If, in the year 1800, humanity saw its goal as maximising material wealth and comfort, then we have succeeded beyond the dreams of anyone then alive. If, on the other hand, our aim had been to minimise suffering and deprivation, then we have failed utterly, with more people in severe poverty, malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions than all of humanity in 1800.

Jane O’Sullivan

The reason that these two goals are not linked is population growth. Had our population not grown, a ‘middle-class’ lifestyle would now be universal. While we can’t undo the past, we can recognise the extent to which future population is a choice. We could collectively ensure that the human population peaks between 9 and 10 billion people, thereby giving some hope of avoiding famines and civil unrest in most parts of the world, or we could continue the current laissez faire approach to population, inviting widespread calamity.

The persistent high fertility in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of central and south Asia is defying the United Nations’ projections of steady fertility decline. Without active intervention, these areas will add at least another four billion, and possibly as much as six billion, to the global population this century, or collapse in the attempt. Voluntary family planning programs have the capacity to reduce this fertility rapidly, to below-replacement levels in two to three decades, through culturally sensitive, rights-based, client-focused programs involving tried and tested methods. These programs are inexpensive – they would require less than 10% of current international aid – and invariably save national governments much more than they cost, in unneeded services for mothers and children.

Every country which has run such programs in the past has seen substantial economic development follow, after fertility fell below three children per woman. Every country where high fertility persists has failed to reduce poverty. Cobenefits for women’s empowerment, child nutrition, educational access and achievement, and environmental health, are substantial.

Low fertility does not guarantee economic prosperity and environmental improvement, but high fertility consistently precludes both. Ending population growth is a necessary, if insufficient, precondition for sustainable development. Arguments about whether other agenda might be more urgent or important are pointless, since voluntary family planning is cost-negative, actually releasing resources for other actions such as renewable energy or public health, while reducing the scale of the challenge in each other area. There is no better investment in ‘world peace and an end to poverty’.

Jane O’Sullivan