We all know that human population is probably the single biggest problem facing the planet–especially as demand around the world continues to rise for beef, Humvee, and iPhones (and, you know, enough to eat). I’m not one of those who thinks people are a cancer of the earth, per se, but the fact is we (especially those of us on this side of the pond) gobble up resources, dump our trash in the ocean, and chisel away daily at the last wild(ish) places.
But it’s difficult to talk about population without sounding like a privileged asshole, because birthrate is not something western countries have to worry about much. Most women in the US don’t have more than two kids, and in western Europe the birthrate hovers around 1.4. Compare these numbers to 2012 statistics for Mali and Niger, where the average woman has six or seven kids. Because of these stats, if you say “the world has a population problem,” your more thoughtful friends may point out to you that it sounds a lot like you’re saying “brown people should stop having babies.” (Yes, this conversation happened. And I’m sorry to say I wasn’t the thoughtful one.) If you don’t understand why well-meaning white people talking about brown people’s reproductive choices is problematic, here are a few words for you: coercion, eugenics, racism. Miriam Goldstein writes a good brief introduction to the nasty history of population control efforts. Our all-too-recent history is full of forced sterilizations and cruel rhetoric.
So overpopulation is a hard issue to tackle–politically and ethically–and I think that’s one reason our politicians and media don’t talk about it much these days (which certainly hasn’t always been the case).
But it turns out that population is not a very hard issue to tackle practically. Turns out, most women in the developing world don’t want to have lots of babies. Turns out, if these women know about birth control, they want it–especially if they can be discreet enough to avoid social stigma, which is unfortunately still common in many places. Turns out, the more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to seek out family planning resources and the less likely she is to have many children. Who woulda guessed.
Problem is, currently almost half a billion women in developing countries have no access to birth control (while almost a billion of these same women want to avoid pregnancy). Foreign aid for family planning services has dropped dramatically in the last two decades.
So why, you might ask, is this blog post categorized under Utopic? That’s where the Gates Foundation comes in. Melinda Gates announced last year that she was determined–after years of soul-searching–to make worldwide family planning her first priority. And she’s been careful not to let the politics creep into her rhetoric too much. Her focus is women’s health and choice. Her TED talk on the subject is inspiring, so I’ll let her speak for herself. Let’s just say it gave me some hope.