Like many people have in the past year, I recently read David Attenborough's book, A Life on Our Planet. This is a book I can only describe as a work of art, and reading it was an emotional rollercoaster. From feeling a deep despair while being presented with the facts and realities of the destruction of our planet, to the optimism and inspiration of the perfectly reasonable rescue plan he outlines, it's a read nobody should miss.
What I didn't expect to learn when I picked up the book was that in many ways encouraging social equality results in encouraging sustainability. This article, inspired by the work of Sir David Attenborough, will attempt to similarly outline the way sustainability can be supported by feminism and the fight against poverty.
For those with difficulty reading, or anyone who just prefers to listen to audio, the following video is a recording of this article being read. The sound quality changes a bit after the intro, but I'm sure you guys don't expect much more from me at this point!
Sustainability isn't just about saving the planet; it's about saving ourselves.
For many people sustainability and population growth aren't issues that hit home, because it's hard to imagine the entire planet collapsing. The reality is, it won't. It has certainly deteriorated at a disturbing rate, and will continue to do so unless we stop it, but nature will always reclaim what is hers.
But this isn't at all reassuring. In fact, it leaves us with two options.
The first option is to quickly change our society to one which works with nature and allows it to reclaim its ground and restore its ecosystems. The second option is to continue pushing the earth to its breaking point until it becomes uninhabitable and human life is impossible. The latter will result in what is essentially an environmental eviction; the earth will fall into another great mass extinction, and human beings will be wiped out.
This second scenario is what we are on track for now, and it is happening far more quickly than you might think; we have only a generation or two to make the most major adjustments to our lifestyles that human beings have ever seen.
Overpopulation is unsustainable.
As the population grows, the planet becomes more and more destabilised. This isn't necessarily because there are more people, but because the methods we have established to accommodate everyone are not sustainable enough to continue at the rate we are using them now, let alone at higher rates in the future.
Of course, it's not entirely representative of our situation to only be concerned with the increasing population and nothing else. That isn't the entirety of the problem here. What we need to be concerned with is creating a world with a stable population before we hit the carrying capacity of the earth.
Our planet is a finite and closed system, and its carrying capacity is defined as the maximum number of people it can sustain for an indefinite period. It's a simple truth that if we consume resources more quickly than they can replenish themselves, we will eventually run out. Unfortunately, at the moment we are using resources at around 1.7 times the rate of their repair and regrowth.
The issue, especially as the population continues to rise, is figuring out how to provide for everyone's needs without putting too much pressure on the planet.
Demographic Transition: The five stages of population growth.
Whether the population stops growing naturally or due to extinction, the human population can't increase forever. At some point, we will reach peak human, the maximum number of people on the planet. From this point, the population will either remain stable, gradually decrease to a lower equilibrium point, or drop off drastically as we suddenly die out.
Admittedly, there are many inconsistent projections being made about when we might reach peak human, and what that population size would look like. The projection David Attenborough cites in his book is an average estimation, and it claims we will be at a population of 11 billion worldwide not long after 2100. While this doesn't seem quite so terrible, it's not ideal because by this time the next great extinction will be well under way if we haven't prevented it.
So, is there anything we can do to make the population peak sooner and at a lower number? Fortunately, the answer is yes. And don't worry, these methods don't involve legal limitations of the number of children families can have.
When considering how to encourage a natural levelling-off of the population, it is helpful to first examine demographic transition. The Demographic Transition Model helps us understand how the population will grow in a given country based on that country's position among five stages. The hope is then that each country can use this information to inform their political decisions and set priorities.
The five stages are as follows:
Stage 1: Both the birth rates and death rates are high. This leads to a low and stable population, which was largely the case in pre-industrial societies due to their lesser ability to provide adequate health care.
The vast majority of the world is past this stage, and it is associated only with completely undeveloped societies.
Stage 2: As medicine is introduced, death rates fall while birth rates remain high. Population begins to climb quickly.
The least developed countries in the world are in this stage.
Stage 3: Birth rates start to level off and fall, while death rates remain low. The population is still growing, though at a lower rate than before.
The majority of the world is currently at this stage.
Stage 4: The population stabilises as both the birth and death rates become equally low.
Just a few of the most developed countries in the world are in this stage.
Stage 5: The death rates are naturally higher than the birth rates. This leads to a very slight and gradual decrease in the population.
Countries such as Japan, in which people's basic needs are met most universally and people are less focused on raising large families, have begun to shift into this stage.
At face value, it can be alarming to hear that we are aiming to get the world to a point at which every country has a death rate that is equal to or slightly higher than the birth rates. However, the thing to keep in mind is that this change comes naturally with improvements in society and is the result of overall happier people.
We can encourage countries worldwide to reach this fifth stage more rapidly in a way that benefits everyone. Let's take a look at how.
Decreasing poverty decreases population.
People who find themselves living in poverty, regardless of the reason for it, usually struggle to make their way out. The reality of the world we live in is that people need access to a certain standard of living if they are to be able to make their own decisions and take full responsibility for their family size.
This ties in closely with why the population levelling off in stage four - and decreasing in stage five - of the Demographic Transition Model correlates to more advanced societies.
When people have their basic needs met and are given access to health care, they are better able to prioritise planning for their families without worrying about the cost. In countries such as the United States, where even moderate levels of health care can quickly and easily deplete entire life savings for the average citizen, contraceptive prescriptions and other methods of family planning can often be out of the question for anyone struggling financially.
When we create a society in which everyone has a base level of support in place to have some control over their own health, we create a society that empowers people to be intentional about their family size. Another great consequence of this is that we then also have a society which can provide for all its children!
One of the best and most viable ways to raise children out of poverty is by providing them with free education. This means that if we put in the effort to encourage education in countries and communities in need around the world, we start a chain reaction that results in reaching 'peak human' sooner and at a lesser population.
According to research at Austria's Wittgenstein Centre, cited by Sir Attenborough, increasing the standard of education across the world at the rate at which it increased in our most developed nations would mean that we could reach peak population in 2060 with under 9 billion people. This is fifty years earlier and two billion people fewer than current projections, which would be a major win for our planet.
More empowered women means less children.
Just as it likely came as no surprise to you that birth rates go down when people can financially afford to have more control over when they have children, it may also come as no surprise that birth rates go down when women are empowered.
History and current statistics alike have shown time and time again that there is an inverse correlation between how educated and socially mobile women are and how many children they end up having. This is not to say that a woman who aspires to have a large family is inherently less intelligent or has any less potential in the world. It is only to say that when given the freedom of choice the majority of young women will choose to delay having children in favour of furthering their own career or personal development.
Unfortunately, in less developed countries with little access to education, girls are often the first to be held back and kept at home. All around the world, girls being prevented from getting a full education are being disadvantaged and will have little option in the future other than relying on marriage and children to support themselves. These girls also tend to have children from much younger ages, which further encourages having numerous children and results in rapid population growth in the areas in which this occurs.
Long story short, empowering women pushes a society from phase three to phase four in the Demographic Transition Model. That's where we need to be!
For a more detailed and broader discussion of these topics, check out the chapter "Planning for Peak Human" in David Attenborough's book.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Does all this sound reasonable, but leave you with no real idea of how to proceed in making a difference? Here are some ideas of things you can do if you'd like to encourage an early and sustainable peak in our population.
Adopt a child.
According to UNICEF, as of 2020 there are an estimated 153 million orphans worldwide. Adoption is an obvious way to keep the population size down while also providing a home for one of these children who are desperately in need.
It goes (almost) without saying that at the end of the day the choice is yours, and I would never go so far as to say people shouldn't have children of their own. Adoption is known for being a long and tedious process, so a lot of patience and planning in advance is required as well. Of course, you might not even be capable of supporting a child at the moment; naturally, this option isn't for everyone.
If you are thinking of starting a family and want more information about adoption, the UK government has information and resources for you on this website.
Support the safety and education of women and girls.
Since giving women the opportunity to hold their own by themselves in the world for as long as they can often results in their happily having fewer children, supporting their education is essentially an effort in sustainability!
It's equally important to support girls who struggle with issues which may lead them to drop out of school or make them unable to maintain a career which allows them to survive on their own.
Here are some organisations working to support women and girls:
Wonder Foundation supports girls in their education.
Fawcett Society fights for equal pay and equal representation of women in government, among other wonderful causes.
Women's Aid provides life-saving support for women and children suffering from domestic abuse and violence.
Imkaan protects minority women and girls in the UK from domestic violence, forced marriage, and 'honour-based' violence.
For a more complete list of even more incredible charities and organisations you can support, check out this article.
Help build or fund schools in less-developed countries.
Taking a gap year and have some money to spare? Organisations like Habitat for Humanity and Projects Abroad will let you join their teams abroad and build important facilities, including schools, for impoverished communities.
Not ready to pack your bags and pay the fees? That's definitely understandable! You can support the same causes by donating to the following:
Any of these organisations aimed at sponsoring girls abroad.
These are just a few of many ways we can encourage giving every person ownership of their own life and the decisions they make. In turn, these healthier societies will eventually experience a natural levelling-off of the population as women and children are able to choose different lifestyles other than those centred around large families.
Who knew human rights would be so environmentally friendly?