For years, I’ve maintained that one of the greatest obstacles for humanity’s future lies in reducing humanity’s number; that people are simply too numerous to continue their present rate of consumption of food and materials to allow a sustainable planet.  I have said that, instead of allowing the population to increase, we should be decreasing it, ideally to pre-industrial levels (yes–not billions, but millions), which would allow plenty of our mother planet’s resources to go around.

Robert Engelman, Vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, has provided a great deal of material to back up that premise, in his article on the Solutions website.  An End to Population Growth: Why Family Planning Is Key to a Sustainable Future provides great detail on the studies done to establish the need for negative population growth to allow planetary sustainability, and the extent to which worldwide family planning efforts, and the availability of reliable contraception, could reverse population growth within a single generation.

In early 2010, researchers with the Futures Group in Washington, DC, estimated the demographic impact of meeting unmet family-planning demand in 99 developing countries and one developed one… Using accepted models for the impact of rising contraceptive prevalence on birthrates, the researchers concluded that satisfying unmet need for contraception in these 100 countries—with a cumulative 2005 population of 4.3 billion—would produce a population of 6.3 billion in 2050. Under the United Nations’ medium projection, the countries’ population would be 400 million higher, at 6.7 billion. Average global fertility at midcentury would be 1.65 children per woman, well below the population replacement fertility level—and would continue to fall.

Much of the data is based on the idea that unintended pregnancies worldwide are so greatly contributing to population growth that preventing the majority of those alone would allow families to largely continue their present rate of intended births, and still the overall population would decline.  Further education could result in families deciding on fewer children (mainly as a reflection of hard times convincing them to limit children and avoid overtaxing the family resources), further reducing growth.

Engelman’s article suggests that no authoritarian controls would be necessary to limit population growth; he clearly believes in the power of education (not to mention an industrial complex providing worldwide contraception tools to all sexually-active women) to bring about significantly fewer births and bring population down of its own accord. But that could be a tough nut to crack, for two reasons, both having to do with education.

Historically, women would self-apply contraception measures (or infanticide) when times were hard, and there was no telling when they’d get better.  Today, it’s incredibly difficult to convince women in developed countries that times are, indeed, “hard.”  With the availability of things like credit and government assistance, even the worst of times aren’t as bad as what people used to have to go through even a century ago.  This is possibly the primary reason why the United States is the most populous of developed countries at the moment.

Another strategy employed by women in undeveloped countries has been to have a number of children, because infant mortality was always high.  Although infant mortality is dropping significantly today, thanks to the help from developed countries, women have not altered their childbirth habits significantly, and families are becoming larger on average in undeveloped areas.

Both of those educational chasms must be bridged, before we can expect to see significant changes in birthrates and contraception use among sexually-active females.  And it wouldn’t hurt to get sexually-active males on-board as well.  And even beyond the educational divide, the task of providing contraception supplies to all those women, while not impossible, would be a monumental task.

It  may be highly debatable how realistic or potentially effective the premise is.  But I would say it sounds worth pursuing with all fervor.