Condoms and Climate: The Role of Family Planning

Feb 27th, 2014 | By | Category: Family Planning

By Suzanne York,

One solution to easing the effects of global climate change is one that is not often heard – that of voluntary family planning.

At a talk this week on “Condoms and Climate” given at the Commonwealth Club of California, Alan Weisman, author of Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? and Dr. Malcom Potts of the Bixby Center for Population, Health & Sustainability at UC Berkeley, advocated for linking family planning as a means of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Weisman noted that every 4.5 days a million people are added to the planet, saying that “there is no question humans have become more numerous than nature intended.”  In the long run, stabilizing global population can help.

In Potts’ opinion, family planning is the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon.   Voluntary family planning services are wanted. There are 222 million women around the world who want to plan their families but have an unmet need for modern contraception.   Making it available to women and men is estimated to cost $8 billion a year – about a billion dollars more than what Americans spent to celebrate Halloween last year.

Potts said that “when you respect women and give them choices, fertility goes down” and that the world has been “blind and stupid” about not offering family planning to those who want it.  He mentioned Thailand’s success in lowering its total fertility rate in the 1970s.  One such effort to help bring it down was the innovative Cabbages and Condoms restaurant in Bangkok, started by a man who believed birth control should be accessible, as easy as buying cabbage from the market. The restaurant promotes safe sex education (Potts was wearing a nifty condom-themed tie sold there).

[photo credit:]

Bringing the discussion back toward climate change and population growth, Weisman stated the problem is simply that we have more people demanding more stuff, resulting in more carbon dioxide.  Last year, carbon dioxide levels hit 400 parts per million.  “There hasn’t been this much carbon in the atmosphere in 3 million years,” he said.  And with projections that world population will be 9.6 billion by 2050, with more middle and upper class consumers consuming more stuff, temperatures and carbon levels will continue to rise. Potts believes that by investing in family planning, population could decline to 6 billion by the end of the century.

In the meantime, addressing the needs of the 7 billion plus currently on the planet is a big task, especially in terms of food.  And even though the Green Revolution, founded by Norman Borlaug, staved off mass famine in the 1970’s, don’t expect technology to save the day.  In fact, Weisman said Borlaug warned that this would only buy humanity a little time and that it would have to confront continued population growth.  A warming world is only going to exacerbate food security.  Weisman cited a National Academy of Science report statistic that for every 1 degree Celsius of warming, crop yields drop 10 percent.

Display at Cabbages and Condoms [photo credit:]

That is why contraceptives are so important.  Of course reducing consumption is also critical (Weisman called out the global meat industry for 51 percent of worldwide greenhouse emissions), and promoting new economic thinking, such as a steady state economy.

Ultimately, it comes down to investing in people.  Some of the best solutions, according to Potts, are universal family planning, investing in girls’ education, and raising the age of marriage/ending child marriage.  These are the investments that can lower carbon footprints and result in healthier lives and a cleaner environment.

Suzanne York is a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.