Better access to birth control would reduce stress on global resources, report says

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 30 April 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3077
  1. Nigel Hawkes
  1. 1 London

The rich should consume less and the poor should procreate less, says the Royal Society in a new report.

Better access to family planning would reduce population growth by satisfying “a large unmet need for contraception” and would reduce stress on the world’s environment and resources, it claims. Voluntary restraint on consumption in the richest parts of the world would have the same effect. To aid the change, human welfare should be measured in different ways that lay less emphasis on purely economic criteria.

The report was produced by a working party chaired by John Sulston, who headed the UK part of the Human Genome Project, and took 21 months to research and write. Sulston said, “The world now has a very clear choice. We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption. We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet, and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices.

“Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, sociopolitical, and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.”

Others took a different view. Calling it “an appallingly bad report,” Tim Worstall, a senior fellow at the free market Adam Smith Institute in London, said that the economic analysis was good but the conclusions drawn from it were not. It reads as if those writing one half of the report had failed to read the other half, he said, comparing it to the Limits to Growth report of the early 1970s, whose gloomy predictions of resource exhaustion, poisonous pollution, and mass hunger had, he said, been disproved by history.

The report examines trends in consumption of four key commodities: water, food, energy, and minerals. It found huge global disparities between rich nations and poor ones: a child from the developed world consumes 30-50 times as much water as one from the developing world, and carbon emissions, a measure of energy consumption, are up to 50 times higher in high income than low income countries.

To narrow these gaps, it calls for the developed world to tighten its belt and for poorer countries to make development easier by reducing the birth rate. Eliminating food waste, cutting the burning of fossil fuels, and switching economies from goods to services are among the measures the rich might take without reducing prosperity. Use of gross domestic product as virtually the sole indicator of an economy’s health should be abandoned, the report says. It suggests a broader definition of prosperity that includes measures of the value of “natural capital” that nature provides for free.

Reproductive health and family planning urgently require political leadership and financial commitment, the report says, echoing views last articulated before the 1974 United Nations Population Conference in Bucharest. That conference failed because it was seen by developing countries as an attempt by rich countries to impose their values and because it was recognised that population growth falls after economic development has taken place, not before.

Since then population control has largely been off the political agenda. The Royal Society report makes it clear that it is not calling for “coercive” population control.

The report notes that the annual rise in the world’s population peaked in the 1990s and that the rate of population growth has been declining overall since the 1960s. But the growth in numbers will continue, though at a slowing rate, for the next few decades. “This is an absolutely critical period for people and the planet,” Sulston said, “with profound changes for human health and wellbeing and the natural environment. Where we go is down to human volition—it’s not pre-ordained. It’s in our hands.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3077