Enhancing opportunities for women to thrive and have more control over their own reproductive health has been one approach to population control for which many have advocated. Is population control a problem? Should we be focusing more of our efforts on other ways of lowering human impact on the planet? – ENVR 600: Environmental Health, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Providing equal access to education improves women’s opportunities, increasing their efficacy. Doing so ends a cycle of necessary domesticity, availing new lifestyle choices. Globally, many women do not currently have equal access to education, especially in nations in which resources are disproportionately given to boys over girls; female children also disproportionately forego school in order to help with household responsibilities such as gathering water, subsistence farming, and cooking. It may be that, in these families, boys play a more social role for families—providing income and acting as representatives in their communities—and that girls are perceived as best serving the family in domestic roles. As these girls grow into young women, possibilities for upward mobility are limited; they are not trained for employment outside of the home, and are instead caught in a cycle of reproduction—staying at home and having children like their mothers before them.
Meanwhile, these families often live on limited resources; pregnant women and children need 300 to 500 extra calories each day, but mothers and female children often suffer greater malnutrition than their male counterparts due to lack of food security and inequality (Population Action 2012). As this cycle continues, population growth puts an increasing strain on available resources. Limited resources and asymmetrically gendered household responsibilities — in which many women work an average of 12 to 18 hours a day compared to an average of 8 to 12 hours a day for men — help to perpetuate the cycle of limited education and continued population growth (Jacobson, 1993; Momsen, 1998). Inequality of opportunity seems to be a significant factor, but unequal corporeal control may be another contributor.
Access to contraception has different implications for males and females. Better access to contraception helps give women more control over their bodies, and helps to facilitate increased family planning, enabling more intentional allocation of resources. Increased access to contraceptives is, however, only one piece of a larger picture. The vision for addressing the strains human growth puts on the environment, and thus the health impacts that result from those strains, could be helped by a diverse, integrated approach.
By pairing the availability of contraceptives with education, women are not only given greater control over their bodies, they are also empowered to take control of their lives. By enabling women’s increased societal roles to blossom, a deeper cultural shift may emerge. Empowered women can help lessen society’s perception of biologically based gender inequality, thus addressing disparities and advancing positive valuation of equity in access to resources. This equity, therefore, leads to more equal cooperation to provide responsible stewardship of resources: food, water, labor, and the environment that hosts them. As such, the global community will need to readdress consumption habits in order to provide fair access to Earth’s resources in a sustainable way.
When contemplating such a cultural shift, one might consider the affected families’ practical realities. Building a school in an area will not ensure that children have access to it. If the children must collect water and tend to household needs, while facing incapacitating malnutrition, ailment, and/or hygiene barriers that keep them at home, then the tool for breaking the cycle — the school — won’t be fully taken advantage of. Those who need the intervention the most will be the very ones to fall through the cracks. These household complications can limit the efficacy of improvements to education. Access to infrastructure and meeting children’s basic needs represent foundational steps to enabling such a shift. This is a big investment, but the outcomes have positive implications for both the local economy and the global arena. Through innovations and increased economic capacities, communities can improve resource security, sustainability, and physical security from interstate conflict. As such, these benefits may drive a virtuous cycle, helping to improve resource security for women and their communities.
Another consideration, however, is the rate at which the birthrate decreases. A more stable decrease in birthrate will provide a smoother transition; any sudden shock to birthrates could shock the world economy — impacting the workforce that produces food and the means for meeting other basic needs. As the elderly population becomes a higher percentage of the total population, this will put a strain on the working class to maintain a sufficient economy that provides for everyone. However, if advanced technologies are developed alongside this shift—ones which replace the need for physical human labor, and with easier attainment of resources—a global society that more evenly distributes resources, as in basic income or other modern reconceptions of resource distribution, may emerge. Then, this shock to the population model could be mitigated.
Thus, the question is what comes first: technological advancements, societal restructuring, or reduced population growth?