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Challenging pronatalism is key to advancing reproductive rights and a sustainable population

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

This article was first published by Nandita Bajaj and Kirsten Stade in The Journal of Population and Sustainability in December 2022 and can be read in full at

Abstract Social and environmental justice organisations have silenced discourse on human overpopulation due to fear of any association with reproductive coercion, but in doing so they have failed to acknowledge the oppressive role of pronatalism in undermining reproductive autonomy. Pronatalism, which comprises cultural and institutional forces that compel reproduction, is far more widespread, and as damaging to individual liberties as attempts to limit reproduction. The failure to recognise the enormity of pronatalism has led to the wholesale abandonment of voluntary, rights-based efforts toward a sustainable population despite widespread scientific agreement that population growth is a major driver of multiple cascading environmental crises. We examine the full range of patriarchal, cultural, familial, religious, economic and political pronatalist pressures, and argue that the reluctance to address population as a driver of the ecological crisis serves the very pronatalist forces that undermine reproductive autonomy. We posit that addressing overpopulation, and the pronatalism that drives it, must be central to international conservation and development efforts to elevate reproductive rights while also promoting planetary health.


Scientists are in general agreement that human population growth, as well as unsustainable production and consumption, are the main drivers of current levels of unprecedented and likely irreversible environmental destruction. Yet, notwithstanding widespread evidence of ecological overshoot, encompassing urgent concerns such as climate change, the biodiversity crisis, the depletion of soils and material resources, desertification and growing scarcities of fresh water (Rees, 2020; Bradshaw et al., 2021; Crist et al., 2022; IPCC, 2022), there is a tendency in both popular and academic circles to ignore, minimise and dismiss population as a factor in conservation (Bajaj, 2022). Although this tendency is rooted in concern over the history of population stabilisation efforts, which included coercive measures that violated women’s reproductive autonomy, it ignores the prevalence of efforts to advance reproductive freedom through voluntary family planning and contraception in the history of international population activities, as well as the overwhelming benefits of these efforts to women and the environment. It also ignores the extent to which coercive pronatalism – which comprises the social and institutional pressures to bear children – has been a far more pervasive and equally destructive force in women’s lives.In this paper, we begin by establishing the link between human population and environmental destruction, then outline the history of international interest and action toward addressing this link. We review how, since the latter half of the last century, a period of international investment in family planning intended to lower birth rates and stabilise population growth has transitioned to an era in which such efforts have been largely abandoned. Furthermore, we show how disparate forces converged at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt to cement the shift from a direct focus on family planning to a focus on the rights of women to choose the size of their families (Kopnina and Washington, 2016; Sinding, 2016; Kuhlemann, 2019; Coole, 2021). We discuss how the shift embodied in the Cairo Consensus fails to acknowledge that reproductive choice is strongly shaped by social and institutional pressures.We argue that these pronatalist pressures, driven by patriarchal, social, cultural, political, economic, religious and nationalistic agendas, constitute a form of reproductive coercion that is more widespread and impactful than the coercive population stabilisation efforts of the past and present that have played in the silencing of population discourse. We conclude by arguing that acknowledging and dismantling the many forms of pronatalism, which directly drive population growth, is key to both addressing the environmental crisis and elevating reproductive rights and self-determination.

Population and environmental destruction

Runaway human population growth and unconstrained consumption have led us to a state of ecological overshoot in which we are straining Earth’s ecosystems far beyond their capacity to regenerate (Rees, 2020; GFN, 2022). The climate crisis and biodiversity collapse are threatening the continuation of life on Earth, causing catastrophic upheaval to human communities and driving many already imperilled species ever closer to the brink of extinction (Crist et al., 2017; Bradshaw et al., 2021). Agriculture alone, and its rapid expansion to meet the needs of our growing population, has been identified as the primary threat to 86 per cent of the species at risk of extinction. This is no surprise, given that deforestation and habitat destruction have converted roughly 40% of the planet’s ice-free land area to crop production and livestock grazing (Crist et al., 2017). The magnitude of the biodiversity crisis can perhaps best be conveyed with the fact that, since the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago, and compounded by the Industrial Revolution and the explosion of human population growth over the past 200 years, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has diminished by half and that of wild animals by 83 per cent. Of the total biomass of terrestrial vertebrates, 59 per cent is represented by livestock, 36 per cent by human beings, and about five per cent by wild mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians (Bar-On et al., 2018; Bradshaw et al., 2021).

Much of this destruction is of course attributable to the consumption habits of wealthy, western populations – consumers of meat, animal products and processed foods in the developed world. But with the human population projected to increase to ten billion by the 2080s, and half of that number among the middle class by 2030, demand for these agricultural products will inevitably grow (Crist et al., 2017). Indeed, as the demographic transition occurs when human populations achieve lower fertility rates, generally after they have reached higher levels of development and thus environmental impact, it is clear that the role of population growth in multiplying the effects of consumption cannot be dismissed (Samways, 2022). Even with respect to climate change, where the vast majority of emissions come from populations in wealthy, low fertility countries, the foremost scientific body concerned with developing solutions to climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recognises population growth as a substantial driver (IPCC, 2022). In fact, although economic growth has been the most significant driver of the global growth in carbon emissions since 1990, Chaurasia (2020) has shown that population growth accounted for around a third of the increase in emissions, and that improvements in energy efficiency and the transition to renewable energy technologies can only offset part of the emissions increases and other negative environmental effects of growth in population and per capita wealth. In addition, even outside the developed world, the impacts on biodiversity of subsistence agriculture (Kopnina and Washington, 2016), and the bushmeat trade (Ripple et al., 2016), which are growing along with population in the developing world, are undeniably significant.

Taken together, the enormity of these challenges represents not just an existential threat to planetary ecosystems and other species but also extraordinary suffering for our own species. The loss and compromise of ecosystems the world over, changed weather patterns, sea level rise, increasing war and conflict, emerging infectious diseases, toxic waste and pollution and food and water shortages are already taking an enormous toll on human communities, especially those who are already the most impoverished (Crist et al., 2022).


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