As the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA) project illustrates, an abundance of peer-reviewed scientific literature addresses various potential connections between family planning, demographic change, and environmental sustainability. Although the project does not address how the research has evolved or grown in recent decades, it likely has done both. Nonetheless, something vital is still missing from this research: It is unable to establish whether family planning has a causal effect on sustainability. (See this useful overview of some of the theoretical underpinnings linking family planning and sustainability in rural households and the degree to which these are supported by empirical evidence.)
Researchers in this field are exploring open and dynamic systems, with multiple processes influencing both family planning and sustainability. Among the characteristics that complicate the search for causality in relation to family planning are scale, time, non-linearity, the multiple forces influencing population change (rates of births, deaths, immigration, and emigration), as well as special challenges in evaluating programs that integrate family planning with other services.
Researchers are challenged by the difficulty of separating the impacts of environmental changes at different scales, as some of these impacts are more affected than others by family planning. This question has suffused much of the literature that the FPESA project has evaluated. Consider the case of East African coral reef habitats that are vulnerable to the effects of small-scale overfishing, as well as to global climate change. Researchers have made efforts to determine the impact of different stressors on these systems. However, understanding the impact of family planning on these factors requires measuring many parts of a system before and after an intervention.
For example, the marine conservation group Blue Ventures is monitoring changes in reef habitat as part of its integrated population, health, and environment (PHE) project in Madagascar, which aims to improve access to family planning services for local populations. A project that combines a PHE intervention with research seeking to determine the impact of particular drivers on an ecosystem’s condition is theoretically possible, but it is logistically complex and time-consuming, which may be largely why such research is uncommon.
Time is important because demographic change usually occurs slowly, and the environmental impacts of family planning may be felt decades after it is used. In the intervening period between the use of family planning and the change in resource conditions due to population growth, other changes, such as in harvesting practices, may occur. To determine the impact of family planning on resource quality, as opposed to the impact of changes in other factors such as resource use, researchers may need to make assumptions about the nature of these other changes, such as their rate of change or whether they take place evenly across the study area. This adds greater uncertainty to the findings.
Many natural systems are characterized by nonlinear dynamics that sometimes exhibit what are called threshold effects or tipping points. In such systems, resource quality may be stable for some time until a small change produces a dramatic decline. Effects can vary between similar systems in different locations. Predicting tipping points can be very challenging. If population growth strains a particular resource system, researchers often encounter difficulties quantifying this pressure if its impact on the resource is modified by aspects of the resource itself, such as the resource’s initial condition or sensitivity to change.
Population growth results from a combination of natural increase (births minus deaths) and net in-migration. While the former is strongly influenced by rates of contraceptive use, family planning less directly influences migration flows, which are largely subject to a host of socioeconomic and political factors. If researchers hypothesize that population growth places pressure on natural resources, the composition of this growth must be determined to understand the effects potentially attributable to family planning.
Some researchers have used longitudinal surveys (long-term studies involving frequent collections of data) of households to determine the composition of demographic change over time, which can then be compared against land cover change to understand the impact of demographics on the environment. Such longitudinal surveys, however, require considerable time and funding.
Some recent work on family planning and sustainability concerns PHE projects that seek to integrate reproductive and other health services with conservation and environmental sustainability. Many of the implementing organizations have evaluated their own work to help improve their operations. These evaluations, however, are typically not intended for peer review and publication as scientific literature to advance understanding of PHE interactions or synergies. While the FPESA project summarized some peer-reviewed literature on PHE, none is scientifically rigorous enough to justify strong conclusions about the impact of the concept. Strengthening the science behind PHE is among the research gaps that the project has identified.
Sam Sellers is a Ph.D candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill specializing in population and environment research. A native of Bainbridge Island, WA, he received a B.A. in Political Science from Swarthmore College.
This article is excerpted from the upcoming report of the findings of the Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment. The author’s complete cited references will be included in the report.