Sammet: Planet health, woman’s health and peace

Editor’s note: This oped by Lisa Sammet first appeared in the publication Vermont Woman.

Triple threats to the planet are coming into collision: overpopulation, climate change and peak oil (and actually the depletion of all nonrenewable resources). Continued population growth exacerbates both climate change and resource depletion.

In the 1970s, overpopulation got a lot of press, but then it became a topic few dared to broach. Today, finally, there are people who are speaking out once again on the topic.

Many will say that population is not a problem, that if we all lived like the Tanzanians, the earth could support many more humans. These ideas are false. Though the carbon footprint of the average African is far smaller than other areas of the world, their populations are exceeding the carrying capacity of the land. This is happening all over the world. “Expanding world population has cut the grainland per person in half, from 0.23 hectares in 1950 to 0.10 hectares in 2007.” (Lester Brown, When Population Growth and Resource Availability Collide, Population Press, Spring 2009, p. 14).

Global resource depletion, especially the depletion of oil, will affect the ability for the planet to produce the amount of food it currently has been producing. World food production has been falling for the last few years. Arable land has been taken out of production and developed for human habitation. Industrial, nonorganic agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels, “40% of all agriculture production energy goes into making synthetic fertilizers and pesticides [and] contributes more than 480 tons of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere each year….once on soils, synthetic fertilizers generate over 304 million pounds of GHG emissions annually. (Meredith Niles,

Water is becoming scarce. Tension over water rights can be viewed in the American Southwest, throughout the Middle East, in Africa and between Hindus and Muslims on the Indian continent. Water shortages in dry areas will only increase due to climate change, thereby increasing the possibility of conflict between groups fighting over ever-diminishing water sources. “With India’s population projected to grow from 1.2 billion in 2007 to 1.7 billion in 2050, a collision between rising human numbers and shrinking water supplies seems inevitable.” (Brown)

In a seminal book, Sex and War by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden (Benbella Books, 2008), the authors demonstrate that women’s reproductive freedom has a connection to developing a peaceful society. Potts, a research biologist and trained obstetrician, shows that empowered women tend to “counterbalance the most chaotic and violent aspects of men’s predisposition for brutal territoriality and team aggression.”

He goes on to say, “Second, and on a still more fundamental level, when women have the choice to control when and how often they have children, they opt increasingly for smaller families, and often start child-bearing later in life. This has important consequences for the size and age structure of human populations, with smaller families and later reproduction leading to stable population size, and the lower ratios of volatile young men, which…..can dramatically decrease the likelihood of violence, raiding and war….reproductive freedom for women is a crucial and necessary precondition for bringing an end to war as we know it.”

Stable populations arise without coercion if three things are provided to women: 1. Easy access to affordable contraception, 2. Education and family planning, 3. Empowerment to make decisions about child-bearing. If these criteria are met, the net effect would be a more stable population, healthier women and children, and a more peaceful society.

The health of the planet would also improve if there were fewer humans using up resources, burning fossil fuels, needing energy, needing food. Humans have treated this planet so long without thought about the other living creatures. Our population has taken over the home and habitat of so many other species, running many to extinction, and making it difficult for others to survive.

We should all be asking our government to support family planning in our country and across the world.

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