A Perfect Storm

Extract from A PERFECT STORM APPROACHING  by Professor John Guillebaud

So what is the biggest lie? Business as usual can continue!

All religions encourage love for one’s neighbour. But how can we ever claim to be really loving our neighbour’ if we leave out of consideration our neighbour overseas (who will suffer most from climate change) or, as Brundtland highlighted in Our Common Future (1987), our future neighbour, receiving from us a comprehensively trashed planet? Besides the use of ‘greener’ technology and less consumption per-person, this surely means ceasing the growth in sheer numbers of persons (future ‘neighbours’), by using contraception – but always and only, in Jonathon Porritt’s words “wisely, democratically and compassionately”.

See also my 2013 TEDx lecture: ‘Sex and the Planet’



What is the climate change impact of having one less child from an affluent setting?

  A 2009 study estimated that by adopting available ‘eco-friendly’ actions, including meticulous recycling, an American couple could curb their lifetime carbon footprint by 486 tonnes. Simply by having one less child an American woman would reduce her ‘carbon legacy’ – i.e. the summed emissions of herself and her descendants weighted by relatedness – by 9,441 tonnes. This is c 20-fold (in the UK c 10-fold) more than saved by the other positive eco-actions. Moreover each new UK baby will ultimately be responsible for an estimated c 35 times more GHG emissions than one in Bangladesh.


Such calculations support, for affluent people in this world of (in 2017) 7,500 million, choosing a smaller instead of larger family, regardless of their ability to provide for the latter; or a voluntary guideline of a maximum of two children as advocated by www.populationmatters.org. Two facts are incontrovertible: our finite planet will not support unending growth, currently at c 90 million annually; and once a TFR of 2 (or slightly higher, 2.1 with current mortality rates) becomes the mean human family size population growth will certainly eventually cease. So why should it be controversial, to propose that this parental replacement fertility becomes the accepted upper-limit norm, with full ‘ownership’ by civil society, everywhere?

The obstacles are massive, not least that the starting-point in all settings, for probably most women and very many men, is a feeling – often reinforced by culture and religion – that they cannot satisfy their parental instincts by having just 2 children. These urges often trump, sadly, the altruism required to change one’s preferences in the interests of posterity and the biosphere.

Environmental and reproductive health education via the media.

 Sexual and reproductive health has been successfully promoted in many countries through radio and TV ‘soap operas’, as described at www.populationmedia.org These long-running culturally-embedded dramas educate through their popular characters who are torn between good and bad influences.

Studies show demeaning attitudes and behaviour towards women are thereby changed and the listening audience discovers inter alia the benefits of family planning and small family norms. This “Sabido methodology” utilising information entertainment can also be used similarly, as in Rwanda, to promote environmental conservation and sustainable agriculture.

The obstacles are not insuperable: education is the key, including population & environmentaleducation.

Despite having – commonly – higher education, many affluent couples – in all countries – have no concept of finitude of the planet or of the unsustainability of unremitting growth of population. However it is patronising to suggest that less prosperous and less educated people lack the intelligence to acquire it, if given the opportunity by education and the media, as indeed was demonstrated by interviews about adaptation to climate change in Ethiopia [www.bmj.com/content/bmj/353/bmj.i2102.full.pdf].

The affluent do at least have the means to be able to access contraceptives, unlike many in Africa, the continent of my birth. However the incidence of unplanned conceptions in both teenagers and adults – 40% in the world (annual total c80 million) and 49% in the affluent US – shows there is more to it than access. Any contraceptive may fail. A voluntary guideline must never penalise large families where child poverty is commonest, there must be a good safety net for unintended/later-order births. Crucially, to criticise let alone demonise parents at any level of affluence, anywhere, who have already had larger families is decidedly unfair if, as so commonly, this environmental dimension was not remotely in their mind set, having never previously been brought to their attention (however well-informed some of them are about almost everything else!)

Back in 1992 James Grant of UNICEF said in their Annual Report:

Family planning “could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other single technology now available to the human race” (The State of the World’s Children, 1992)

But, he went on to say: “it is not appreciated widely enough that this would still be true if there were no such thing as a population problem.” This is because it is also wonderful preventive medicine, a directly humanitarian intervention: people – mostly women and children – suffer if family planning is inaccessible. A UK All-Party parliamentary report www.appg-popdevrh.org.uk/Return-of-the-Population-Growth-Factor.pdf has a Table which shows exactly that, how all of the Millennium Development Goals that in 2000 were deemed essential to improve the lives of individuals are adversely impacted by population growth. For example: Goal 2 to achieve universal primary education required two million extra teachers per year just to maintain existing standards of education; Goal 4 to reduce child mortality necessitated – inter alia – fewer, wider-spaced births which can reduce infant mortality by over 60%; and Goal 5 (Target 5A) reducing by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio must require the elimination of unwanted pregnancies estimated then as c 41% of the global total conceptions. People rightly worry about coercive contraception, but it is also possible for there to be coerced conceptions: forcing women to conceive, through not allowing them to exercise their modern-day human right to control their fertility, as they may choose. Without those conceptions the outrageous avoidable mortality of 800 mothers every 24 hours could reduce by 35%. In sum, you cannot die of a pregnancy you don’t have (and would have avoided if you had had fully accessible family planning).

These facts make this a win-win intervention, indeed a moral imperative: but over the years cost-benefit analyses have never failed to show how it also always saves money. They differ only in how much it saves: a recent estimate (2006) is that for every dollar spent in family planning, between 2 and 6 US dollars can be saved in interventions aimed at achieving other development goals. This is without consideration of the avoided environmental damage, which would be a far greater sum.

Conclusion: How many wake-up calls does humanity need?

They come almost daily now, and not only from the 99% of climate scientists who appear collectively more frantic with each IPPC report, showing global warming increasing inexorably to or above 2 degrees Celsius, the level which poses an “existential threat to the human race”. Scary words, yet – despite the tweets of Donald Trump – disregarded they cannot be. They are evidence-based. The most authoritative, most scary, of all alarms was sounded or rather re-sounded in 2017:

World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity – A Second Notice (1992 repeated in 2017)

In 1992 the following (and more) was signed by over half of all living Nobel Laureates:

 The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite….Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth [Then: 5.4 billion. In 2017 at +25: 7.6 billion] put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth….No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.

In 2017 in excess of 15,000 scientists worldwide signed off with:

To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to BAU ‘business as usual’. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home. https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/12/1026/4605229

Now this, received on November 15 2018, from Professor Paul Ehrlich (he of the Population Bomb 1970):

To my fellow humanity, The press is full of stories about problems caused, at least in part, by the conjoined but unmentionable ‘twin elephants’ of population growth and overconsumption. Yet, spiking food and energy prices, water shortages, increasingly severe weather, melting ice caps, dying coral reefs, worldwide toxification, disappearing polar bears, collapsing infrastructures, terrorism, the rise of fascistic leaders, and novel epidemics are almost never connected, to these seemingly invisible ‘elephants’. And while science has long proven there are limits to sustainable human numbers, and to humanity’s aggregate consumption, those limits are never discussed, and politicians believe in the oxymoronic “sustainable growth”. Will technology save us? It can help, but its record is generally dismal. When The Population Bomb was published 50 years ago, there were 3.5 billion people, and we were called alarmist – the glib response was technology could feed, house, clothe, educate, and provide great lives to ‘even’ 5 billion people. Nuclear agro-industrial complexes or growing algae on sewage would feed everyone. Well, they didn’t. Instead, the roughly half-billion hungry people then have increased to about two billion hungry or micronutrient malnourished today…a couple billion more are living in misery. Why don’t the growth maniacs stop asserting how many billions more people we could care for and focus first on stopping population growth and giving decent lives to all the people already here? And spare us that old bromide about how the next kid may turn out to be the Einstein who saves us; considering the rich-poor gap, it’s more likely to be an Osama Bin Laden bent on destroying us or a Donald Trump fuelling them with hatred…. Can we save the world? Look, we are facing millions of years of evolution where ‘survival of the fittest’ defined our evolutionary progress was dependent on outbreeding others. In light of that, can we turn things around without a cataclysmic event? I don’t know, but like me, I hope you’ll agree that we can’t give up.

Finally, a personal statement

First, my apologies: that the foregoing is “not exactly a bundle of laughs”. That’s because I feel I can only “tell it how it is”, based on scientific evidence and ultimately laws: the laws of maths, physics and biology. This is already self-evident to the informed reader who is also an objective observer.

Following decades of my vigorously advocating for voluntary contraception, as the neglected “upstream” intervention to stabilise and eventually even to reduce human numbers: with much trepidation I have concluded that it may now be too late. I see continuing inaction on all 3 factors in that I=PAT equation on anything like the necessary scale. Consequently there are more than enough humans already born and here to comprehensively trash this fragile and beautiful planet before the end of this century – through habitat destruction, climate chaos, much violence and more. What is totally unavoidable and indeed certain is an eventual return to sustainability. The planet is finite (and 70% is salt water).

That said, one’s understandable feelings of utter helplessness can, even so, still be resisted. In all the worst-case “perfect storms”, advocacy for birth reduction through access to contraception does not cease to be crucial, it just then has to become a last-resort measure primarily to reduce suffering. How? Through lowering possibly by billions the number of humans to suffer and to die prematurely, along with much non-human life, through the expected floods, fires, starvation, disease and violence of the later decades of this century. Even in that ghastly and truly dystopian scenario, is it not better for ultimate sustainability to be achieved by as much birth reduction as possible? Rather than leaving it, by default and ‘BAU’, to unprecedented death increases??

Yet, as one of my heroes Paul Ehrlich says above, we can’t give up. While I have breath I shall work with him and others, in “Last Chance Saloon”, where there is still that, a last chance: to prevent the avoidable and to mitigate the unavoidable. Please join us. See the Warning, Apology and the Promise, as in Chris’s song, at  www.ecotimecapsule.com

PS: Removal of the barriers to an individual’s control of her own fertility

 [An updated summary, first presented in 2007 to Dr Damascene, Minister of Health of Rwanda, the country of my childhood].

Costa Rica, Cuba, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and SOUTH India (even) have reduced their Total Fertility Rate (TFR or “average family size”) to close to 2 which is replacement – as quickly as China, but primarily through a rights-based approach and without the coercion that has featured in China.

How? What do these vastly different developing countries have in common? Their governments recognized the population-poverty connection and removed the barriers to family planning (FP). Vanishingly few women desire the biological maximum of children (> 8). Most want far fewer. So there is always some perceived unmet need (varied, often >25 % according to Demographic Health Surveys). We need to push at that open door…

Some barriers to optimal Reproductive Health (RH) plus FP provision  

Ø Pro-natalism: operating at a deep level through culture and increased by competition between tribal or religious groupings (“numbers give power”) or enlarging markets – affecting both genders but especially male.

Ø Gender inequality and abuse. Also double standards: “if my wife has contraception I won’t be able to trust her not to go with other men” (Fact that he often goes with other women not seen as relevant!)

Ø Religion: mainly but not only Roman Catholic (RC), with Vatican prohibiting all but Natural Family Planning (NFP) which fails ++ because requires MUCH abstinence to work. [Yet another “double standard” here: in ALL developed nations use of all non-NFP methods by RCs who have money is same as by non-RCs!]

Ø Misinformation: egg the Pill or injection permanently harm future fertility; or are adulterated (understandable as indeed reported in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) for other drugs); FP more dangerous than being ‘natural’ [yet life-time risk of dying from pregnancy is between 1:10 and 1:20 in SSA whereas is 1: 30,000 in Sweden where contraceptives are universally used!]

Ø Deliberate disinformation: e.g. condoms have tiny holes to transmit HIV.

Ø Lack of supplies of contraceptives: egg not available (or only condoms and sterilization), not accessible (husband or priest stopping use), not affordable (egg Implant, needs subsidy), and not predictably obtainable (supplies run out but sex continues!).

Ø Perception that using condoms within marriage must mean “either you have HIV or you think I’m a risk to you” [argues for availability of more effective FP like injections to be used AS WELL].

Removal of barriers

First, benign government endorsement measures + education + the varied appropriate use of all Media

Then: –

Ø Women’s education helps much; but many MEN need sex & gender RE-education too! And every human needs better ecological education, to accept the finiteness of the planet and hence the eco-concept of replacement fertility (a norm that family size should be no more than 2).

Ø Media crucial: both direct and indirect promotion, best using humour (e.g. Mechai’s weekly radio chat-show in 1970s Thailand) and health-promoting radio ‘Soaps’. These informational entertainments inform and correct misinformation, as popular characters discuss taboo issues (see www.populationmedia.org). The ‘morning-after pill’ can be discussed (even how to make it yourself from widely-available FP pills).

Ø Using text-messaging to give correct information, e.g. to counter rumours about FP side effects. Endorsement by “celebs” like football stars and TV personalities, and by peers – especially for the young.

Ø Endorsement by religious leaders, re-examining the issues (e.g. in Iran they issued edicts that FP is NOT against the Koran): and saying in public that God wants us to have only the children we can properly care for so FP is truly a good thing not sinful.

Ø As in Iran, requiring couples to learn about family planning before obtaining a marriage licence.

Resourcing of supplies – making a wider choice available, accessible and affordable.

Ø Removal of the “medical barrier” by direct social marketing of Pill and injections through dukas (small local shops). This IS good practice especially when combined with simple check-lists – and works!

Ø Means less reliance on sterilization, so people accept ‘strong’ long-acting FP methods (including IUDs as appropriate) at lower parity than they are bound to do when sterilization is so final.

Ø Vasectomy – can be a relevant option in Africa. Even back in 1987 ONAPO in Rwanda reported to the IPPF that more than 50 Rwandans had accepted this and were beginning to tell their friends about it….

For more info, visit: www.ecotimecapsule.com www.populationandsustainability.org www.populationmatters.org www.bmj.com/content/bmj/353/bmj.i2102.full.pdf               Or contact: jguillebaud@btinternet.com

© John Guillebaud Professor Emeritus of Family Planning and Reproductive Health at University College London   June 2019