often leads to pregnancy.

This fall another Republican candidate, Richard Mourdock, said: “When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Was he implying that God intended the rape to happen?

Todd and Murdoch disagree whether rape can result in pregnancy. I cannot agree with either of their attitudes toward women. Neither could 55 % of female voters, according to exit polls at the November election, since a large majority of women voted for Democratic candidates. How could Romney and Ryan tolerate to be associated with these clowns?

Fortunately President Obama has recognized the importance of contraception to America’s women. Starting in 2012 all insurance plans must pay for any birth control without copayment. This mandate has the great promise of decreasing our atrociously high rate of unplanned pregnancies, and of slowing growth of our population.

Why do women value family planning services? They say that access to contraception allows them to take better care of themselves and of their families, helps them support themselves financially, and permits them to complete their education and to be employable. This information is from a recent survey of over 2000 women using family planning clinics across the country.

Barak Obama has just been inaugurated for his second term of office. His popularity confirms that people want a change from archaic concepts of the role of women. We want healthcare for all, freedom to access contraception and, when necessary, safe abortion services.

Source: © Richard Grossman MD, January 2013. First appeared in the Durango (Colorado) Herald. Reprinted with permission.

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UK Parliamentarians Call for Action to Protect 10 Million Girls from the Abuse of Child Marriage

Portrait of Mohammed Fazal, 45, with his two wives (L-R) Majabin, 13, and Zalayha, 29 in the village on the outskirts of Mazar Al Sharif. Fazal was offered Majabin as a debt settlement when a fellow farmer could not pay after a night of playing cards. They have been married for six months.

Portrait of Mohammed Fazal, 45, with his two wives (L-R) Majabin, 13, and Zalayha, 29 in the village on the outskirts of Mazar Al Sharif. Fazal was offered Majabin as a debt settlement when a fellow farmer could not pay after a night of playing cards. They have been married for six months.

Every year, 10 million girls around the world are married while they are still children. With a rising global population, numbers of child brides are predicted by United Nations experts to increase to 14 million per year in the next decade. Following a hearing into child marriage, a cross-party group of UK parliamentarians are calling for governments here and abroad to take urgent action to protect girls from the consequences of being married and becoming mothers while they are still children themselves.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (the Group) is calling on the government to tackle child marriage on two fronts. In the UK, this includes a recommendation to implement statutory guidance on forced marriage, training for professionals, inclusion of consent in marriage and sexual relations in the personal, social and health education (PSHE) curriculum, compulsory registration of all religious marriages and an increase in the minimum legal age for marriage to 18. They are also encouraging the Department for International Development (DFID) to conduct research into the prevalence and practice of child marriage, to evaluate existing interventions to ensure that UK aid is spent effectively and to scale up programmes to prevent child marriage and support survivors. In particular, they would like to see British aid being spent to meet the needs for family planning, sexual, reproductive and maternal healthcare of girls and women of all ages and whatever their marital status.

Baroness Jenny Tonge, Chair of the Group and the hearing, said,

‘Every three seconds, a girl is coerced or forced into marriage, losing her childhood, her dreams and the opportunity to make her own choices about her life and relationships. This is not just bad news for the girls themselves, it also means that too many children are born into a world that is already overpopulated and half of the productive population of a developing country cannot participate fully in their societies because they are uneducated and unable to contribute to the workforce. Countries where girls are educated, marry later and have fewer children show higher economic growth and a better standard of living for all.’

Child marriages are driven by poverty, gender inequality and harmful traditional practices. In the developing world, a lack of access to education is both a symptom and a cause of child marriage. Child brides are generally expected to bear children from an early age, leading to a prolonged period of reproduction and larger numbers of children, yet adolescent girls are twice as likely as women in their twenties to die in childbirth. Some don’t even make it that far. Gauri van Gulik of Human Rights Watch told the hearing about Elham Mahdi al Assi, a thirteen-year-old girl in Yemen who died just days after her marriage to a man in his twenties in a ‘swap marriage’ exchange in which her brother also married her groom’s sister. She died from internal bleeding as a consequence of her husband raping her. Delaying marriage saves lives as well as giving girls and women equal opportunities to boys and men.

In most cases, laws and international conventions are in place to protect children from being forced into marriage. Yet, time and again governments fail to implement these protections. Evidence shows that British girls are being taken out of the country to be married against their will and here in the UK, families are getting children married off in ‘community’ or religious ceremonies or by taking advantage of the fact that the law in Britain allows the marriage of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds with parental consent.

The British government recently announced plans to criminalise forced marriage. Nearly 30% of the calls received by the UK Forced Marriage Unit helpline this year related to minors, so implementing this change in the law should also help British girls. Jasvinder Sanghera, author of the memoir Shame and chief executive of the Karma Nirvana support network for those affected by forced marriage and child marriage in the UK, said,

‘I welcome the fact that our Prime Minister has committed to making forced marriage a criminal offence – my plea is that we work to also enforce what already exists. Statutory guidelines continue not to be implemented or monitored effectively and the lack of school engagement remains concerning. There remains the need to universally agree a minimum age of marriage, it cannot be right that children as young as 8 years old here in Britain are entering a marriage arrangement. This is abuse and not part of anyone’s culture or tradition and we as a society have a duty to recognise it as such.’ 

Baroness Tonge’s message for parliamentarians, DFID and those working in child protection in the UK is simple: ‘Resolve to do something about our sisters worldwide whose cries are not heard.’

 Source: UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health press release 26th November, 2012.

 A Childhood Lost, the report of the parliamentary hearing on child marriage held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, will be published on 27th November 2012, and available to download from the Group’s website: http://www.appgpopdevrh.org.uk/parliamentary%20hearings.html

 The UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health (the Group) aims to encourage initiatives to increase access to, and improve reproductive and sexual health programmes worldwide. It has 70 members, from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, representing the UK’s main political parties. The Group provide members with a forum for discussing population, development and reproductive health. For more information please go to www.appg-popdevrh.org.uk

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Do Economists Have Frequent Sex? by Martha Campbell and Malcolm Potts

Melinda French Gates and participants at a Sure Start Project initiative to promote maternal and newborn health in Kathghara Village, Fatehpur District, U.P., India on March 23, 2010. The women are playing a stacking game to promote family wellness.

A flawed paradigm confusing coincidence with causation

Last year a World Bank economist gave a lecture on development in Africa on the UC Berkeley campus. His audience asked him about rapid population growth in that continent. He immediately dismissed the question, saying that population growth did not need any special attention. It would look after itself. He was voicing an uncritical interpretation of the demographic transition, a “theory” which has as much evidence to support it as the fictitious Da Vinci Code, although like the Da Vinci Code it remains perennially popular.

In the mid-twentieth century, writers such as Frank Notestein and Kingsley Davis described how western societies had begun with high birth and death rates, that death rates fell before birthrates leading to a growth in population until a new equilibrium was reached where low death rates were matched by low birth rates.  This classic description of the demographic transition is in textbooks and on UTube. As a set of general empirical observations it has some usefulness.  However, when empirical observations are elevated to become a “model,” or a  “theory” seemingly capable of providing an “explanation” of demographic change, then we have a serious problem. The explanation can become grievously misleading.  When the demographic transition theory is used to predict future population growth, then it becomes downright dangerous.

The theory has proved unusually persistent and remarkably impervious to criticism. Economists have mistakenly bought into the concept that when societies become richer and better educated—often referred to as socio-economic conditions—then fertility (the average number of children per woman) will decline.  Careful studies of the theory in Europe have found only a weak relationship between socio-economic conditions and fertility decline. Reviewing the success of organized family planning programs in Asia and Latin America, researchers Bongaarts and Watkins concluded, “there is no tight link between development indicators and fertility,” yet they still felt compelled to assert “the role of socio-economic development in accounting for fertility declines remains inherently plausible.”

It is almost as if the demographic transition model has some divine power that must never be questioned. A panel of the US National Academy of Science in 2000 concluded “fertility in countries that have not completed transition should eventually reach levels similar to those now observed in low fertility countries.” Editing a volume called The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century, Wolfgang Lutzwrites, “the well-founded, general notion of demographic transition is the basis of our expectation that world population growth will come to an end during the second half of the 21st century.” Tim Dyson, in a 2010 book Population and Development: The Demographic Transition, sees demographic transition playing a “central role in the creation of the modern world,” asserting that demographic transition is “self-contained and inexorable over the long run.”

But is this expectation well founded, and are the empirical processes actually “self-contained and inexorable”?  Recognizing a serious problem in this thinking, Simon Szreter has commented, “the [demographic] model’s conceptual structure was allowed to become so general and the theoretical relation so flexible that, as a causal explanation of change, it became an empirically irrefutable theory.”

There is no empirical evidence that all countries and regions will drift in some magic way to a two-child family and then live happily ever after. Indeed, anyone who has glimpsed the patriarchal cultures found in Afghanistan or Northern Nigeria would suggest the empirical evidence is the exact opposite. Such regions are likely to go on having large families unless a massive effort is put into helping women achieve the autonomy they deserve. A common assumption that “once fertility declines are underway they tend to continue” did not prove true in Kenya, where fertility decline was well under way in the 1980s but stalled after 1994 when foreign aid budgets for family planning collapsed. It was also assumed that when societies reached replacement level fertility then the birth rate would stop falling, but that has not happened in Russia or most of Europe.

Another almost religious belief of disciples of the demographic transition is that the engine driving the transition is a fall in death rates. Some parts of this observation hold water, but as there is no place in the world where deaths have not fallen significantly (except, sadly, for maternal deaths in a number of countries) the assertion cannot be proved. In England and Wales the birth rate fell a generation before infant mortality fell. Infant mortality in Madagascar (42/1000 births) is slightly lower than that in Bangladesh (45/1000), but the total fertility rate (TFR) in Bangladesh is 2.4, in Madagascar it is 4.6.  This reversal is most likely because Bangladesh has ready access to contraception and safe abortion, while Madagascar does not.

Access to modern contraception and safe abortion is often a more consistent correlate with fertility decline than socio-economic progress. By access we do not mean just that the contraceptives are in the community, but also that there are many barriers between women and contraception, including unjustified rules and tests, misinformation, providers not allowing unmarried women to have contraception, and many more.

Family size can fall even in poor and illiterate communities once the many tangible and intangible barriers that bar women from access to the technologies and information they need to separate sex from pregnancy are removed. Such barriers are often visible to women, but not seen so distinctly by some demographers, nor by ministries of health. Curiously these barriers seem to be largely invisible to a large portion of economists, including most economists in the World Bank.

In Nigeria the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is 5.6 (average children per woman). 44% of the people are under age 15. Average life expectancy is age 51.
Photo from Juju Films/Flickr/cc

The reality of human behavior

The demographic transition theory postulating a predictable, self-regulating world, where virtually all countries will have a two child family by 2100, is a mirage created by writers who see a world of people who are able to make easy decisions about whether and when to have a child. They seem not to recognize that human beings across societies worldwide, unlike most other mammals, have sex hundreds or even thousands of times more frequently than is necessary to conceive the number of pregnancies they want.  Unless women have the knowledge and the means to separate sex from childbearing, their default condition is a large family.

In many countries women still live in the depths of poverty and have little access to contraception. Such a woman does not have enough power to tell her husband “no sex tonight”—lest he treat her roughly or take on another wife or girlfriend—leaving her and her children with less food.  Oddly, economists seem to miss the realities of this sad situation, where women have few options about their childbearing.  Several years ago we came to realize that most economists might not be aware that couples everywhere have sex frequently.  In jest we then began to propose to our students that the only explanation we can think of for why economists seem not to be aware of this common pattern is that maybe economists don’t have frequent sex.

The UN population projections have assumed since the spring of 2010 that all but a small number of the fastest growing countries will reach replacement level by 2100. This is the Da Vinci Code at its worst. In parts of West Africa, current observable rates of increase in the use of contraception means that it will take over 90 years for countries to reach replacement level fertility (just over 2 children on average).  Even when replacement level fertility is achieved, the population will go on growing for several generations, because of the enormous number of children already born.

Today 1.2 billion people live in high fertility countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which include countries such as Niger, Yemen and Afghanistan. These countries with the highest average family size, from four to seven or more children per women, account for 18% of the total global population.  If that percentage continues to expand, which is likely as long as those averages of numbers of children continue, these countries will remain poor.  No country has been able to develop with an average of five or more children per woman. Even if the overly optimistic UN projections are achieved, these highest fertility countries alone will grow to between 2.8 billion and a staggering 6.1 billion by 2100, or to the UN’s medium variant projection of 4.2 billion.

Whatever the exact number—unless there is a sense of urgency and significant investment by the rich world—by the second half of the 21st century the overwhelming majority of people in the high fertility countries will still be living in abject poverty, largely uneducated, and almost certainly unemployed. Not only will it be necessary to make family planning readily accessible in the remaining high fertility countries, but also it will be imperative to invest heavily in girl’s education. Without a large external investment in girls’ education, many such countries are likely to continue to treat women in atrocious ways.

Chart courtesy of Martha Campbell/Venture Strategies.

Currently, between 12 and 18 million people in the high fertility countries of the Sahel, the countries bordering the southern edge of the Sahara, are hungry. As the population of this ecologically vulnerable region doubles by 2050, and as the crops wither and the camels die as a result of global warming, tens of millions of people will migrate to big cities and across borders in what may become the biggest forced migration in history. Suffering and death are already accompanying that migration. Other countries will become failed states, like Somalia (TFR 6.4). Terrorist groups like Boko Haram (literally “education is sacrilege”) in Northern Nigeria will become more common and al-Qaeda will continue to metastasize, as it has in Mali.

The power of family planning

The current population of Niger is 16 million, and even if that country could reach replacement level fertility (just over two children average) by 2040 the population would not stabilize until 80 million by about 2100. In a country where one in five women has 10 or more children and only one in 1,000 girls completes secondary school, all hope of socio-economic progress is being swept away by a tsunami of human numbers.  If Niger delays reaching replacement until 2080 the country will not stop growing until it reaches over 220 million people. Obviously that will not be sustainable because deaths from malnutrition, starvation and conflict will rise to unprecedented levels bringing with them an unimaginable intensity of human suffering.

Lack of focus on family planning since the Cairo conference has allowed a great deal of demographic momentum to build up in many high fertility countries, as Niger makes so unambiguously obvious. Statements such as Lutz’s, “we demonstrate in this book that world population growth will likely come to an end in 21st century through the benign process of declining fertility rather than the disastrous process of increasing death rates by overshooting global carrying capacity” are highly misleading. It implies that global problems of tectonic significance will somehow take care of themselves. They will not.

Unless two and two no longer make four, there is a compelling and urgent need to make family planning universally accessible and desirable, and to invest heavily in girls’ education, whether or not there are actual schools. Family planning is catalyst. It was the horse that pulled the development cart in Asia, and it is a prerequisite today for progress in Africa, and in countries like Afghanistan.  Investing in girls and young women is always important, and it is particularly urgent in societies where the ongoing abuse of compulsory teenage marriage and early childbearing continues unabated.  Strong family planning and education are synergistic, not competitive alternatives.

The ‘Program of Action’ from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development was an eloquent call for making family planning universally available, even where socio-economic development has not yet caught up.  It stated: “The success of population education and family planning programs in a variety of settings demonstrates that informed individuals everywhere can and will act responsibly in the light of their own needs and those of their families and communities.”

In low resource settings family planning should be the first element of primary health to be made widely available. Even health extension workers take many months to train because they must be able to diagnose diseases before they can recommend a therapy. Family planning is an individual woman’s voluntary choice and can been made widely available by training community volunteers in one or two days.

A new paradigm

As a collection of empirical observations, the demographic transition describes changes in birth and death rates leading to changes in the size of the total population—no more and no less.  The demographic transition cannot be turned into what Dudley Kirk called in 1996, “one of the best generalizations in the social sciences.”  As a paradigm, the demographic transition is like Karl Marx’s Das Capital or Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams—an idea that seems to have the power to gather generations of faithful followers, who cheer for one another while systemically ignoring external criticisms.

As more and more exceptions to the demographic transition theory have been documented, some demographers and economists have been left looking like pre-Copernican astronomers inventing increasingly improbable explanations of a flawed geocentric system rather than accepting the fact that the earth goes round the sun.

After 20 years of international antagonism and apathy, the London Summit on Family Planning (July 11, 2012) saw the tide turn in favor of renewed support for family planning wherever it is needed. The words ‘demographic transition’ passed no one’s lips on that day. Instead this landmark event was based on two much more profound observations than a library full of demographic theses confusing coincidence with causation. They have been perfectly summed up by Melinda Gates: “The most transformative thing we can do is give people access to birth control.” And, “Sweeping changes begin at the individual family level.”

 Martha Campbell, PhD, is president and founder of Venture Strategies for Health and Development, based in Berkeley, CA. Malcolm Potts, MB, PhD, holds the Bixby endowed chair in Population and Family Planning in the School of Public Health, University of California-Berkeley, CA. He has published ten books and over 200 scientific papers. His most recent book is Sex and War: How Biology Explains War and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World

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New Study Confirms: Women Use Contraception to Better Achieve their Life Goals by Guttmacher Institute

“Women value the ability to plan their childbearing, and view doing so as critical to being able to achieve their life goals.”

New evidence confirms what most people already believe: Women use contraception because it allows them to better care for themselves and their families, complete their education and achieve economic security, according to Reasons for Using Contraception: Perspectives of U.S. Women Seeking Care at Specialized Family Planning Clinics, by Jennifer Frost and Laura Lindberg of the Guttmacher Institute.

“Women value the ability to plan their childbearing, and view doing so as critical to being able to achieve their life goals,” says study author Laura Lindberg. “They need continued access to a wide range of contraceptives so they can plan their families and determine when they are ready to have children.”

Few studies in the United States have asked women directly why they use contraception and what benefits they expect or have achieved from its use. To fill this gap, the authors surveyed 2,094 women receiving services at 22 family planning clinics nationwide.

The majority of participants reported that contraception has had a significant impact on their lives, allowing them to take better care of themselves or their families (63%), support themselves financially (56%), complete their education (51%), or keep or get a job (50%).

When asked why they are seeking contraceptive services now, women expressed concerns about the consequences of an unintended pregnancy on their families’ and their own lives. The single most frequently cited reason for using contraception was that women could not afford to take care of a baby at that time (65%). Nearly one in four women reported that they or their partners were unemployed, which was a very important reason for their contraceptive use. Among women with children, nearly all reported that their desire to care for their current children was a reason for contraceptive use.

Many women reported interrelated reasons for using contraception, suggesting that the complexities of women’s lives influence their decision to use contraception and their choice of method. Other reasons for using contraception, reported by a majority of respondents, include not being ready to have children (63%), feeling that using birth control gives them better control over their lives (60%) and wanting to wait until their lives are more stable to have a baby (60%).

These findings point to the critical role of contraception in the lives of women and their families, and further documents the value of ensuring women’s continued and increased access to a full range of contraceptive services and methods.

“Notably, the reasons women give for using contraception are similar to the reasons they give for seeking an abortion,” according to Lawrence B. Finer, author of a previous Guttmacher study on that topic. “This means we should see access to abortion in the broader context of women’s lives and their efforts to avoid unplanned childbearing, in light of its potential consequences for them and their families.”

Source: Guttmacher Institute, September 25, 2012.  The full report is available at: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/j.contraception.2012.08.012.pdf 

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The Crucial Distinction between “Unmet Need” and “Unmet Demand” by William N. Ryerson

Proud mother with 6-month-old daughter in Nairobi. She did not want to hear about family planning until a nurse talked to her about child health and education opportunity. Photo from Gates Foundation/Flickr/cc

Motivation to use family planning and to limit family size has been the key missing element in the strategy for population stabilization.

There is a widespread view among many population activists that the top priority in the population field should be focused on providing family planning medical services because of the belief that lack of access to these services is the major barrier to fertility reduction.  It is true that over the last 40 years increasing access to contraceptive services has helped reduce fertility rates.  The view of those who subscribe to the “medical model” of solving the population problem is that additional family planning services will complete the job.

This is perhaps the most important issue within the population field. Of the money spent by developing and developed countries for population-related work in the developing world, the largest share has gone to providing family planning medical services to individuals and couples. Inherent in this approach is the belief that a large portion of births are unwanted and that contraceptive availability will solve this problem. Indeed, a significant percentage of births may be unwanted or mistimed, but large family norms/desires and the cultural and informational barriers to the use of contraception are now the major impediments to achieving replacement level fertility.

In Kenya, which was the fastest growing country in the world in the 1980s, contraceptives were within reach of nearly 90% of the population by the late 1980s.  Yet currently, only 39% of married women use them. That is only one example.

It is clear that providing contraceptive services alone will not solve the population problem. Since the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, studies were conducted in numerous countries measuring women’s knowledge of, attitudes toward, and practice of birth control as well as their family size desires. These knowledge, attitude and practice studies resulted in the term “unmet need” to describe those women who wanted to delay their next pregnancy by at least two years but were not using a modern method of contraception. In the minds of many policy makers and funders, “unmet need” was equated with “lack of access” to contraceptive services. However, demographers Charles Westoff and Luis Hernando Ochoa, in a review of numerous Demographic and Health Surveys, determined that about half the women categorized as having an “unmet need” have no intention of using contraceptives even if they were made freely available.

The confusion between the term “unmet need” and “unmet demand” has misled many people in leadership positions to assume that such “unmet demand” could be overcome by improving family planning services and contraceptive distribution. The reasoning has been that, if there was a gap between what people want and what they are doing, improving access to contraceptives would close that gap. The problem is that the discrepancy between attitudes and behavior has had less and less to do with availability in recent decades.

The situation in Kenya is illustrative of findings in numerous countries recently. In Kenya, according to the 2008-09 Demographic and Health Survey, 96% of currently married women and 98% of husbands know about modern contraceptives. Of the married women who are non-users, 40% do not intend to ever use contraception. Among all non-using married women, 8% give as their reason the desire for more children. Among the reasons given for not using contraception by women who are not pregnant and do not want to become pregnant, only 0.8% cited lack of availability of contraceptives, and 0.4% cited cost. The top four reasons among those who are still fecund:

  • concern with the medical side effects of contraceptives (31%);
  • religious prohibition (9%);
  • personal opposition (8%);
  • opposition from the husbands (6%).

These are all issues that are best addressed by information and motivational communications. Certainly, counterfeit contraceptives exist, and they may have harmful effects, so improving the availability of reliable methods is important. So is informing women of potential side effects of methods they choose. But much of the fear of health effects is based on intentional misinformation campaigns by those oppoed to contraceptive use.

At a health center in rural Nigeria. Note the percentage of people under age 15.
Photo from DirectReliefInternational/Flickr/cc

Country by country, the Demographic and Health Surveys show a similar pattern to that in Kenya: Lack of access is cited infrequently by those who are categorized as having an unmet need for family planning.

A 1992 paper by Etienne van de Walle showed that another factor is at play for many women and men—fatalism. Many people have simply not reached the realization that reproductive decisions are a matter of conscious choice. Many who did not particularly want another pregnancy in the near future still reasoned that God had determined since the beginning of the universe how many children they would have and that it did not matter what they thought or whether they might use a contraceptive, because they could not oppose God’s will.

For example, Pakistan’s 2006-2007 Demographic and Health Survey found that the most common reason for non-use of contraceptives is the belief that God determines family size. This answer was given by 28% of the respondents. Since the fertility rate in Pakistan is 3.6 and the mean desired number of children among currently married women is 4.1, it is clear that family size norms are also a major factor in driving high fertility.

The tradition of large families is a deciding factor in fertility rates in most of sub-Saharan Africa. For example, the 2008 Demographic and Health Survey in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 170 million inhabitants, found that the average ideal number of children for married women was 6.7.  For married men, it was 8.5.  The fertility rate in Nigeria is 5.6 children per woman, which is below what people say they actually want.

Of all births in Nigeria, 87% were wanted at the time and another 7% were wanted, but not until later. Only 4% were unwanted. Nationwide, 67% of married women and 89% of married men know of at least one modern method of contraception. Yet only 10% of married women report they currently use modern family planning methods.

Changing this situation takes more than provision of family planning services. It requires helping people understand the personal benefits of limiting and spacing births—in health and wealth for them and their children. It also involves overcoming fear that contraceptives are dangerous or that planning one’s family is unacceptable. It requires getting husbands and wives to talk to each other about use of family planning—a key step in the process of using contraceptives.

In Afghanaistan, Ghulam, age 11, is married to Faiz, age 40. She had hoped to be a teacher, but was forced to quit classes. About 58% of Afghan girls get married before age sixteen. Photo from Splintergroup/Flickr/cc

Delaying marriage and childbearing until adulthood, and educating girls are critical components. According to a 2003 report by the Nigerian Population Commission, in northern Nigeria the mean age at first conception is 15 years.  Teen births increased 50% between 1980 and 2003 in Nigeria, mostly attributable to adolescents in the northern regions.

The above should not be interpreted as suggesting that the level of effort in providing contraceptive services be reduced. High quality, low cost reproductive health care services are an essential element of fertility planning. Both quality and quantity of contraceptive choices and services are in dire need of improvement throughout much of the developing world. And “stockouts” of certain methods are a problem in many countries. But access to family planning methods is not sufficient if men can prevent their partners from using them, if women don’t understand the relative safety of contraception compared with early and repeated childbearing, or if women feel they cannot take control of their own lives.

Many population planners measure progress on the basis of contraceptive prevalence rates. Use of effective family planning methods is critical, but will not result in population stabilization if desired family size is five, six or seven children.

Motivation to use family planning and to limit family size has been the key missing element in the strategy for population stabilization.  While the percentage of non-users of contraceptives has declined, various studies indicate that the actual number of adults not using contraceptives is greater than it was in 1960, a fact stemming from the enormous increase in world population over the past 50 years. Approximately 44% of the roughly 2.3 billion people of reproductive age who are married or in long-term unions currently use no modern method of contraception. This means there are about 1 billion adult non-users of contraceptive methods. It’s time to focus significant effort on motivating this group to use contraception for the purpose of achieving small family size.

In reality, there are about 600 million adults in marriages or long-term unions who are non-users of contraception specifically because they want additional children or as many children as possible. This group is more numerous than the 430 million men and women classified as having an unmet need for family planning, and they deserve a lot of attention via programs that role model the benefits of smaller family norms.

Nearly as important are the desired family sizes of the 1.3 billion users of contraception. In many countries, those who do use contraceptives still want more than enough children to replace themselves. Their goals, if achieved, will lead to continued high rates of growth.

Japan has achieved below-replacement-level fertility (1.5 children per woman) in a country where the oral contraceptive pill was illegal until recently. The United States achieved below-replacement-level fertility in the Great Depression, before the invention of most modern contraceptives. Similarly, fertility dropped to near-replacement level in the 19th century in Western Europe and the United States.

World Bank economist Lant Pritchett, in a 1994 article in Population and Development Review, concluded that family size desire is the overwhelming determinant of actual fertility rates. “The conclusion that follows from the evidence and analysis we presented,” he wrote, “is that because fertility is principally determined by the desire for children, contraceptive access (or cost) or family planning effort more generally is not a dominant, or typically even a major, factor in determining fertility differences.” According to Pritchett, desired levels of fertility account for roughly 90% of differences among countries in total fertility rates.

Reducing the demand for children—for instance, by giving girls more education—is vastly more important to reducing fertility than providing more contraceptives or family planning services.

 Bill Ryerson is founder and president of the Population Media Center (PMC). He has worked for more than 38 years in the fields of reproductive health and behavior change. To read about PMC and its exciting programs, go to <www.populationmedia.org/>

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The Complex Relationship Between Human Population and Climate Disruption by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

 

Family planning brings joy to mother in Korogocho, Kenya. The clinic there serves more than fifty women per day. Photo from Gates Foundation/Flickr/cc.

ABOUT HALF THE EARTH’s biological production capacity has already been diverted to human use. Life-supporting ecosystems are affected everywhere by the planet’s 7 billion people, which is projected to reach at least 9.2 billion by 2050. The links between population and environmental quality are complex and varied. Understanding them requires knowledge of consumption rates that differ between rich and poor, new and old technologies, resource extraction and restoration, and the dynamics of population growth and migration.

Stabilizing the planet’s population is a critical factor in creating a sustainable environment. Humans are depleting natural resources, degrading soil and water, and creating waste at an alarming rate, even as new technology raises crop yields, conserves resources and cleans up pollution. While rich nations with low population growth are mainly accountable for the unsustainable use of the planet’s resources, developing countries, with lower overall consumption, contribute a growing share of total CO2 emissions.

Slowing the rate of population growth may give countries time to take measures to meet people’s needs, while protecting the environment through various means.

Preventing unwanted births through family planning, and guaranteeing individuals and couples the right to reproductive health, can help slow population growth rates and moderate environmental impact.

THE CURRENT SITUATION

  • World population is rising by about 78 million people per year, and is projected to grow from 7 billion people to 9.2 billion by 2050—over three times the population of 50 years ago.
  • BUT if birth rates remain unchanged, the UN estimates that world population will be 11.9 billion by 2050.
  • Since the 1960s, fertility in developing countries has been reduced from an average of six births per woman to three, thanks primarily to the use of contraceptives. However, in 56 countries, the poorest women still average six births, compared to 3.2 for the wealthiest.
  • The wealthiest countries, with less than 20% of Earth’s population and the slowest population growth, account for 86% of natural resource consumption—much of it wasteful—and produce the majority of the pollution and carbon dioxide.
  • At the other extreme, the depletion of natural resources is occurring most rapidly in the poorest countries, where fertility rates are highest. The poorest 20% of countries account for only 1.3% of consumption; but their urgent drive for economic growth often leads to lax regulations of destructive and polluting industries.
  • Increasing demand for water is directly related to population growth—extra water is needed to grow more food. Lack of access to water is already putting pressure on about a third of the world’s population. Climate change will make the problem worse in many places.

BENEFITS OF ACTION

  • Preventing unwanted pregnancies in developing countries through family planning might be one of the most cost-effective ways to preserve the environment. In developing countries with high fertility, having fewer, healthier children can reduce the economic burden and environmental demands of poor families.
  • Choice about fertility is a step towards equality for women. It empowers them to take part in family and community decisions, and it enhances their opportunities for education.
  • Family planning programs have a record of success in reducing unintended pregnancies and slowing population growth. In Thailand and Iran, for instance, well-managed, fully voluntary programs have led to significant change.

WHAT MUST BE DONE?

Providing full access to voluntary reproductive health services, which are relatively inexpensive, would be far less costly in the long run than the environmental consequences of rapid population growth from the failure to meet the urgent need for reproductive health care. Family planning is now seriously underfunded by donors and developing countries. To meet the unmet need for contraceptives, global population assistance should now exceed US$1.2 billion per year for family planning and increase to $1.6 billion by 2015. Current assistance is $550 million—less than half of today’s needed amount.

UNFPA believes the following will help:

  • A broad coalition of vocal support from influential groups at the global, national and local levels.
  • Adequate and consistent funding to provide universal access to contraception.
  • Media campaigns focusing on the benefits of smaller families.
  • A wide range of safe and effective contraceptive methods available in health facilities and through social marketing and outreach services.
  • National and local debate on the rights of men and women in relation to their bodies, health, education and access to economic and social resources.

 Source: UNFPA < http://www.unfpa.org/pds/climate/size.html> and http://www.unfpa.org/rh/planning/mediakit/ 

The UNFPA works to ensure universal access to reproductive health and the right of all people to be able to decide on the number and timing of their children. UNFPA works with governments, civil society and other UN agencies, and leads in forecasting needs, providing and coordinating the distribution of reproductive health commodities, mobilizing support and building each country’s logistics capacity. It works with family planning in 140 countries around the world, providing contraceptives to health posts and hospitals that serve millions of men and women.

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Civilization Faces Perfect Storm of Ecological and Social Problems by John Vidal

Abuse of the environment has created an absolutely unprecedented emergency, say Blue Planet prizewinners

Celebrated scientists and development thinkers warn that civilization is faced with a perfect storm of ecological and social problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption and environmentally malign technologies.

In the face of an “absolutely unprecedented emergency”, say the 18 past winners of the Blue Planet prize—the unofficial Nobel for the environment—society has “no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us”.

The stark assessment of the current global outlook by the group, who include Sir Bob Watson, the British government’s chief scientific adviser on environmental issues, US climate scientist James Hansen, Prof José Goldemberg, Brazil’s secretary of environment during the Rio Earth summit in 1992, and Stanford University Prof Paul Ehrlich, was published in February 2012 on the 40th anniversary of the United Nations environment program (UNEP). The paper, which was commissioned by UNEP, will feed into the Rio +20 earth summit conference in June.

Apart from dire warnings about biodiversity loss and climate change, the group challenges governments to think differently about economic “progress”.

“The rapidly deteriorating biophysical situation is more than bad enough [to get our attention], but it is barely recognized by a global society infected by the irrational belief that physical economies can grow forever, disregarding the facts that the rich in developed and developing countries get richer and the poor are left behind. And the perpetual growth myth is enthusiastically embraced by politicians and economists as an excuse to avoid tough decisions facing humanity.”

“The perpetual growth myth … promotes the impossible idea that indiscriminate economic growth is the cure for all the world’s problems, while it is actually the disease that is at the root cause of our unsustainable global practices”, they say.

“The shift of many countries, and in particular the United States, towards corporate plutocracies, with wealth (and thus power) transferred in large quantities from the poor and middle-classes to the very rich, is clearly doing enormous environmental damage.”

The group warns against over-reliance on markets, and instead urges politicians to listen and learn from how ‘poor’ communities all over the world see the problems of energy, water, food and livelihoods as interdependent and integrated as part of a living ecosystem.

“The long-term answer is not a centralized system but a demystified and decentralized system where the management, control and ownership of the technology lie in the hands of the communities themselves and not dependent on paper-qualified professionals from outside the villages,” they say.

“Community-based groups in the poorer most inaccessible rural areas around the world have demonstrated the power of grassroots action to change policy at regional and national levels…. There is an urgency now to bring them into mainstream thinking, convey the belief all is not lost, and the planet can still be saved.”

The answer to addressing the critical issues of poverty and climate change is not primarily technical, but social, say the group. “The problems of corruption, wastage of funds, poor technology choices and absent transparency or accountability are social problems for which innovative solutions are emerging from the grassroots.”

To transition to a more sustainable future will require simultaneously redesigning the economic system, a technological revolution, and, above all, behavioral change.

“Delay is dangerous and would be a profound mistake. The ratchet effect and technological lock-in increase the risks of dangerous climate change: delay could make stabilization of concentrations of CO2 at acceptable levels very difficult. If we act strongly and science is wrong, then we will still have new technologies, greater efficiency and more forests. If we fail to act and the science is right, then humanity is in deep trouble and it will be very difficult to extricate ourselves.”

The paper urges governments to:

  • Replace GDP as a measure of wealth with metrics for natural, built, human and social capital—and how they intersect.
  • Eliminate subsidies in sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture that create environmental and social costs, which currently go unpaid [and therefore unappreciated].
  • Tackle overconsumption in the rich world, and address population pressure by empowering women, improving education and making contraception accessible to all.
  • Transform decision-making processes to empower marginalized groups, and integrate economic, social and environmental policies instead of having them compete.
  • Conserve and value biodiversity and ecosystem services, and create markets for them that can form the basis of green economies.
  • Invest in knowledge through research and training.

“The current system is broken,” said Watson. “It is driving humanity to a future that is 3-5 degrees Centigrade warmer than our species has ever known; and it is eliminating the ecology that we depend on for our health, wealth and sense of self.”

Source: The Guardian (UK), 20 February 2012, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/20/climate-change-overconsumption>  John Vidal is the environment editor for The Guardian. This report appeared in the environmental section of The Guardian’s website titled “Global Development”. The report is based on a synthesis paper created from individual papers written by the past 18 winners of the Asahi Glass Foundation’s Blue Planet Prize. The Blue Planet prize is reported to be the “unofficial Nobel for the environment”.

• Source document: <http://www.UNEP/Blue-Planet-Synthesis-Paper>

• The Blue Planet Prize: <http://www.af-info.or.jp/en/blueplanet/about.html>

FROM THE TEXT OF THE UNEP PAPER

Demographic Challenges

The global population (which has now passed 7 billion people) and the average per capita energy consumption have both increased sevenfold over the past 150 years, for an overall fifty-fold increase in the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And both are still increasing.

As a global average, total fertility rates (TFR) are decreasing, as a result of more females completing primary and secondary education, along with availability of fertility control. But this global average conceals many local difficulties. In some parts of the world fertility remains high—and decline in these countries is by no means certain. More than 200 million women in developing countries still have unmet needs for family planning, and increased investment in reproductive health care and family planning programs along with education programs will be critical. Although the desire and the need [for family planning] are increasing, it is estimated that funding decreased by 30% between 1995 and 2008, not least as a result of legislative pressure from the religious right in the USA and elsewhere.

The ageing of populations in many countries around the world is also a relevant sustainable development issue. The economic, social and environmental implications are as yet unclear—but this trend will undoubtedly have an impact. Whether it is positive or negative depends to a large extent on how countries prepare; e.g., in evaluating what an ageing population will mean for economic productivity, consumption of goods and services, and in terms of urban planning, financial, health and social care systems.

Both culturally and genetically, human beings have always been small-group animals, evolved to deal with at most a few hundred other individuals. Humanity is suddenly, in ecological time, faced with an emergency requiring that it quickly design and implement a governance and economic system that is both more equitable and suitable for a global population of billions of people, and sustainable on a finite planet.

 Economic Challenges

Uncontrolled economic growth is unsustainable on a finite planet. Governments should recognize the serious limitations of GDP as a measure of economic growth and complement it with measures of the five forms of capital, built (produced), natural, human, social and institutional/financial capital, i.e., a measure of wealth that integrates economic, social and environmental dimensions and is a better method for determining a country’s productive potential.

The failure of the economic system to internalize externalities leads to the continuation of environmentally damaging activities. If externalities are uncorrected then markets fail: they generate prices that do not reflect the true cost to society of our economic activities.  Emissions of greenhouse gases represent a market failure as the damages caused by emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are not reflected in prices. The price of fossil fuels should reflect the true cost to society, resulting in a more level playing field for environmentally sound renewable energy technologies, and a stimulus to conserve energy.

There are a number of other relevant market failures that must also be corrected if we are to manage the risks of climate change. For example, there are failures in the provision of information, and there are failures in valuing ecosystems and biodiversity. In addition, environmentally damaging subsidies in areas such as energy, transportation and agriculture, which total about $1 trillion per year, cause further market distortion and are in general leading to environmental degradation and should be eliminated.

The benefits that we derive from the natural world (biodiversity and ecosystem services) are critically important to human well-being and economic prosperity, but are consistently undervalued in economic analysis and decision-making. Recognizing the value of ecosystem services would allow the world to move towards a more sustainable future, in which the benefits of ecosystem services are better realized and more equitably distributed.

Technology Challenges

The over-reliance on fossil fuel energy (coal, oil and gas) and inefficient end-use technologies has significantly increased the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We are currently putting one million years worth of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere each year. Recent efforts to reduce the carbon intensity (CO2/GDP) were made in a large number of countries particularly in China and Russia where the carbon content has declined significantly in the last 30 years (albeit from very high levels). However the carbon intensities of India, South Africa and Brazil (including deforestation) have not declined significantly in that period. It is therefore clear that all countries have to take serious measures to reduce their CO2 emissions in the next few decades.

Socio-Political Challenges 

There are serious shortcomings in the decision-making systems on which we rely in government, business and society. This is true at local, national and global levels. The rules and institutions for decision-making are influenced by vested interests, yet each interest has very different access to how decisions are made. Effective change in governance demands action at many levels to establish transparent means for holding those in power to account. Governance failures also occur because decisions are being made in sectoral compartments, with environmental, social and economic dimensions addressed by separate, competing structures.

The shift of many countries, and in particular the United States, towards corporate plutocracies, with wealth (and thus power) transferred in large quantities from the poor and middle-classes to the very rich, is clearly doing enormous environmental damage. The successful campaign of many of the fossil fuel companies to downplay the threat of climate disruption in order to maintain the profits of their industry is a prominent example.

Cultural Challenges 

The importance to reducing inequity in order to increase the chances of solving the human predicament is obvious (just in the differences in access to food and other resources) caused by the giant power gap between the rich and the poor. The lack of funding for issues (such as the provision of family planning services) contrasts sharply with the expenditures by the United States and some other rich nations to try to assure that oil flows to themselves are uninterrupted. The central geopolitical role of oil continues unabated despite the dangerous conflicts oil-seeking already has generated and the probable catastrophic consequences its continued burning portends for the climate.

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Filed under Climate, Consumption, Economy, Energy, Environment, Family Planning, Growth, Human Rights, Natural Resources, Population, Sustainability, Women's Rights