Act now to curb the global 'youthquake' says report

Posted: 14 July 2007

The planet faces a 'youthquake', with the biggest generation of young people in history, and unsustainable population growth, says a report published to mark World Population Day. It says urgent action is needed to restrain that growth through voluntary family planning - or governments may one day be forced to set limits.

One-child policies, such as that now operating in China, are generally counter-productive and liable to discount human rights, the report says. But "in extreme situations, where states or regions may be almost uninhabitable through environmental damage, [they] may become unavoidable."

The report, published by the UK-based Optimum Population Trust and written by Prof. John Guillebaud, a leading authority on family planning, points out that voluntary population stabilisation programmes, centring on education, awareness and removing the barriers to women's control of their own fertility, have a proven record of success. A voluntary "two-child" population policy in Iran, for example, succeeded in halving fertility in eight years, as fast a rate of decrease as that of China, whose much-criticised one-child policy began in 1980.

However, worldwide there is still a "vast unmet need" for contraception. About 50 million of the roughly 190 million pregnancies worldwide each year end in abortions, half of the 380 women who become pregnant each minute did not plan to do so and at least 35 per cent of the estimated 550,000 women who die each year through abortions or childbirth are being killed by pregnancies they would have avoided if contraception had been available.

Biological capacity

The report says the planet faces the biggest generation of young people in history - a "youthquake" with major social implications, "not least the creation of a huge cohort of young urban males who, through frustration and unemployment...seek an outlet in violence."

In Africa, both consumption and population will continue to grow for many decades.
In Africa, both consumption and population will continue to grow for many decades.
In Africa, both consumption and population will continue to grow for many decades. Photo © Ron Gilling/Panos Pictures
A combination of high population and rising consumption levels means that humanity is currently outstripping the biological capacity of the Earth by 25 per cent each year. By 2050, when global population is projected to be 9.2 billion - an increase of 2.5 billion on today's 6.7 billion - humans will be using the biocapacity of two Earths.

"Given that another habitable planet is not available, might humanity have to suffer the kind of death-dictated control to achieve stabilisation, or reduction by a "population crash" - a massive cull through violence, disease, starvation or natural disasters - which biology dictates for all other species when their numbers exceed the limits of their environment's carrying capacity?

"Without action, longages of humans - the prime cause of all shortages of resources - may cause parts of the planet to become uninhabitable, with governments pushed towards coercive population control measures as a regrettable but lesser evil than unprecedented conflict and suffering."

The report adds: "The continued inadequate resourcing of the voluntary approach [to population stabilisation] is arguably the best way to ensure that many more future governments will be forced, as they will then see it, through population pressure, to legislate for coercive birth control."

Commenting on the report, Professor Guillebaud said: "No one is in favour of governments dictating family size but we need to act quickly to prevent it. Worldwide as this century progresses, those who continue to place obstacles in the way of women who want to control their fertility will have only themselves to blame, as more and more regimes bring in coercive measures. Despite the catastrophic current increase of an extra 1.5 million humans per week, there is still a slim chance that such measures can be avoided."

Stop at two guideline

Among other conclusions are:

  • Every country, including the UK, needs a national population policy.

  • A "stop at two children" ("replacement" level) or "have one child less" guideline for couples in the UK should be introduced by the Government, backed by schools, the media and environmental groups.

  • New guidelines should be introduced for the portrayal of fertility issues by the media, aimed at countering the glamorisation of sex and stressing the responsibilities and frequent "sheer drudgery" of motherhood. Story-lines could demonstrate how teenage motherhood blights educational and earning prospects.

  • A major new study is needed in the UK of the "perverse incentives" that lead some teenage girls to become pregnant. Britain's record on teenage pregnancy is the worst in Europe while the performance of the NHS in this area has been "disastrous" and a "calamity."

  • Economic and political pressures to increase the birth rate are "hopelessly simplistic" and should be resisted. "Far from panicking about 'baby shortages', almost every country can welcome fertility rates at or slightly below replacement level."

The report is available at www.optimumpopulation.org.

John Guillebaud is emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London, and co-chair of the Optimum Population Trust.

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