Reproductive Autonomy Is Fundamental to Conservation

by Kirsten Stade

Overconsumption has brought us the climate crisis, the Sixth Great Extinction, expanding desertification, and the depletion of the Colorado River and fresh water supplies across the globe. But it is humans, at this point eight billion of us, who are doing that consuming. It should not be controversial that our profound state of ecological overshoot, in which we are consuming 75% percent more than the Earth can provide sustainably (GFN, 2022), is a product of both our population and our consumption. What is controversial is the way that the population issue has been framed, which seems to place the blame for environmental destruction on high-fertility regions in the Global South whose per-capita consumption is a fraction of that in wealthy countries. At Population Balance, we are dedicated to changing the conversation on population.

People and Their Lifestyles, Los Angeles, CA, 2017

Photo: © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

LA sprawl - Stade

The same forces that lead to runaway population growth also drive the subjugation of women and marginalized communities along with the domination and destruction of animals and the natural world. Our humane education approach recognizes these common forces and allows us to move beyond the unproductive “population vs consumption” false dichotomy and seek solutions to the environmental crisis that also liberate and uplift impoverished human communities. Through outreach work that includes podcasts, classroom visits, webinars and events, publications, media interviews, newsletters, and social media, we offer education and solutions to address the impacts of human overpopulation and overconsumption on the planet, people and animals.
We know that human population growth is a magnifier of every one of the multiple cascading environmental crises posing a threat to life on earth. In the case of climate change, the foremost scientific body on the subject, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recognizes population growth as a substantial driver (IPCC, 2022). Over the past three decades, population growth has canceled out much of what has been accomplished through energy efficiency and renewable technologies (Samways, 2022). The growth of our population is also driving the biodiversity crisis, chiefly through expansion of our agricultural systems across vast expanses of the planet. Through the destruction of forests and the desertification of already moisture-limited lands like the Intermountain West, agricultural systems that feed a growing human population consume 70% of the planet’s freshwater supplies (Ritchie & Roser, 2018). These agricultural systems are directly responsible for the imperilment of 86% of species at risk of extinction (Benton et al., 2021, p. 7).
With the extensive use of fossil fuels and the advances in medicine and sanitation that greatly prolong our life expectancy, our species has grown eightfold from its population of one billion in the early 19th century while our consumption has grown one hundred-fold (Rees, 2019). The fact that this consumption is so uneven across our eight billion people is part of the reason why linking population growth to environmental destruction is so controversial. Countries with high fertility rates, most of which are in the Global South, are generating far fewer of the greenhouse gases than are produced by personal transportation, electrified appliances, or highly-processed meat-based diets in wealthy countries.
Yet the global middle class will reach five billion by 2030 (Crist et al., 2017). Realistic plans for equitable global development must assume that high fertility regions will reach a higher standard of living and that the environmental impacts of this standard of living will be multiplied by their large populations. To ensure that all of the world’s citizens can enjoy a moderate middle class lifestyle without further ecological overshoot, it is clear that we must plan for wealth redistribution from wealthy colonial powers to the Global South. This will mean degrowth of inflated industrialized economies that have reached their degree of excess largely through exploitation of colonized people and landscapes.
It is also clear that to be “sustainable,” development must incorporate massive investment in contraceptive and abortion care for both developed and developing countries. More than 200 million women across the globe have an unmet need for contraception, meaning they would like to avoid a pregnancy but cannot (PRB, 2012). For many women, this inability stems not just from simple unavailability of contraceptives but from any number of familial, institutional, and cultural pressures that convince them to have children, often against their wishes – pressures that are collectively known as pronatalism.
Pronatalism is an academic word but a familiar experience for most women, and many men. For many, cultural pressures have led us to believe that having children is a necessary part of a fulfilling life. For Nandita Bajaj, who is my colleague, friend, and Executive Director of Population Balance, having children was just what she always assumed she would do. She was born and raised in India and moved to Canada with her family in her late teens. Despite a relatively liberal upbringing, for Nandita in patriarchal Indian society, it was a given that young women would grow up, get married, and have multiple children. It wasn’t until her late twenties, when she and her now-husband had a conversation about whether or not they wanted kids, that she realized that she could choose not to. This realization came with a sense of profound joy and liberation, and it also set her on a path to unpack the many layers of pronatalism that undermine reproductive autonomy in most cultures and result in population growth and environmental degradation. Her research resulted in the first of its kind graduate course, Pronatalism, Overpopulation, and the Planet: The Personal, Cultural, Global Implications of Having a Child, which she now teaches online through Antioch University’s Institute for Humane Education. It is a discussion-based course open to anyone in the world, with registration available through our website https://www.populationbalance.org/pronatalism-and-overpopulation-course. As one student noted, “This course was paradigm-shifting: unpacking pronatalism has given me a revolutionary lens through which to consider my own life choices, but also to understand everything going on in the world, from overpopulation, to climate change, to the oppression of women and other marginalized groups.”
While for Nandita and for many women across the globe, liberation from pronatalism is a revelation, my own experience was somewhat different. As the daughter of progressive academics growing up in New York City, I’ve been fortunate enough to escape the personal and familial pressures that many women experience. In my career as a conservationist, however, it has been hard to miss the ways in which pronatalism influences discussions of our planetary predicament in academic and even activist circles. When I attended graduate school in conservation biology back in my own childhood home, I thought I would find myself surrounded by people who had thought deeply about the population problem. I hoped to find a forum in which we could discuss openly and consider humane, thoughtful solutions that were both honest about our impact and respectful of human rights and reproductive autonomy. Instead, what I encountered was a resounding denial that population plays any role in our planetary predicament at all.
This denial I found deeply troubling, and only more so as Nandita and I have studied its history and ramifications and written about them in the Journal of Population and Sustainability (Bajaj & Stade, 2022). Starting in the mid-1960s, international aid agencies, governments, and nongovernmental organizations around the world began cooperating to make extraordinary investments in rights-based contraceptive assistance in high-fertility countries. The result was a decline in fertility rates in those countries from an average of six children per woman in 1965 to fewer than three by 2008 (Sinding, 2008).
These family planning programs were overwhelmingly rights-based and voluntary, with a few horrifying exceptions like China’s one-child policy that began in 1980 and ended only recently, and the forced sterilization campaigns in India, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. These coercive efforts were so egregious that they overshadowed the vast majority of other programs, and in the minds of many women’s health advocates they came to represent the family planning movement as a whole. Upon urging by these advocates and also under intensive lobbying by the Vatican, support and funding for international family planning began to erode, ultimately triggering the abandonment of efforts that had been incredibly successful in preventing unwanted pregnancies, empowering girls and women, and alleviating poverty across the globe.
The ramifications of this shift persist to this day, when discussion of population as a driver of environmental degradation and human injustice has been all but erased from conservation and development circles. International funding for family planning has decreased by 35% since 1995 and falls far short of meeting the global unmet need for contraception (Sinding, 2008). This abandonment of family planning is part of the trend of population denialism that has caused enormous harm to women and marginalized people across the globe, both by derailing rights-based family planning efforts that made significant improvements in the lives of low-income people in developing countries, and by robbing conservationists of one of the most vital tools to mitigate environmental change that will fall hardest on these communities.
Population denialism doesn’t just undermine our ability to address an underlying driver of the environmental overshoot threatening life on earth. It also deflects attention away from the greatest risk to reproductive rights and autonomy: pervasive forces of pronatalism that have caused tremendous harm to women across the globe. At Population Balance, we work to bring these forces to light so that people feel empowered to resist them. Our educational programs reach young people through schools, youth groups, and conferences, where we empower them to question pronatalism and to make liberated and informed family choices free from its influences.
These influences are pervasive. Pronatalism pervades our lives through pressures for children or grandchildren exerted by family members, through religious messaging that influences our reproductive choices while stigmatizing those who are single and who do not have children, and through restrictions on contraceptive use and abortion bans. Pronatalist social norms are upheld by patriarchal religious and community leaders, as well as by politicians whose primary interests are economic, nationalist, or military. Whatever its origin, pronatalism’s chief characteristic is that it reduces people to reproductive vessels for external goals.
More and more people of reproductive age are realizing that pronatalist social norms do not serve them, and they are making their own reproductive choices in line with their personal desires. They are choosing to remain childfree or to embrace alternative definitions of family that may include one or two children, or adoptive children, or pets, or extended family, or family members who are not related through biology. These choices fundamentally challenge the growth mindset that underpins industrialized society, and they illuminate the fact that once given the choice, women across the world and in diverse cultures tend to choose a low birth rate (a choice that has been called women’s “latent desire” for low fertility (Campbell and Bedford, 2009)).
And the reproductive liberation that enables these choices will be foundational to our transition to a society that lives in balance with the natural world, and away from the current one that relies upon its subjugation. So often “conservation” is framed in terms of simply substituting “green” technologies for the current fossil fuel-based infrastructure that powers our cities, farms, and societies, without challenging the growth model that underlies everything we build. Simply decarbonizing our technology does nothing to address the biodiversity crisis, or the many non-climate aspects of overshoot. Nor does it avoid the many environmental impacts of “green” technologies themselves, including the destruction of habitat for iconic species such as the desert tortoise to build solar farms and the mining of trace minerals such as lithium and cobalt, much of which is sourced in the Global South through child labor and other less than “sustainable” practices (Ketcham, 2022)
This is why at Population Balance, we also work toward a radical shift in our relationship to nonhuman animals and the natural world, from an attitude of dominion to one of reverence and stewardship. And we challenge the fundamental tenet of perpetual economic growth that underpins our society and drives our domination and annihilation of the natural world. This growth, fed by perpetual population growth – an unending supply of workers to make consumer products, of consumers to buy them, of taxpayers to subsidize domestic infrastructure, and of soldiers to enable foreign war – also goes hand-in-hand with our attitude of human supremacy: that other species’ value is a function of their utility to us. All of these attitudes must be upended if we are to end overshoot and come into balance with the rest of the natural world.

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Nandita Bajaj, Executive Director of Population Balance, presenting at International Conference on Family Planning

Photo: Population Balance

When we see the issue of human overpopulation through this lens – as a result of multilayered pronatalist pressures that subjugate women and vulnerable people, and of an ethic of human supremacy that sees the abundance of life on the planet as mere “resources” to fuel our further expansion – we open doors to conversations that would otherwise have been shut down. These conversations, about the necessity of equitably shrinking our population and our human enterprise, are undeniably complex. But we must not shy away from them. We hope you will join us in re-framing the population debate as one not just about protecting our planet and living within its boundaries, but about uplifting and empowering women and marginalized people, and allowing them to make reproductive choices dictated by their true desires and not by tired pronatalist conventions.

Kirsten Stade is the Communications Manager for Population Balance. She has worked for over two decades challenging extractive industries on public lands in the Western United States, and has a Master's degree in Conservation Biology from Columbia University and a Bachelor's in Earth Systems from Stanford University.

References

Bajaj, N., & Stade, K. (2022). Challenging pronatalism is key to advancing reproductive rights and a sustainable population. The Journal of Population and Sustainability, 85–108. https://doi.org/10.3197/jps.63799953906861.
Benton, T. G., Bieg, C., Harwatt, H., Pudasaini, R., & Wellesley, L. (2021, February 3). Food system impacts on Biodiversity loss. United Nations Environment Programme. https://www.unep.org/resources/publication/food-system-impacts-biodiversity-loss.
Campbell, M., & Bedford, K. (2009). The theoretical and political framing of the population factor in development. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1532), 3101–3113. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2009.0174
Carrington, D. 2018. ‘Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study’. The Guardian, 21 May. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study (accessed March 29 2023)
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Rees, W. E. (2019). Ecological Economics for humanity’s plague phase. Ecological Economics, 169, 106519. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106519
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