World Population Day – It’s Not Contraceptives That Matter


One of the little amusements of current day fashionable opinions is the manner in which they collide. For example, we are told that mere technology just won’t save us on the grand environmental questions. We must change our ways, it is necessary to become New People in order to save Gaia.

Yet when we come to population then it’s all technology, technology all the time. Everyone gets contraceptives and the problem’s done. Rather than, for example, thinking that we all become new people by shagging a bit less. Or, possibly more relevantly, we desire fewer children therefore we have fewer children.

Which is why we get this for World Population Day:

A UN-backed campaign has been launched to help tackle the destruction of wildlife by boosting people’s access to contraception. Growing human populations often underlie the destruction of nature, and barriers to family planning are the “most important ignored environmental challenge”, say the campaigners.

The Thrive Together campaign, launched on World Population Day, unites more than 150 reproductive health and conservation organisations, which spend a combined £8bn a year in 170 countries. The groups say they intend to work together to both improve the lives of people and arrest the huge losses of biodiversity by reducing population growth. “There is very often an overlap of areas facing the greatest need for improved reproductive health services and for conservation,” says a declaration signed by the groups, which include the UN Population Fund, the Jane Goodall Institute and Marie Stopes International. “We believe that by working together we can help human communities and their ecosystems thrive.”

Sure, we can see the logic. Habitat destruction is probably the greatest threat to biodiversity. So, less of that and we’ll do better on the other. Poor peasants clearing land to grow runty corn is a major cause of habitat loss. Have fewer peasants and there’ll be less loss. Sure, the logic works.

It does rather miss a few steps of course. How do we have fewer peasants and their runty corn? Maybe by getting richer, so that we all live in the cities with vast and efficient latifundia – chemical powered of course, laced even – growing the food. That reduces habitat loss. Both by using land more efficiently and also because urban peeps tend to have fewer children. Actually, richer people have fewer children.

It’s not actually the contraception:

So too with contraception. Of course those who wish to limit their fertility should have the ability to do so. And if circumstance means they’ve not the ability to do so we can and perhaps should help. But it’s not the availability of contraception which reduces fertility. The usual estimation is that about 10% of any fall in the fertility rate comes from that general availability of effective contraception. The other 90% comes from the fall in desired fertility. Which seems logical enough. Fertility rates did first start falling long before the invention of cheap, modern, contraceptives. Plus, obviously enough, people must desire to have fewer children before they’ll employ a technology which produces fewer children.

What is it that reduces desired fertility? The joint effects of the intertwined increasing urbanisation and increasing richness of society. Richer people have fewer children. Urban populations have fewer than rural. As places become richer they become more urban. So, what do we need to do in Africa to reduce future population growth? Aid Africa in becoming rich. All else is tinkering around the edges.

There is that scream of rage at the insistence upon incorrect policy of course. But laced with that amusement. The cure for our environmental ills is not technology except with fertility when it is – contraception.

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