Over the coming weeks, the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project will be providing advance peeks at peer-reviewed scientific papers from the last decade that offer evidence on the link between family planning and environmental sustainability. We’ll include brief annotations, hyperlinks to the papers or their abstracts, and summaries of our assessments of their value to our hypothesis that family planning benefits the environment. These assessments are still a work in progress, and they probably will remain so even after we publish a report this spring on our findings. We hope to continue and learn from this work for some time to come.
But first, a word on our sponsor.
Our work … is rooted in a common global understanding that has evolved over several decades.
No, not the funders that have made this project possible, though it’s true that we wouldn’t be here without them. (Thank you, United Nations Foundation Universal Access Project, Turner Foundation, and Wallace Global Fund.) Rather, in a broader sense, our work in assessing the scientific evidence base for environmental benefits of family planning is rooted in a common global understanding that has evolved over several decades. There is now a fertile ground of shared values that allow us to work on this sensitive and often controversial linkage with confidence that we are not dehumanizing any group of people or urging coercion or imposition of some kind of environmental obligation on the reproductive behaviors of women or couples.
Our work on the FPESA project is consistent with the consensus of those in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights and related fields that the use of family planning must always be based on the fundamental human right of all individuals and couples to decide for themselves the timing and spacing of pregnancy. Even if some of the scientific evidence we assess suggests an urgency to slowing the growth of population to ease pressure on natural resources and the environment (and some does), this principle is paramount. So is the principle that the importance, value, dignity, and rights of girls and women should be equal everywhere to those of boys and men, and that politics, economics, law, and culture should reflect and support this equality.
There have certainly been times when these principles have been undermined or shunted aside—sometimes in the interest of boosting population growth, sometimes to slow it down. China tries to control its population even today by restricting childbearing. The population field has to live with its history—and with at least one misguided policy in the present. But we at FPESA believe that the mindset of demographic control is passing and is unlikely to return given growing respect worldwide for human rights and individual choice.
Perpetual vigilance against such a return of the control mentality is essential.
Perpetual vigilance against such a return of the control mentality is essential. But absent evidence that such a threat exists, the FPESA project has seen no reason to shy away from evidence that population growth threatens environmental sustainability. At the same time, we hypothesize that there also are non-demographic pathways through which family planning contributes to sustainability, and we explore these as well.
In part to demonstrate the global acceptance of the rights basis of family planning and its consistency with evaluation of scientific evidence on the population-environment linkage, we have gathered an international network of some two dozen researchers and some leaders of nongovernmental organizations to help us conduct the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment. The group is evenly divided by sex, and most of its members are in or from developing countries in all three major regions (Latin America, Africa, and Asia). If we or any of the authors whose papers we examine ever appear to veer from our stated values in this work, we can count on FPESA network members to raise a question or concern.
The fact that such concerns have been minor, almost non-existent, reflects an encouraging bit of scientific information. In the 936 papers published since 2005 that we have studied so far, we have not identified one that argued for a weakening of the rights basis of family planning. True, a few authors use terms such as “overpopulation” or “population control” that earn winces from some of us who work in this field. But in each case that we encountered such terms, it seemed clear that they reflected more of a lack of familiarity with common word usage in this field and not a conviction that coercion or anything resembling it has a place in family-planning or population policy.
In the weeks to come, you can expect to see a number of descriptions, annotations, and assessments of some of the more relevant, interesting, or compelling pieces of scientific research that the FPESA project has identified over the last two years. Some of this research makes no mention of family planning, women’s rights, education, or anything else directly pertaining to the values described above. None of it is inconsistent with these values, the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights, or the importance of women and girls standing in equality with men and boys everywhere. If you disagree, please let us know. And we welcome your comments on any other aspect of the project and its work.
Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at Worldwatch and director of its Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA).