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

President Obama showed much more than good judgment when he rescinded the Mexico City population policy and promised to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).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.

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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  • invalid-0

    I have been screaming this for years to people that birth control is not only good for women wanting to space out their children for their health but to help out the ultimate mother’s health, Mother Earth. But in the debates I have gotten in with those type of people are the ones who deny up and down global warming isn’t real. Don’t even get me started on that. But I think your post is great and not afraid of as you put it Vicky, “bringing up the pregnant elephant in the room.” Classic wording there! Cheers, Liz.

  • invalid-0

    I believe it is called, that extreme right wing magazine, had all kinds of articles about how stupid and “crazy “the democrats ,and left wing was for believing in global warming. Also many comments about Al Gore,( who I am not sure is really practicing what he preaches.) They really do not get it or they just do not care. I am sure, trying to convince them about downsizing families will be a major effort. I blame those type of people-W.Bush,Gov.Palin,etc. for the rapid melting ice in the Artic. It is really frightening. It is happening much faster than once predicted. If we do not do something just as fast, terrorism will be considered a minor threat!!! You cannot fool mother nature and get away with it.

  • invalid-0

    Global warming isn’t real. If it is real.. why did the government Barry Obama, Nancy Piglowsi and Harriet Reed just spend billions of dollars to build more roads and transportation projects. Then the BIG THREE will try to convince the American people it’s the US fault why there is “supposed global” warming. AH burn baby burn…..global warming is a JOKE.

  • invalid-0

    Vicky is brave for stepping into population politics but she is only half brave. Stopping at 2 for the USA is not sufficient to stabilize our population. We are actually at replacement fertility currently (2.1) but our population is still growing largely because of our legal immigration policy and illegal immigration. This is the half of the bravery that she didn’t want to talk about and I suspect neither does the Obama administration. For us to have a stable population with our current immigration numbers would require a fertility of around 1.4!

    We need a population policy that implements sustainability. The Rockefeller Commission back in 1972 stated, “After two years of concentrated effort, we have concluded that, in the long run, no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the Nation’s population, rather that the gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the Nation’s ability to solve its problems. We have looked for, and have not found, any convincing economic argument for continued population growth. The health of our country does not depend on it, nor does the vitality of business nor the welfare of the average person.”

    39 years later we have around 100 million more people, an unsustainable number. When will we learn?

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/childfreetown/ invalid-0

    Not “in combination” ONLY contraception can save the environment and contraception must be the ONLY environmental action.

  • invalid-0

    the hard way. Ignorant rep. garbage. I hope it hits you first! Then you won;t be laughing.

  • vicky-markham

    Immigration is an important issue in many realms – but less so in this case, when it comes to the US population’s current environmental impact.  Why?  Because, it’s a scientific fact: immigrants simply don’t consume as much (energy, water, land area for development, forest products) per person, as those of us Americans who have lived here for generations (we’re all immigrants anyway, depending on how far you wish to look back).  So, specifically with regard to "environmental impact", the issue is more "per-capita" resource use by currently resident Americans – not by new or potential immigrants – because our impact, not theirs, is far more, when you look at the environmental data.  That may change in the future, but this is the way it currently plays out.  And, in the US we have higher resource consumption than any other industrialized nation, thus proportionately higher environmental footprint than any other nation.  It’s mainly from current Americans’ resource use, not that of potential immigrants’ resource use should they live in this country one day. 

  • http://uppercanadaasphalt.com invalid-0

    I agree with the ideas presented here. The one thing is that it is very important for women to be able to have a say in this aspect for sure. Regarding the environment and sustainability…it doesn’t matter if global warming is real or not. It is all about sustainability. The better we manage natural resources the more we can get out of these resources and as a result we will have more to work with.