A few days ago, I received an email update from the Sierra Club’s newsletter, PopNews:

There’s nothing better than to end the year with a victory! On December 12th, after years of effort made by Choice New Jersey, a coalition of organizations, including Sierra Club, Contraceptive Equity Bill A292 passed the New Jersey Assembly by a vote of 57-14. The bill mandates that insurance companies who cover wellness medication prescriptions such as those for diabetes, high blood pressure, and especially if they cover Viagra, must also cover female contraceptives.

It is incredible that they had to work so hard for so long for what seems like such a simple thing. There is hardly a better way to limit environmental impact while improving the quality of someone’s life than to help him or her avoid an unplanned pregnancy. One little question: Why only female contraception?Note that there is no direct link on the Sierra Club main page to their Global Population page. You have to do some sleuthing to find it. Thanks to the political activities of various sects of Christianity, there is no hotter topic in this country than reproductive rights — and don’t kid yourself, it is primarily a religious issue, as is Intelligent Design * (although evidence supporting ID is apparently growing).**

Our ability to feed ourselves has outstripped our population growth. This fact has convinced some religionists and some conservative economists that the more people you have on the planet, the better off people are, 40 billion being preferable to 10 billion. Too bad for them, it isn’t easy making people have more children than they want. We remain fed for two reasons. We have learned how to grow a lot more food, but just as importantly, we have lowered our fertility rates.

Our population growth was made possible by economic and technological (mostly agricultural and medical) growth, not the other way around. The technology came from the well-educated populations responding to free market competition in the developed countries. The billions striving to stay fed in the undeveloped nations not only had little to do with the creation of that technology, but also had little to do with the economic growth. If a benevolent deity were to scoop them all up and place them on a new, unspoiled planet, the industrialized west would hardly know they had left. Japan has the second largest economy on the planet with two percent of the population. We had antibiotics, automobiles, nuclear weapons, vaccines, radio, skyscrapers and toaster ovens clear back in 1945 when there were only about two billion people on the planet.

The population issue is taking care of itself. The next big struggle is to save the planet’s biodiversity. The only way to do that is to save ecosystems. It is all-important. A transition to lower fertility rates is still much needed in the parts of the world where biodiversity is most at risk. And just as importantly, we need to find ways to keep the wealthy countries from exploiting those same last intact ecosystems. There are religionists going toe-to-toe with reproductive rights advocates in these places. One side preaching the sins of birth control, the other trying to provide it. One side preaching that only economic growth matters and lower fertility rates are irrelevant, the other side saying that both are important.

Iran provides a real world example. They have managed an unprecedented drop in fertility rates without coercion and without it being preceded by economic growth. If it can happen there, it can happen in other parts of the world. My take is, as usual, not a mainstream one. Even though fertility rates are falling all around the world, I still think we need better contraceptive technology. Easily reversible, long-lived contraception for men and women, capable of making unplanned pregnancies exceedingly rare. Such technology would end the abortion debate once and for all and let people plan the size of their families with precision.

There is another reason I think we still need this technology. A new struggle is looming just over the horizon. I won’t be around to participate, but I may live long enough to see it engaged. It will be to let the human population decrease. Contraception used to be illegal in the U.S., and France outlawed all contraception for several years following WWI. The answer to shrinking populations is properly regulated immigration. Countries that don’t handle that issue well will wish they had. The recent riots in France were a wakeup call.

*start sarcasm
**end sarcasm