Hi Ula,thank you for your post and I am very happy to see this being worked on!
Family planning services and providing unmet contraception needs are, in my opinion, great interventions to pursue. Not only for the immediate effects on the women affected, but also on poverty outcomes (at the individual level, family level, and country level), for enabling countries to profit from the Demographic Dividend, and for reducing total human activity footprint and resource needs locally and globally. As you stated, it also has positive effects on farmed and wild animal suffering. All in all, every dollar spent on preventing unintended pregnancies has several positive downstream effects on cause areas like climate change, poverty and animal suffering.
What I found very interesting to read was the focus on the post-partum period. Given your explanation that seems like a good time to approach the issue. Do you know of other organizations that follow this approach, given your point that this is one of the few times a woman will come in contact with the health system?
Also, your estimate for the cost of one tonne of CO2 averted (3 tonnes per USD spent or 0.33 USD per tonne of CO2 averted) would place your intervention among some of the most cost-effective for climate change. Is this generalizable to family planning in general and, if so, how? The Coalition for Rainforest Nations places their estimates between 0.12 and 0.72 USD per tonne, and Founder’s Pledge assume somewhere in the range of 0.24 to 2.60 USD per tonne for CfRN’s past work; Clean Air Task Force’s range is between 0.10 to 1.00 USD per tonne of CO2 according to the same Founder’s Pledge report. In general, though, there are many interventions targeting climate change that are much less cost-effective. That means that, just if targeting climate change alone, your proposed intervention would already be very effective, but it additionally also has positive effects on other targets like poverty and animal suffering. In countries with even higher resource use (animal products, land, CO2 emissions) this should lead to even bigger effects.That leads me to think that family planning and fulfilling unmet contraceptive needs would generally be a very effective intervention to support for multiple outcomes. What is your view on that? Is this generalizable to other countries or not?
Larks, as much as you consider the provided cost-benefit analysis to be “naive”, I am afraid the same applies to several of the counter-points you mentioned. Could you please give some sources that support (a) your claims and (b) are broadly generalizable or generalizable to a degree they should support policy? Specifically, I think some of your assumptions you just take as given even though there is a lot of high-quality evidence to the contrary. I was also a bit disappointed that you did not want to answer on the below issues when you made that identical post the first time around. It seems to me like it is informed by an inherent pro-natalist view without the proper analysis of underlying issues and well-established complexities to the contrary. For the four bullet points in your post, I would like to provide counter-arguments (which I would be happy to discuss if you’re interested) why they might not be correct and would greatly appreciate if you could provide generalizable evidence supporting your bullet points:
“benefit of building relationships with these new people”:
What is the EV here? Does this scale linearly with the amount of people that come into existence? Do you have any sources for the amount of “additional happiness” vs “additional suffering” caused by these humans to other life-forms (cf. average global meat and fish consumption)? There are various studies that basically say that the relation between “children” and “happiness” is complicated at the very least, for example seen in the following articles. All in all, happiness for parents mostly decreases while they actively rear children, for example:
Are People Who Have Kinds Happier? Not really.
Dan Gilbert has some good statistics on marital satisfaction in “Stumbling upon Happiness”, posted e.g. here: https://twitter.com/kiminsalaco/status/883493590638448640
Many things have increasing returns to scale, and so are more efficient with larger populations—e.g. mass transit, factory size, power plant size.
This depends on the kind of growth and whether the government and economy of a country with a growing population can adequately supply all these points you mentioned. Many countries only experience a real bump in development due to the Demographic Dividend, i.e. when birth rates fall (s. for example Johns Hopkins University and Wikipedia). In many countries, unsustainable population growth depletes financial resources of governments and prevents long-term strategic investments by tying budgets to short-term social support. The same applies to families: Family income only increases with more family members once these new family members reach working age. Before that, they do not have more, but less money to spend on the individual, including education and training. In other words: Growth in population is not good for a country per se. It needs to be sustainable and supportable (by government and family budgets) for a country and its population to profit. Many countries such as Rwanda only really developed once they managed to profit from the Demographic Dividend, as established in countless peer-reviewed articles.
Division of Labour—whereby people specialise in one specific area they become more efficient at it. The larger the population, the more specialisation it can support.
This only holds true if the society that grows can provide adequate education opportunities to support the specialization you mentioned. Good counter-examples to your argument are, in fact, the fastest-growing populations we know: Sub-Saharan countries. If your argument was generally true, countries such as South Sudan, Angola, Malawi, Burundi, Uganda, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali should experience greater degrees of professional specialization. Do you have any evidence to support this? I would be very happy to see it!
The new people can become inventors and scientists or artists. Because ideas can be copied with ~ zero cost, these people can provide a benefit to everyone, so the higher the population the better.
Do you have any studies here that show the likelihood of people in the fastest-growing societies by birth numbers becoming inventors or scientists?
The scientific publication that has received the most supportive signatures from scientists ever, the World Scientists’ Warning To Humanity, specifically urges world leaders to reduce human population growth. Quoting from Wikipedia which provides the primary source:
The Second Notice has more scientist cosigners and formal supporters than any other journal article ever published.
The Second Notice specifically states:
By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere.
Do you think that this notice is generally biased or naive?
Dasgupta’s work is very valuable and the approach in his paper that you linked is potentially powerful because they might give policy makers a way to create new adequate policies and allocate budgets and manpower. I believe his core point to be spot on, namely that nature provides very valuable services which are not properly factored in by modern economics. However, as a first issue, it runs against certain other beliefs which are strong and widespread among self-identified EAs like a general support of “growth” (often without distinction which kind of growth would be beneficial or desirable). Second, the fact that there are no proper models for this yet means that quantification of these services isn’t readily available and cannot be quickly performed. This makes prioritization of interventions and resource allocation difficult because output effectiveness cannot be measured.
This “modelling gap” could be a good candidate for some research efforts that several EA-aligned organizations and people might have the necessary skills for. Good research questions could be, for example, how to properly model the value of “nature”, ecosystems, ecosystem services, biodiversity (which ensures ecosystem resilience) and anything these provide to humanity. Another good idea would be, instead of coming up with a good methodology or model, to attempt to do this for certain kinds of resources or ecosystem services as an example. For example, the Amazon powers the South American water cycle—how much is that worth to South America or the planet as a whole? Which “relative value” do certain species that are important for forest health and recovery play? What value does biodiversity have as a whole in ensuring these systems’ health and where are “tipping points” that damage the whole system, thus degrading services (and quantifying the level of degradation)? There are many questions one could think of that would warrant inquiry.
I personally think that assigning more priority to biodiversity and ecosystems is very important. As Dasgupta states, ecosystems provide crucial services to humanity (and the planet) as a whole and we are not factoring these in in a suitable way and thus not assigning the required resources for protecting these crucial services. Biodiversity reduction decreases ecosystems’ resilience and at the same time leads to other risks such as zoonoses. There are also inherent dangers in extinctions because extinct species are currently almost possible to be brought back to life. Fully destroyed ecosystems are much more expensive to restore than “just” maintaining existing ones. The topic is generally a bit neglected in EA unfortunately and, in my personal opinion, deserves much more attention.
Edit: A term for an economics that does take current and future externalities into account is “Full-cost economics/accounting” or “True-cost economics/accounting”.
Very happy to see family planning being worked on!
How does your approach differ from that of Population Media Center?
Have you considered doing analysis/research of positive downstream synergistic effects of family planning? I know that this is far from your focused strategy but there might be a chance to gain much more support for family planning if there was greater knowledge of the positive synergistic effects that family planning has on individuals, nations/societies and even the planet as a whole.I ran the numbers for 3 or 4 countries and family planning is very cost-effective in preventing CO2 emissions (contraceptives are cheap, even with logistics and administrative overhead, and the gap between desired fertility and actual fertility in many countries is still big). Family planning can easily compete with some of the most efficient and effective charities working on climate change that are endorsed by different EA-aligned organizations. There are many synergistic effects with other cause areas, such as traditional conservation and biodiversity due to the strain of human population numbers on ecosystems, and especially on the cause area of animal suffering (both wild and farmed). As a last example (from a much longer list), closing the family planning need has big positive effects on society-wide and individual poverty:
by allowing women to stay in education, training and profession longer
by reducing the number of dependents (per family and per society)
by reducing the amount of government spending for supporting big parts of the population
by reducing the oversupply of cheap labor, thus raising wages
generally increasing per-capita GDP through the above points (education, ending cheap labor oversupply, giving government budgets room for strategic long-term investments in education and infrastructure instead of having to spend everything on short-term social support)
By giving families room to spend more of their total income on each individual child (and thus its education and happiness)
In case you are not aware of the term and concept (though I guess you are), generally by profiting from the demographic dividend (Wikipedia, Johns Hopkins U)
Lastly, I know there are family planning advocacy organizations that might be interested in raising awareness for your charity. World Population Balance run the Overpopulation Podcast and are usually happy to host guests from other non-profits. There are some pretty famous people (like Jane Goodall or David Attenborough) that might be harder to reach out to but that regularly endorse family planning organizations publicly and could act as advocates. Less of a chance for success there but maybe worth a try?
I think that biodiversity and ecosystem conservation are tremendously important fields and deserve much more attention from the EA community as a whole, so I am very happy to see someone else being interested in them as well!
(To those wondering why these fields are important: Biodiversity is an important protection against zoonoses and a big cornerstone of general global biosphere and ecosystem service resilience. Various ecosystems provide services directly or indirectly to humans, like pollinators or the Amazon basin which sustains big parts of the water cycle for South America. Biodiversity risks make these systems much less efficient and/or effective or may ultimately lead to ecosystem service failure or collapse. Species are interdependent in complex and sometimes unforeseen ways; chain reactions when certain species’ populations become too small or locally extinct can ripple out transitively to damage the entire ecosystem. Long story short: These ecosystems provide services to humans which we cannot live without, such as pollination, oxygen supply, food supply, pollution filtering, and even water supply. Our planet is, literally, one big ecosystem made of many smaller ecosystems and biodiversity ensures their resilience and functioning.)
Alas, it is a very complicated field which is interdisciplinary with many others (like classical conservation, biology, economics, tourism, politics/policy/advocacy and even criminology). Also take into account that while biodiversity and ecosystem conservation are closely related, they are not completely identical. The people working on these topics come from different backgrounds and hence sometimes have very different perspectives and strategies (which is both good and bad). Ecosystems can be under threat through secondary motives (i.e., they fall prey as “collateral damage” to other human activities) while biodiversity threats can happen due to primary motives (for example, poaching targeting important species which, when lost, have significant negative impact on their whole ecosystem).
I will list some angles I know for tackling this set of issues. This is but a very incomplete list because, as I mentioned, it is a very complicated field that touches on many disciplines:
Community-based conservation, in which local communities are involved in conservation efforts. This must be set up in such a way that short-term overexploitation is not profitable but only sustainable activity is.
Degrowth & ethical population reduction: I personally think this is one of the most effective ways to go. Human activity (settlements or agriculture) by now covers more than 60% of the global land mass and is projected to cover about 90% by 2055. Almost all this activity leads to ecosystem degradation or full destruction. Simply leaving bigger parts of the planet alone is the best chance we have. To my personal dismay, this approach is not viewed very favourably within EA (or globally, for that matter), due to the widespread belief that growth is inherently good and/or required, and that reducing human population size is bad. (I recently wrote a post about it which was mostly met with disagreement. I tried to start conversations with all commenters, but unfortunately none replied back.)
Plant-based diets: As global agricultural land use is dominated directly and indirectly by meat production and continues to be so even more, plant-based diets would free up land (e.g. for rewilding efforts) and slow down ecosystem destruction.
Tackling climate change: As you already pointed out, global warming has significant negative effects on many ecosystems as well. I would argue, though, that one should focus on other angles if you want to protect ecosystems and biodiversity because climate change already receives a lot of attention (though still not enough), while many other angles are severely neglected.
Rewilding efforts: Unused land is converted back to wilderness areas.
Sustainable agriculture: Instead of making agriculture as efficient as possible, one can alter agricultural practices in such a way that many species can coexist on agricultural land with only minimal efficiency losses. Corridors, wildlife bridges and “wild islands” are some examples. Agriculture should be “organic” so as not to damage other species as collateral damage when trying to control “pests”.
Politics, policy and diplomacy: Globally, many countries do not assign great priority to any conservation & biodiversity efforts. Environmental crime, pollution, overstepping of quotas etc, where even defined in national laws, is seldom properly prosecuted. If prosecuted, fines are ridiculously low and it is economically rational to violate laws and regulations, even if caught. The process behind the IUCN Red List appendix augmentations has more to do with different countries supporting each others’ exploitation efforts rather than actual conservation efforts. Generally in current politics, ecosystem health is almost never prioritized over short-term economic gains.
Strengthening law enforcement and prosecution possibilities: At the national level, law enforcement for anything related to the environment is underfunded, understaffed, undertrained, underequipped and underpaid. Internationally (like with a lot of international law), enforcement instruments are lacking.
Anti-corruption: In many countries, conservation efforts are greatly hindered by prevalent corruption.
Economics & poverty: Due to international differences (economic & legal risk differences, affluence differences), it often pays off to damage ecosystems. Providing alternative sources of income or wealth would be important. Damaging ecosystems should not be the most rational course of action for people that want to achieve a middle-class standard of living for themselves and their dependents.
Education, advocacy and awareness: As you noticed yourself, even within EA the topic is almost unheard of. There is a big gap in knowledge, presumably because it is so multi-dimensional and complicated, because—much like with climate change—there are “long” (by human lifetime standards, not by planetary standards) delays in negative effects, and because there are big economic interests (much like fossil fuel companies with climate change) that want to keep biodiversity and ecosystem risks out of public perception. Thus, awareness and education work—even promoting these topics within EA—might be a very good idea. School education materials, online campaigns, conventional ads in countries with very low awareness levels, promotion of research, advocacy, contacting politicians, writing information material which points out the dangers of global ecosystems and biosphere degradation/collapse...
Retreat and reserve zones, corridors: Declaring certain areas of ecosystems as strictly off-limits for any human activity has proven to be effective for certain ecosystems. Species can retreat there, reproduce, and when their numbers are replenished and they run out of space, “surplus” specimen spill over to adjacent areas which are open to economic use. This approach however requires good geographical distribution of such reserve zones: in terms of spot selection, evenness of distribution, corridor connection, and generally declaring larger areas as such reserves. Corridors ensure that species can spread over bigger areas.
Funding: Many smaller organizations lack funding. Government budgets are way too small.
Many families or ecosystems face specific threats, like herbicides and pesticides in agriculture which damage almost all insect populations, or certain kinds of pollution. Regulation/banning of certain products or practices would be the way to go.
Hope this list helps. There are many more interventions, I only listed the ones that came to my mind right now.
A great book that might give you a glimpse of the complexities in this field is “The Extinction Market” by Vanda Felbab-Brown. She focuses on wildlife crime, but some of the interventions are transferable. The reason why this book is a real treasure, though, is that she does a great job of explaining the advantages and disadvantages of different interventions and how they tie together with other considerations (like economical and political ones).
There is also an “Effective Environmentalism” group on Facebook, you might want to repeat your question there.
Do you think that this has a net-positive balance, i.e. do you think that more people generally contribute, on average, more to solutions or more to pollution, CO2 emissions, animal suffering, etc.?
It is indeed a very tricky question. Of course, there is a chance that each newly born child becomes a climate researcher, politician, social worker etc. - but what are the odds? And do they outweigh, as you mentioned, all the “bad” (for lack of a better work that encompasses suffering and future issues) points?
My personal view on this, as I mentioned in my reply to Larks is that, until a certain point (namely the point where there is neither conflict about scarce resources within human society nor intense suffering caused by human society to other sentient beings) each additional individual probably has a net-positive happiness/suffering balance sheet. Once the population has reached a certain size, however, this may tip. Total carbon emissions are a direct function of (number of emitters) * (emission levels). Total factory farmed animal suffering is a direct function of (number of consumers) * (amount of factory-farmed meat consumed). The average consumer nowadays consumes more than 40 kg of meat p.a. - that means that several sentient beings spent almost all their lives in intense suffering because of one average consumer. Is that a net-positive balance sheet?
Either way, my main point is about voluntary pregnancy avoidance and not about forced population reduction through whatever coercive means. If providing access to family planning counselling, women’s education and empowerment means, and to contraceptives is so cheap—and at the same time links free choice with significant net-positive effects on several EA-aligned cause areas—what reasons would support not helping close that unmet need?
Reducing population size in richer countries has an even bigger net-positive effect on several issues, especially that of climate change. Per-capita emissions in developed countries are simply much bigger. Obviously, thus, I completely support population size and/or growth reduction in developed countries as well.
The difference between developed and developing countries, however, is the dimension of the unmet demand for contraception. Developed countries are usually able to provide those who want to prevent further pregnancy with affordable and effective means, whereas in developing countries there is a big unmet need. As stated in the opening post, more than 40% of pregnancies globally are unintended. Why should EA, given the significant positive effects on users themselves, not support closing an unmet demand?
Reducing mortality is obviously a positive outcome of these programs. The point of family planning programs, women’s education, giving access to contraceptives etc. is increasing the quality of live and reducing suffering of individuals already in existence while, at the same time, eliminating negative effects of unintended pregnancies. Thus, reducing mortality is in line with the first goal.
Fair points that I ignored the benefits of larger populations—you are completely right. I didn’t do this, though, for the sake of brevity and because that is not something people need to be convinced of, generally.
If you claim, however, that there are large benefits to larger populations, then why bother with access to contraceptives in the first place—if people feel blessed with more children? Also, does that mean that societies should become arbitrarily large? It would almost follow from the points you raised.
Also, if you think that generally the benefits of children outweigh their costs, it should be common policy to have as many as parents want. This, however, cannot work on a finite planet with finite resources if parents would want, for example, to have at least 4 kids.
My personal view on this is that, as long as human population is below maximum carrying capacity (whatever that capacity may be—there are big arguments about it as you’re probably aware), an additional human probably has a “net-positive” effect on total happiness/suffering. Once, however, the total population surpasses a certain point (which may be way above long-term carrying capacity—because initially, negative effects will still be buffered by resource surplus). Once however you surpass that point, additional lives will have a net-negative effect on total happiness/suffering.
Take, for example, the following thought experiment. You have a population of 20 and a good which they need. The good has a recovery rate of 100 per year and a current total amount of 1000. Every individual in the population (of currently 20) consumes 5 units per year. They can survive also at 4 units a year; when they only get 3 units or less for each of them, they would suffer. You could add more consumers to this system for a long time because of the total stack of 1000, which will initially only be depleted slowly. At one point, consumption needs to drop to 4 units per individual p.a.. Individuals would prefer to consume 5 units but they cannot, and they do not suffer terribly from suffering 4 (but their utility is already less than at 5). If you now add more individuals to the system such that every individual can only consume 3 units, people will suffer one way or the other—through suboptimal resource access or armed conflict.
What I am trying to say is: Until a certain point, more individuals means more total happiness for all individuals. This, however, likely drops at one point until more individuals mean less total happiness and more total suffering.
Leaving the thought experiment aside, are humans currently having a net-positive impact on other lives? Worldwide average meat consumption per capita is currently at 43 kg p.a., with up to 100 kg annually per capita in the US. That means that the average human causes intense suffering to dozens of sentient animals through his or her lifetime—lives completely lived in captivity in factory farms with incredibly stressful slaughter conditions. Is this a net-positive impact on total happiness/suffering? It seems to me a rather anthropocentric/speciesist view that does not take into account total suffering caused by millions of individuals.
Needing future generations for social security is, by the way, the equivalent of a pyramid scheme if following the current approach. Gains in productivity eliminate a need for increasing future generation sizes. Do check out per-capita GDP productivity growth—you will see that automation solves much of this problem.
Lastly, I want to point out that I would never support death of people currently alive—and I don’t know why you would raise it. My post was clearly only about the gap of unmet contraceptive need. This is, obviously, ethically a completely different matter.
Edit: As I showed by citing several works related to the example of the Egyptian economy, a bigger population size does not actually translate into better division of labor, more scientists, and so on. It only does so if the state can grow its infrastructure and education opportunities alongside with the population. If the state can’t, then you actually have a relatively lower proportion of highly trained/skilled workforce. This phenomenon is actually well studied in several developing countries which, currently, seek to slow down their population growth because the population grows much faster than the (relatively poor) states can ensure healthy economic development and opportunities for individuals.
As you might have seen, Project Drawdown is not my primary source. I came to my conclusions from various sources, which mostly agree on the general idea: Reducing population size and/or growth is a very effective means for positive change in several other cause areas. This does not rely on one single source.
Regarding the cost for providing contraceptives, the costs of less than 10 USD p.a. per user are well established. See, for example, this publication by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA):
Average direct costs to provide one year of method use are highest for hormonal methods—implants ($7.75), injectables ($8.61) and pills ($7.26)—with the commodities themselves accounting for most of the cost (Table 3, page 12). Permanent male and female sterilization and the IUD have the lowest annual costs when total method costs are divided by the average number of years users are covered by these methods. Annual average direct costs for male condoms fall between these method groups, at $4.17 per year.
As BenMillwood already mentioned, emissions reduction can be achieved almost anywhere, because in most countries actual fertility is higher than desired fertility. This gap varies from country to country but exists almost anywhere. At a current global birth rate of more than 130 million births annually, out of which more than 40% are unintended, I see big potential.
Which analysis of the beneficial effects on other cause areas do you disagree with, and why? I’d be happy to provide more sources and/or explanations, but for that I’d need to know which ones exactly you found to be weak.
I’d also like to point out that per-capita CO2 emissions in many countries will be rising in the next few decades and that, according to at least one peer-reviewed paper I cited, most of our efficiency gains that would reduce emissions were undone by population growth.
Thanks for those links—pretty interesting!I especially liked the “ROI analysis”: “Through research into the most cost-effective development policies, the Copenhagen Consensus recommended expanding access to contraception universally as the third-best policy with a return to investment estimated at $120 per dollar spent . [...] Family planning may have large benefits and ripple effects on various sectors, and is a large problem at scale.”