Saving the planet with condoms

condoms-webA recent study suggests that condoms can help us combat anthropogenic climate change (see Condoms save the Planet). I guess it’s obvious really. Fewer people, fewer problems.

But I think this illustrates that many of the solutions to humanity’s problems come down to human rights issues. In particular the rights of women in many countries. IfΒ  women in these societies got the human rights they deserve, including reproductive choice, we would probably see a decline in excess population growth, terrorism and civil wars. Religious and cultural intolerance, which victimise many women, could be reduced. We could tackle problems of disease, water quality and standards of living with more chance of success. And the proliferation of human rights would no doubt improve the economies of these countries.

Nobel prize winner Murray Gell-Mann made these points in his excellent book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. Perhaps I am showing my own bias here (after all I am not a woman) by drawing attention to another aspect of human rights Gell-Mann discussed. This is the rights of the aged. Particularly the provision of social security for the aged.

Social provision for income for the aged would take that responsibility away from their children. This would be another factor restricting the need for large families.

Download the report (pdf): Reducing Future Carbon Emission by Investing in Family Planning.


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23 responses to “Saving the planet with condoms

  1. Are people smarter than yeast?
    I hope so.


  2. Another way of reducing the population is to nuke the most populated continent.


  3. Where’s that coming from, Madeleine? Got something against the Chinese, have you?


  4. Madeleine,

    Huh? As in, “what the…” and “how is this relevant?” Is it “brain fart day”? πŸ™‚

    “Another way of reducing the population would be to have all fundamentalist Christians commit suicide” seems just as meaningful and just as inappropriate. After all, along with Catholics, they do seem to favour larger families than most… πŸ™‚

    Food for thought: the Chinese for a long time had one of the more harsh family size restrictions anywhere, as everyone knows.

    More seriously, another element to tackling this is to raise living standards. From memory there is a strong correlation of higher living standards and smaller families. Excepting those that refuse to do family planning, of course…


  5. Agree about the raising of living standards – but this seems to be actively inter-related to the position of women. Maybe also, I like to think, to the position of the aged.

    I can’t help thinking that human rights (real, not just formal democratic structures) on the one hand, and fertility control and standard of living, go together.


  6. Another way of reducing the population is to nuke the most populated continent.

    Somebody needs a hug.


  7. Perhaps Madeline was saying that, to her, stopping little people from being born by using condoms is as repulsive to her as nuking China would be to us? But that logic seems too warped for even someone with her worldview (i.e. Christian but not Catholic).

    Maybe that comment is better excused as a brain fart as per Heraclides suggestion. We all have moments like that I guess.

    That was pretty left-field Madeline.


  8. Wow, definitely left field there Madeline.

    This issue does however, demonstrate one of the actual issues with religion though.

    I have always thought it was rather evil for the pope to be setting decrees against birth control, particularly when the catholic church has so much of its membership located in the poorer countries. Under what grounds does anything that somebody like the pope say’s have any relevance to anything?

    Classic example of the massive blind spot that this can open up in peoples reasoning faculties.


  9. Madeleine
    Another way of reducing the population is to nuke the most populated continent.
    I can understand why you’d say this, but methinks you missed the whole “pain, burning and radiation” thing that tends to follow nuclear strikes, that how-ever doesn’t occur from using a condom. Then again, some do prefer to dwell in fantasy land, where every sperm is sacred… /parody

    I have always thought it was rather evil for the pope to be setting decrees against birth control, particularly when the catholic church has so much of its membership located in the poorer countries. Under what grounds does anything that somebody like the pope say’s have any relevance to anything?
    It’s not just this, it’s also HIV. Both Catholic and other fundamentalist christian groups operating in sub-Saharan Africa love to tell tails about how condoms have little holes in them that allow HIV through, or aren’t useful at all. Regardless of the studies that came out of the West showing condoms + sex education greatly reduced rates of STD spread, particularly HIV in the gay community.


  10. I’d speculate that Madeleine’s comment was referring to the central basis of the ‘study’ – that lowering population (called ’emitters’) = lowering emissions, etc.

    It’s a somewhat random and/or arbitrary basis for such a ‘study’ (look who funded it).

    But the real quandry is why “family planning” (a phrase that should win awards for its irony) is only reduced to condoms and abortion? Amazing how self-control and abstinence are utterly ignored (whatever one thinks about the ethics of abortion).

    I just saw this from Brian Walsh:

    Click to access rom-1-16-32-targum-take-two.pdf

    Seems a far more wholistic sppreciation of the issues than the simplistic “population-down = emissions down” study mentioned here.


  11. Why don’t people stop second-guessing Madeleine and just ask her to explain?


    Just because one study is focused on one aspect of a much larger picture doesn’t mean the writer (or researchers in general) is (are) ignorant of the wider picture. It’s usual for specific studies to focus on just one aspect. In this case, given the requested objectives for the work, it’d go against their brief to look wider. Student projects (as this is) are typically more focused to make them manageable in a limited amount of time and for someone still learning research.

    Walsh’s sermon is a polemic really, and without evidence to support his claims; it’s not an attempt to investigate a problem.

    I think many people would find it more amazing that some people think self-control and abstinence are even realistic or pragmatic solutions, given the practical (and cheap) alternatives available πŸ˜‰ You also need to remember that whatever solution is taken must suit the people who are to use it, whatever your views are and regardless of whatever might suit you.

    Ken, I think all three are interrelated. I like your linking this to income for the aged. Here’s another quick take. Large families in poor countries are linked to having children to support parents in their dotage. Let’s say the government offers pensions as an incentive to restricting yourself to smaller families. (No need to have the burden of managing a large family, etc.) Sounds good, but where is the money going to come from? Sounds like you need to generate a better economy either concurrently or prior to this.

    Toss in improvements in public health reducing the childhood death rate as another aspect (vaccines, clean water supply, decent sewerage, etc).

    You’d need to tackle corruption, too. Those in power would lean on others’ pensions.

    PS: I posted on Thinking Matters for the first time in “forever” and it seems that they are still deleting my posts… pathetic. Obviously can’t have people pointing out where their writers are potentially in error, that’d be too open and honest πŸ™‚


  12. “But the real quandry is why β€œfamily planning” (a phrase that should win awards for its irony) is only reduced to condoms and abortion? Amazing how self-control and abstinence are utterly ignored (whatever one thinks about the ethics of abortion).”

    Maybe because they’ve been found to be useless in the real world, for which the USA keeps providing numerous strong indicators of abstinence being a failure. So the real quandary is why the frak people keep ignoring the frakking scientific research in favour of anecdotal evidence from the shysters peddling abstinence only sex ed.

    And I’ll dig up the papers I’m thinking off after lectures…

    Or, mayhaps Dale knows how to use google scholar to find stuff? One can only hope he does, so to avoid being ragged out if seen using anecdotal evidence to base his claims…


  13. NickS,

    I vaguely recall a blog reporting on a paper showing that abstinence basically just didn’t work.

    One is , but it’s not the one I’m thinking of, which was a more formal look at the stats.


  14. No, Dale, I just can’t work out where Madeleine was coming from. Perhaps it was a spur of the moment comment without the brain engaged. I wish she would put us out of our mystery and tell us what she really meant.

    I don’t think anyone really suggests that condoms and abortions are the sole way of controlling emissions. But undoubtedly they are two effective methods of family planning and fertility control for women. And this will contribute to a more sustainable society – surely.

    “Self-control” smacks of the old unrealistic lecturing we always got as kids – completely ineffective and led to a huge number of family tragedies in this country.

    I think it boils down to what works best for the individual woman, man and family. And lets keep guilt out of it.

    I am disappointed you didn’t pick up on the really important contribution which could be made from providing social security for the aged!!


  15. @Heraclides

    I think I saw it covered on Dispatches from the Culture Wars, though I’m sure PZ would have also brought it up…

    Now, plugging “abstinence only” sex education into google scholar a whole bunch of interesting papers, of which one stands out, and indeed is probably the one me and Heraclides are thinking of;

    Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs
    Santelli et al 2006


    Abstinence from sexual intercourse is an important behavioral strategy for preventing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy among adolescents. Many adolescents, including most younger adolescents, have not initiated sexual intercourse and many sexually experienced adolescents and young adults are abstinent for varying periods of time. There is broad support for abstinence as a necessary and appropriate part of sexuality education. Controversy arises when abstinence is provided to adolescents as a sole choice and where health information on other choices is restricted or misrepresented. Although abstinence is theoretically fully effective, in actual practice abstinence often fails to protect against pregnancy and STIs. Few Americans remain abstinent until marriage; many do not or cannot marry, and most initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual behaviors as adolescents. Although abstinence is a healthy behavioral option for teens, abstinence as a sole option for adolescents is scientifically and ethically problematic. A recent emphasis on abstinence-only programs and policies appears to be undermining more comprehensive sexuality education and other government-sponsored programs. We believe that abstinence-only education programs, as defined by federal funding requirements, are morally problematic, by withholding information and promoting questionable and inaccurate opinions. Abstinence-only programs threaten fundamental human rights to health, information, and life.

    Don’t have the time, nor concentration at present to read further into the literature, but from the odd bits I’ve looked at, the conclusions are that abstinence only sex education is worthless. While a side search into abstinence + sex education doesn’t look much better either.

    Indeed, I’d feel rather safe in hypothesising that the abstinence component serves no other purpose but to assuage the religious convictions of certain parents. Meaning that the rates of STD’s, pregnancies and age of first sexual encounter wouldn’t be statistically significant between sex ed vs sex ed + abstinence.


  16. Abstinence-only campaigns are driven only by political reasons.
    They have no basis in science.

    Telling hormone-charged teenagers to keep their legs crossed and pray harder never works.

    Didn’t work in the “good old days” and it doesn’t work now.
    For parents that consider the idea of open, frank and explicit discussion on sex to be distasteful or icky, abstinence-only provides an easy cop-out.
    No need to talk about ejaculation.
    No need to talk about STD’s
    No need to talk about lubricants.
    All that icky stuff can be neatly avoided.

    No sex means no babies. Problem solved.
    Class dismissed.

    Plus there’s the whole “sin” angle.
    Difficult for a fundy to not bring up the topic of sin when sex enters the conversation.

    How does a fundy talk about condoms and then not mention that actually using one will make you burn in hell forever and ever and ever.
    Much simpler to preach abstinence.
    Avoids icky sex details plus there’s no conflict with the “sin” issue.
    Prudity wins, teenagers lose.


  17. World Vision has a successful Christian based AIDS prevention programme in Africa called ABC. This appeals to religious sensibilities and is also practical.
    Abstinence – safest option, admittedly idealistic
    Be faithful – sex with one partner only
    Condom – less safe option, but if you do get funky, use one

    In “Freakonomics”, Steven Levitt noted an interesting correlation between crime levels in NYC and the availability of family planning. There is a case to be made against bringing an unloved, miserable life into the world.


  18. This correlation reminds me of that between the number of vicars and prostitutes in London.


  19. I seem to remember a study from the US that looked at students who had signed up to an abstinence pledge (can’t remember the actual name) & compared their later sexual histories with those who hadn’t. The outcome was that the ‘abstinence’ kids ended up with higher rates of unplanned pregnancies etc than the other group. Made for sad reading. I think PZ would have picked up on it.


  20. Wrote this, but for some reason left it in an open tab and forgot to post it…


    I probably saw something there. The thing that interested me in the blog I cited was the reference to a survey of the outcome of the programs, reporting that they had no effect and, if anything, made things worse rather than better. This is what I recall seeing, something along those lines, a survey showing the outcome of applying these programs. What I like is that even leaving “human rights” issues side, that they apparently don’t work anyway.

    I agree with Ken about keeping guilt out of it. In my opinion, it’s best that parents teach kids at a young age when it’s not embarrassing for parents (that’s right, parents) so that they grow up with it being “normal information”, rather than something hidden and shrouded with vague hints of guilt and whatnot.

    [Appended after I realised I hadn’t posted it.]


    This might be the one I was thinking of. The outcomes ring a bell.


  21. Population-growth rates in β€˜western countries’ keep falling, or at best stagnate.

    Population-growth rates in Africa & similar show no abatement and run at three
    times that of their benefactors β€˜in the west’.

    There is no way of avoiding the conclusion that some countries are breeding
    themselves into poverty & starvation…..Bob Geldoff.


  22. Ken yes there are weird correlations everywhere. The trick is to connect them


  23. Pingback: Le BrΓ©sil au XIXΓ¨me et XXIΓ¨me siΓ¨cle « Neuroanthropology

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