Obama’s “Population” Moves: Also Good for the Environment

Vicky Markham

It is time for a new discussion about "family size" and how it relates to our unprecedented environmental impacts, here in this country and around the world.

President Obama showed much more than good judgment when he rescinded the Mexico City population policy and promised to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). He not only sent a strong message, and the means, to revive U.S. leadership in support of family planning and reproductive health around the world, he also moved to sustain the global environment. 

Yes, these "population" actions will help women realize their right to control their own fertility; provide them more freedom and opportunity to pursue better education, economic, resource-use and family-raising opportunities; and help prevent abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

But they also address something we tend to overlook – or avoid noticing – the fact that stabilizing population growth worldwide in combination with reducing high individual use of natural resources is absolutely critical if we are going to balance the number of people on the planet with its environmental base, and achieve the healthy functioning of ecosystems.   

The roles of family planning and reproductive health along with per-capita resource consumption in achieving a sustainable environment cannot be understated. Together they form the volatile combination that creates the demand for energy, water, land and other resources that can put us over the tipping point. Both are at the core of the challenge and both must be part of the solution.

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We’re okay when it comes to acknowledging that resource consumption in developed countries like the U.S. must be curtailed, and soon. Yet we tend to avoid the (very) pregnant elephant in the room, the one with the big environmental footprint. Serious attention must now be given to population issues (including family planning and reproductive health services) as they relate to ecosystems and resource use, or environmental sustainability simply won’t happen.  

We know with scientific certainty that the "people-resource consumption equilibrium" is critical, and that we are already pushing that envelope. We have already overstepped the boundaries on C02 (carbon dioxide) emissions, resulting in climate change; water scarcity affects 1.1 billion people worldwide, including in the western U.S.; and misguided land-use development has degraded or destroyed the habitat of many plant and animal species. 

These are not just environmental issues. They are also family planning issues. We seem to have forgotten that stabilizing earth’s population is an essential part of achieving a sustainable environment. Without action on both fronts, there is no doubt, our demands will exceed the earth’s capacity to provide.   

"Population" concerns in this context include not only family planning, but also where people live, how and where the growth is occurring, and per-capita resource use in the U.S. and globally. This is not the 1950s, and “Cheaper by the Dozen” does not apply any more. In 2009, our footprints don’t come cheap in environmental terms. As our numbers and resource consumption grows, so do the effects on the climate, water, land and species.

It is time for a new discussion about "family size" and how it relates to our unprecedented environmental impacts, here in this country and around the world. Great Britain is among the industrialized nations beginning to take a serious look at the way family size affects the environment. Here in the U.S. we, too, can begin to consider whether two children – replacement level reproduction – might be sufficient if we want to be realistic about our collective environmental footprint. It’s a new rationale for deciding upon the number of children we have, and worth our consideration. It’s a possible subject for school/university discussions, public education campaigns, and a new national awareness.

In short, the Obama era could be one of new, voluntary, individual modern-day "choice" issues, about our family size and our resource use, reflecting the way the world has changed.

By rescinding the Mexico City policy and releasing funds for UNFPA, President Obama has given a sure sign that America recognizes its responsibility to lead the world in achieving a population-environmental balance. He has taken a first step down this path by supporting family planning assistance, and has paved the way for all of us to effectively address some of the biggest environment and climate change issues of our time.

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