Women are the key, but to what? Well, one could think of many answers, but there’s one in particular that, according to two eminent authorities, not only deserves to be taken seriously, but requires acting upon at the very highest levels. That answer is sustainable population, the need for which is manifestly unarguable since our future as a species depends on it.
It’s clear that our numbers on this small planet are growing at a rate that already prevents any real quality of life for billions, and threatens what quality is currently enjoyed by the rest of us; as Gaia Vince points out in her excellent book, Adventures In The Anthropocene: “It took 50,000 years for humans to reach a population of 1 billion, but just the last ten years to add the latest billion” (my italics).
Quality of life is one thing, the other is that this population explosion must ultimately jeopardise our very existence if not corrected. But why, you may wonder, are women the answer to getting our reproduction under control, when it takes two people of opposite genders to produce another human being? The answer is that experience shows that generally women are the key, for several good reasons linked to personal knowledge and autonomy. As Sir David Attenborough has said:
“You’ll discover in countries where women have control over their own bodies, where they have education, where they have birth control, where they have facilities and where they are literate – when those things happen, the birth rate falls. Always. Always.”
In much of the developed world, where women have the benefits of education, birth control and choice, birth rates have fallen or stabilised; it’s mainly (though not entirely) in less developed countries that the problem applies, where major problems are both poverty, which can cause children to be seen as an essential resource to support the family, and the fact that some cultures and religious practices unfortunately still treat women as second class citizens, with access to education and/or birth control being either restricted or prevented.
In the developed world a perhaps partly interlinked combination of birth rates, migration and cultural factors can also result in an ultimately unsustainable population growth. This is currently the trend in the UK, as a recent Population Matters briefing outlines: “Population growth in the UK will drive up the future cost of living. The UK is already among the top 10 most expensive countries in the world, but a coming scarcity of construction and energy resources is likely to increase this still further (and) population growth is putting public services under untenable strain. We argue that, while technological improvements and better lifestyle choices can improve the situation, ultimately, population size needs to stabilise.”
It’s arguably the case that here, too, education and female equality are major factors in addressing the need to bring about this stabilisation.
As individuals, if we want to do something to help – apart of course from limiting our own family sizes – we might do worse than supporting the inspirational Malala Yousafzai in her drive to bring education to young women everywhere, or by supporting the following two bodies:
Population Matters, who have as their vision: “A future with decent living standards for all, a healthy and biodiverse environment, and a stable and sustainable population size.”
The Population Institute’s vision is: “a world where girls and women have achieved full gender equality; all women have access to reproductive health services, every child is a wanted child, and where global population is brought into balance with a healthy global environment and resource base.”
We do need to act: the net global population is rapidly approaching seven and a half billion, and just during the drafting of this article is estimated (by Population Matters) to have increased by more than 50,000!