Laying the foundation for the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment in 2014 and early 2015, we contacted experts with some experience in both fields for guidance — and their takes on the state of research connecting family planning, population, and environmental sustainability.
There aren’t many such experts, but they can be found. Defying the disciplinary walls that separate reproductive health from the environmental sciences, a small group of researchers has delved over the past few decades into possible connections between these two fields. Many of those we interviewed contributed significantly to the design of our search for scientific evidence on the linkages.
Logic and research suggest that growing populations tend to contribute to various environmental stresses. So, by extension, if wider use of family planning slows population growth, it should generally produce some benefits in slowing the pace of human-caused environmental change. Experts agreed, however, that this relationship is complex, under-researched, and not well or uniformly documented.
Reproductive health, family planning, population, and the state of the environment interact in individual human lives—sometimes intensively, especially in low-income communities where livelihoods are closely linked to local natural resources. However, research (and the funders behind it) rarely examines this integrated dynamic. In the professional development community, demography, health, and individual environmental topics typically fall into silos, reflecting the disciplinary specialty of researchers or the focus of funders.
We need to establish this as a new field of research study … because you can’t solve new problems with old ways of thinking.”
In developing countries, some community-based programs work to improve family planning access and natural resource conservation at the same time. But experts noted that even where there are evaluations of such population, health, and environment (PHE) programs, they may not be widely published or otherwise communicated, especially in peer-reviewed journals. This results in lost opportunities for information sharing in research communities that are potentially interested in the connection between family planning and environmental sustainability (FP-ES)—as well as in policy and advocacy circles and in the PHE program community itself.
There is a natural tension between research and community well-being when documenting the effectiveness of PHE programs. The urgency of addressing problems on the ground—such as poor management of natural resources or limited access to reproductive health services—calls for near-term results, with less attention to longer-term efforts to improve scientific understanding of what works, how, and why. Undergoing peer review becomes even less likely under such funding and under time pressure to “just do it,” with or without documentation and evaluation.
“If I had to identify a gap in attention to population-environment and FP-ES issues universally, the need for more peer-reviewed research on these integrated topics would be it,” noted Dr. Mark Montgomery, a senior associate at the Population Council and professor of economics at Stony Brook University in New York.
Several experts suggested that the integrated character of FP-ES connections is a hindrance to research, requiring as it does holistic observation and data collection that few experts receive training to do and that few funders are accustomed to supporting. Data points add up differently, and units of analysis differ, complicating measurement and assessment of their interactions.
“The community working on FP-ES is mainly advocates, policy specialists, campaigners, and journalists—but not researchers,” noted Dr. Lynne Gaffikin, a medicine and public health associate professor at Stanford University. “We need to cultivate researchers and provide the money [to support their work]. We need to establish this as a new field of research study, a new way of thinking, because you can’t solve new problems with old ways of thinking.”
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This article is excerpted from the upcoming report of the findings of the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment. A list of experts the author interviewed and their affiliations will be included in the report.