Population Matters

Why Thomas Malthus is still relevant today

Why Thomas Malthus is still relevant today

Thomas Malthus predicted that the earth would one day no longer be able to support indefinite population growth.

13 February 2016 will mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Malthus, the English economist who predicted that the size of the expanding human population would one day outstrip the earth’s ability to feed it. Recent attitudes towards his theory have mostly been skeptical, as he failed to predict the technological advances that would enable billions of people to be fed. Today, however, the impacts of climate change are severely threatening food production, and this suggests that Malthus might not have been completely wrong after all.

In light of the anniversary of his birth and one of the strongest El Niño events, which caused 2015 to be the warmest year in history, we have published a briefing to emphasize the relevance of Malthus’ theory to food security today. In the briefing, we set out the elements which fail to contribute to, or are threatening, food production in the future — such as biotechnology, the increase in natural disasters and water scarcity.

Our findings show that population growth, the depletion of natural resources and the increase in extreme weather events are increasing the risk of crop failure, and thus food insecurity.

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Family planning and sustainable development

Universal access to family planning services is key to sustainable development

January 2016 sees the launch of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), a set of 17 objectives that will guide international development until 2030. At the end of the same month, people from all around the world will gather for the International Conference on Family Planning in Indonesia.

These events are intimately linked, as ensuring universal access to family planning services is critical to slowing the global population growth that will make the SDGs difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

To mark these events, we have published a briefing that outlines how the predicted increase in global population levels by one billion people over the next 14 years will negatively impact almost every SDG. The briefing thus examines how increasing access to family planning services can have a transformative effect on everything from poverty reduction to climate change.

Our briefing concludes that meeting the unmet need for family planning is not only a pragmatic and cost-effective approach to achieving the SDGs, it is absolutely critical to their success.

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Paper on family planning and carbon emissions

Research we recently commissioned in partnership with Lancaster University has revealed that investing in family planning services is an even more cost-effective way to abate carbon dioxide emissions than previously thought.

Gynecologist visit

Reducing future energy demand by preventing unwanted births and hence lifetimes in developed as well as developing countries is far cheaper than any renewable energy alternative. The benefits multiply in perpetuity via each never-existing person’s never-existing descendants. Furthermore, by reducing the sizes of future populations, the same dollar spent has many other benefits: improving food and water security; reducing soil degradation and desertification; helping to prevent civil conflict and mass migration; protecting biodiversity; empowering women; improving health; stimulating economic development; and reducing unemployment and poverty.

Two women

In 2014, more than half of women of reproductive age in developing regions wished to avoid pregnancy. However, approximately 25 per cent of these women — about 225 million — were not using effective contraceptive methods. Those not doing so account for approximately 81 per cent of all unintended pregnancies in developing regions. A respected analysis has shown that fully meeting the global need for modern contraceptive services would cost only about $9.4 billion.

Population Matters Chair Roger Martin said, “Government has been reluctant to consider population size and growth as relevant to energy demand. This study should make them think — not least because the potential cost savings to the taxpayer are enormous. Family planning is a highly cost-effective complement to — not a substitute for — the conventional United Nations approach and if they are serious about climate change it would be irresponsible to ignore it.”

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Fertility rates and development

During 9 – 12 November, people from all around the world will be in Indonesia for the 2015 International Conference on Family Planning.

Women and children

Every other year since 2009, the Conference has brought together a large number of members of the family planning community to share best practices, celebrate successes and chart a course for the future. The theme for this year’s gathering is “global commitments, local actions”.

To mark the event we have published a briefing about the impact of fertility rates on development in a number of neighbouring countries. In the briefing we compare the different development trajectories of the countries in relation to fertility rate reductions achieved through positive, noncoercive policies such as increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Our findings show that the quicker the fertility rate decrease, the greater the progress in terms of economic performance, poverty reduction, human development and maternal and infant mortality rates.

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International Day of the Girl Child

We have issued a briefing to mark the International Day of the Girl Child. The Day, which is intended to increase awareness of forced marriage, denial of sexual and reproductive health and rights, lack of access to education and the other unique challenges that girls around the world face, is an annual event.


In our briefing we outline the challenges and argue that the most effective way to overcome them is through increasing investment in girls’ education and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Doing so would not only improve the lives of girls, but have far-reaching social, economic and environmental benefits. This is because empowering girls can lower fertility rates and population growth, which strains natural resources, hinders poverty reduction efforts and contributes to environmental degradation.

There are few — if any — developmental policies that would have as transformative an effect as more greatly empowering girls.

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Global population projections

We have issued a briefing on the contents and significance of the 2015 Revision of World Population Prospects recently published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA).


The briefing focuses on the UNDESA’s projection that the population of the world will be approximately 11.2 billion at the end of the century. The projection is based on an assumption of considerable reductions in fertility rates in much of the world. Without such reductions the population would be about 13.3 billion, according to the Revision. The briefing echoes the UNDESA’s conclusion that the availability of family planning services must be increased across the globe.

Global variations in fertility are discussed in the briefing. The fertility rates of many developed countries — Japan and much of Europe — are already below the “replacement level” required to maintain the current population size, but 9 per cent of countries worldwide are classified as having “high fertility” — this means that an average woman gives birth to more than five children during the course of her lifetime. The regional variation in fertility rates — the majority of the “high fertility” nations are in Africa — is the reason for the significantly different distribution of the population predicted by the UNDESA.

The briefing reiterates the UNDESA’s findings on migration and ageing — both are expected to affect developed countries dramatically. In them 82 per cent of the population growth from now until 2050 is predicted to result from migration from other countries and average life expectancy is projected to increase by more than 10 years before 2100.

The final section of the briefing discusses the ramifications of significant population growth in the context of issues such as climate change, poverty and natural resource depletion.

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Emergency contraception: options and challenges

We have produced a briefing describing the importance of emergency contraception and discussing the options available and barriers to their use.

Emergency hormonal contraception pills

There are two varieties of emergency hormonal contraception pills commonly used. Popular references to “the morning-after pill” conflate the two options and perpetuate misconceptions. Many mistakenly believe the pills must be taken within 24 hours of sex — in fact the two choices are different in regard to the number of days after intercourse during which they are effective and the number of times the pills can be used during a menstrual cycle.

Emergency hormonal contraception pills are readily available over the counter, but their cost can be prohibitive. Many medical experts believe women should be given an advance supply for free by their doctors.

A less commonly known option for emergency contraception is the intrauterine device (IUD), which can be fitted as many as five days after intercourse and left in place to serve as a long-acting reversible contraceptive. Much of the need for emergency contraception is driven by use of somewhat unreliable methods of contraception such as condoms — the IUD is a good solution. Despite being highly effective, IUDs remain relatively rarely used.

Woman visiting a gynecologist

Emergency contraception unfortunately remains a symbol of shame for many women. According to Abigail Fitzgibbon, the head of advocacy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the discussion with health service providers about current contraceptive use involved in requesting emergency contraception very often leaves women feeling “lectured, told off and humiliated”.

Studies have shown that use of emergency contraception does not reduce use of regular contraception — emergency contraception instead simply provides an important safety net.

To reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, a range of contraceptive methods and means of addressing contraceptive failure must be employed.

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Population and the Millennium Development Goals

We have issued a briefing on the United Nations’ final evaluation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — a set of eight objectives established by the United Nations that have guided international development since 2000. They expire at the end of this year and will be replaced by a larger set of goals known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


The report on the final evaluation provides information about the successes of the MDGs as well as failures and continuing problems to be addressed. In our briefing, we examine the claims made in the report and point out that one of the key causes of the failures — unsustainable population growth — is ignored. If as the United Nations is projecting there are approximately one billion more people in the world by 2030, achievement of the SDGs will be even more difficult.

Our view is that global fertility rates can be lowered and unsustainable population growth curbed through greater investment in family planning services and prioritization of sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s empowerment.

We believe policymakers must take actions that will lower fertility rates and restrain population growth if the SDGs are to be achieved.

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Emergency contraception in the UK

We have issued a briefing on the use of emergency contraception in the United Kingdom.

Recent research has revealed positive trends in contraceptive choices in the country — including increased use of long-acting contraceptives and a general increase in contraceptive use overall among young people. However, the United Kingdom still compares unfavourably to other European countries in rates of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Other briefings we have issued recently also are available for viewing.

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The benefits of small families

We have released a briefing on the benefits of small families.

Small family

Small families have a beneficial effect on many aspects of life. Small families are a source of well-being for family members, have a limited environmental impact and enable many women to be more fulfilled.

Small families are good for children. With fewer siblings, a child experiences less “resource dilution” — (s)he benefits from higher quality attention from his or her parents, potentially resulting in greater achievement.

Parents also benefit from having a small family. The cost of supporting a child from cradle to college is considerable, so parents who have fewer children experience less pressure on their finances, often giving them a more relaxed lifestyle and the ability to enjoy more time with their family.

Small families have additional benefits in the developing world. Small size allows families to increase per person expenditures on food, dedicate more time to work or leisure and reduce health risks.

Small family

Having a small family is a step toward sustainability. Every human has a carbon footprint, so having fewer children is one of the most environmentally friendly steps we can take to reduce our impact on our planet and its climate and biodiversity.

Today, many organisations are challenging cultural norms. Gateway Women, for example, celebrates the lives of childless individuals. This is an important step in challenging the idea that people — women in particular — must have children to lead worthwhile lives.

We urge you to have a small family and join others who have pledged to have two or fewer children.

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