When I was walking down the street in Guatemala city I was hit by a flash of insight. It came in the form of Juan, a street vendor who was trying to sell me some tourist trinkets. I wasn't interested in buying anything, but since there were no other likely buyers around and I spoke Spanish he stopped to chat with me. One of the first questions that I was asked was how many children I had.
I had none. Juan had six.
I have had this conversation many times in my travels and inevitably I would be asked why I didn't have any children. After all, I am married and in my late 30s. In most of the developing world I should be at about half a dozen kids by now. Yet this time, the conversation took a different turn.
"How is it that you stop from having children?" asked Juan.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You are married. How do you prevent children? Do you use condoms?"
I'm sure Juan wasn't the most educated person around. But he certainly wasn't the least. He spoke good Spanish and ran a small business selling souveniers to tourists. He was a typical Guatemalan. And he had no idea how to stop having children. So little of an idea that he was able to overcome huge societal taboos to talk to a total stranger about sex.
I proceeded to teach Juan about birth control. I told him that condoms work OK, but that the pill is much better. I told him that the most effective method would be to get a vasectomy. "It hurts a bit for two days and then you'll never have to worry about children again. You have a completely normal sex life afterwards. I've had it done and I'm very glad."
And then it struck me. None of these methods would work for Juan. He couldn't afford birth control pills or condoms. He certainly couldn't afford vasectomy surgery. And his church was probably telling him that birth control was a sin. In reality, there was nothing that somebody like Juan could do to stop having children.
There are 6.6 billion people on the planet. We all know it's too many. If there were only 500 million all of our environmental problems would vanish. The earth could sustain us by regrowing forests faster than we cut them down, and absorbing carbon faster than we release it. We could farm only the most fertile lands and people would have lots of land to live on. There would be tons of space for wilderness. Parents with smaller families would have more money to invest in the education and feeding of each child.
Yet nearly fifty years after the invention of the pill, the UN reports that 201 million women have no access to any form of birth control. In Mali 58% of women of child bearing age can't name even a single method of birth control. In Sub-Saharan Africa only 14% of married women use a modern method of birth control. (details here) The planet is dying from overpopulation and nobody is talking about population control. How could this be?
The biggest reason for this deplorable state of affairs is religion. I make no bones about being no fan of religion in general, but in few ways has religion done more harm than with it's bronze age attitudes towards family planning. The Catholic church is against birth control completely. In many developing countries it wields enough influence to keep sex education out of public education, and birth control out of public health. The Catholic church also puts strong pressure on followers to have as many children as possible. Each child is a gift from God after all. Part of His grand plan. Too bad that God isn't much interested in feeding, or clothing, or educating all these little gifts. How many young mothers have died in childbirth because the Pope doesn't want them to stop have children? How many children starve because their families can't feed an extra mouth?
Of course it isn't just the Catholics that are at fault. Many religions get completely hung up on the idea of sex before marriage. There is this absurd idea among the faithful that teaching birth control will encourage unwed couples to have more sex. If we don't teach people about sex, goes the logic, they won't have sex. It's idiotic nonsense which flies in the face of thousands of years of human history and numerous studies. It is also the official policy of the US government. The Bush administration has created a global gag order on sex education. Charities that teach anything other than abstinence-only, even if it is only a small part of their program, and even if it is from entirely seperate funding sources, risk having their entire US government funding cut. Congress insists that one third of global AIDS education focus on abstinence-only programs which discourage use of condoms. Yet for all its faults the US is an incredibly generous donor. Most organizations would rather shut down their family planning work than do without such a large source of funds.
Of course we can't just blame religion. A second problem is our obsession with growth. Economic growth is good. We all know that. We live in a society where a business that has profitably employed ten people for twenty years is considered a failure because it hasn't grown. Everything is expected to get bigger.
The easiest economic growth comes from having an increasingly large supply of consumers. If every year there are more people, then every year we need to build more houses, and produce more cars, and build more roads. Unfortunately we also have to cut down more forests and pump more carbon into the atmosphere. Until there are no more forests. Then they will starve.
Most governments are terrified of falling populations. The governments of many developed countries have programs in place specifically to encourage parents to have more children. In Russia and Signapore there are financial incentives. And I have been called selfish for chosing not to add to the problem. I should be the one getting financial incentives. Nobody is going to have to cut down an acre of Brazilian rainforest to grow beef for my little ones. Nobody is going to have to breath the carbon that my children produce. Nobody will swim in their excrement. China, with its one child policy, has probably done more to save the planet than any other single government.
Luckily for us, when people have the choice they generally choose to have smaller families. Despite the mindless policies of the Pope the overwhelming majority of Catholics defy his orders and use contraceptives. Without immigration, populations would already be falling in most of the industrialized world. Financial incentives to have children don't work well for educated populations.
It costs about $500,000 to raise a child in the industrialized world. Think of what that money could do for children in the developing world. It could buy 10,000 Nepalese girls out bonded servitude. How many vacinations could it buy? How many meals?
The world doesn't need more children. We need universal, free, access to contraceptives. There should be visiting vasectomy clinics in rural villages right next to the visiting dentists and doctors. We need to leave behind our inhibitions about sex and teach young children everywhere where babies come from and how to plan them. Our planet is full, and we don't have another one.