Small families, big impacts

Ivan Cicin-Sain explains why family planning and educated women are crucial elements in the fight for a more sustainable planet.

We live in one of the most prosperous eras for humanity. Life expectancy and living standards are at record levels globally, and the occurrence of death from war or violence is currently very low. Despite this, our future is increasinlgy uncertain. Human civilisation is at risk from climate change, antibiotic resistance, resource scarcity and, potentially, artificial intelligence. At the same time, non-human life is not doing so well. Biodiversity is in decline and wildlife populations have dropped by 58% since 1970. The number of livestock (cows, pigs, sheep and chickens) is increasing in order to ‘feed’ human living standards, but their own quality of life and life expectancy is unenviable. 

Human overconsumption is a pressing concern – in particular, fossil fuel emissions, plastic pollution, water stress and the scarcity of certain metals, such as copper, aluminium and iron. During the past 100 years, carbon emissions per head have increased considerably (about threefold), but so too has the number of consumers – from 1.8 billion to 7.6 billion, a fourfold increase. Multiplying these two factors results in a roughly 12-fold increase in total global emissions since 1900, and this is the main cause of climate change. Apart from global warming, human activities continue to augment biodiversity loss and resource scarcity or degradation. 

Projecting the future

Although global emissions have stabilised in the past few years, excessive quantities of greenhouse gases are still being pumped into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations of CO2. As affluence levels increase in developing countries, their emissions also tend to rise; coupled with significant population growth, the implications are significant. To reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations, our total emissions need to decrease significantly. 

The human population (and associated livestock) is still increasing – the UN projects that there will be 9.8 billion people in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Granted, the population growth rate is decreasing, and many (including the late Hans Rosling) see poverty reduction as the magic bullet for population: as individual countries have risen out of poverty, their population growth has slowed down.
This ‘demographic transition’, however, is happening grindingly slowly in some countries. Our finite planet does not have the time or the resources for such a transition on a global scale, and a passive approach to achieving a sustainable population will almost certainly result in widespread suffering and environmental destruction. In addition to poverty alleviation, gender equality, family planning and the promotion of smaller families are essential. 


A smaller unit

When women are educated and have the same decision-making power as men, they tend to have their first child later in life and opt for smaller families. To realise this decision, they also need high quality family planning services. Currently, more than 200 million women worldwide have an unmet need for family planning.

The UN is aware of the societal benefits of family planning and empowering women, but does not make an explicit link to the alleviating effects it has on population size, climate change and resource degradation. This could be for political reasons – it may be worried about being misunderstood and criticised. However, many environmental NGOs, including Friends of the Earth, now openly acknowledge the impact of population growth. In its recent policy position on population (November 2017), the group specifically mentions the causal link between women’s rights and smaller, more sustainable families. 

Many scientists have been less shy. In November last year, 15,000 signed up to a Warning to Humanity, which identified population growth as a “primary driver” of environmental crisis and called for better planning and education to bring down family size. They also called for the estimation of “a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term while rallying nations and leaders to support that vital goal.” Since its publication, 5,000 more scientists have endorsed the warning. Meanwhile, comprehensive research into climate change solutions has been conducted by Project Drawdown, a broad coalition of researchers and scientists. Its list of solutions shows that empowering women and girls is closely ranked with investment in renewable electricity generation and food efficiency (more plant-based diets and less food wastage). 

Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas’s article The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions, published in Environmental Research Letters, compares the annual emissions of several common environmental actions in tonnes of CO2- equivalent. It shows that no environmental action comes close to the impact of having one less child in a developed country: this has 20 times more of an environmental benefit than living without a car, and 70 times more impact than being a vegan. 

Source: The Guardian; Wynes and Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

Family size is a personal issue, but then so is lifestyle. Even when children are brought up to live in an environmentally efficient way, a greater number of people inevitably consumes more than a smaller number. Having one less child reduces a person’s ecological footprint more than everything else they can do put together – particularly when you take into account the impact of that child’s descendants.

What you can do

We live in a world of doing, consumerism and techno-fixes, but it is our ‘not doing’ that generates the most benefits for the planet. This includes not having one extra child, but can also include not having that additional flight, or skipping a meat-based meal. The reduce-reuse-recycle hierarchy is as pertinent now as it ever was. 

Decisions about parenting are deeply personal. And to have or not to have children is a fundamental human right that everyone should be free to exercise without judgment or criticism. However, the personal decisions we make can be influenced by what is happening in the world around us. Right now, the world is facing environmental and social problems on a scale we have not faced before. 

Refraining from unsustainable habits may leave more time for trying other things (such as other forms of transport or vegan food) and for simply ‘being’. Mindfulness and meditation are ways of balancing our ‘doing’ with ‘being’, and have proven benefits for wellbeing. These methods may also improve empathy and cooperative thinking, which are prerequisites for sharing planetary resources with people and animals alike.

Re-evaluation of our habits doesn’t happen overnight, but what can we do right now? 

Businesses worldwide need to ensure the consumers of the future are as healthy and wealthy as possible in order to sustain business growth. The best way to achieve this is with a holistic approach, taking into account the long-term effects of population size, not just lifestyle. After all, it is no use there being 10 billion consumers on the planet if they don’t have the resources to purchase goods, or if businesses can’t access the natural resources they need to manufacture those goods. 

Population Matters’ case is simple: a small family is a sustainable family. 


Further information

1. Visit Population Matters at and the Population and Sustainability Network at for information on controlling population growth
2. Support Chase Africa, a charity helping African communities rise out of poverty via family planning and healthcare, at

Ivan Cicin-Sain is organisational outreach officer for Population Matters


Image Credit | Shutterstock

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