The Unmet Need for Family Planning Resources and the Ensuing Pollution

Author: Nicole Avento | December 2014


The lack of access to family planning throughout the world contributes to the emission of a minimum of one gigatonne of carbon per year.  Carbon emissions contribute to the warming of the atmosphere among other aspects on earth.  I will be researching whether a lack of family planning affects other earth systems and the reach this pollution has to the surrounding areas.  Family planning is not simply having access to birth control, abortions or sterilization.  It is having access to the resources necessary to have the choice and freedom to plan, space, or prevent a pregnancy, as the woman desires.  Access to family planning leads to a lower mortality rate for both, the mother and child.  It also allows for more children within a family to attend school, because the family would be more likely to afford to send them.  This issue is an international one, if the resources are not provided, a vicious cycle of increased birthrate and pollution are probable to occur.

Key Words: Family Planning; International; Pollution; Trans-boundary; Environmental strain; Reproductive justice; Environmental justice

1 Introduction

One of the many issues when discussing international pollution issues is deciding when your topic is addressed to the depth that you desire.  People rarely discuss the root causes of the issues that are forcing our world to deteriorate at an uncontrollable pace.  Generally, people are aware that population size is a large factor into what is causing global climate change; however, rarely is the connection made that access to family planning resources will help control population size on its own.  The integration of social issues and pollution is discussed, often regarding what influences the prevention of passing legislation and regulations, not how social issues may directly be contributing to pollution.  Family planning and its relationship to pollution is one issue that is rarely thought connected.  In reality, the lack of access to family planning, besides being a human rights issue, is also an environmental one.  Reproductive justice and environmental justice are two movements that are deeply interconnected.  The lack of family planning resources in developing countries is globally contributing to air pollution, water pollution and resource strain on the environment.

2 Background

2.1 Family Planning

Overpopulation has been discussed for decades now.  Some countries have attempted to control their population size.  This method usually involves taking human and political rights away from people instead of increasing them.  After all, China’s family planning policy, or one-child policy, the legislation that stops families from having more than one child for approximately 36% of the population, has been implemented since 1980, and has only recently began to be amended (Xiaofeng 2007).  The policy had unforeseen consequences.  There are now forty million more men than women, including eighteen million more boys than girls in China (Levin 2014).  Access to family planning resources increases a family’s freedom and rights to control the timing and size of their family.  Family planning is a choice.  A choice to decide the spacing and amount of children one may have in their lifetime.  It is usually associated to mean access to contraceptive, but it is much more than that.  It encompasses accessibility to different forms of contraception, abortion, education and any other resources that would be needed to be able to decide and control one’s family size (“Family Planning” 2015).  In developing countries alone, 222 million women do not have access to family planning resources (Rodriguez 3).  In regards to family planning, ‘unmet need’ refers to women who have expressed the desire for contraception for the purpose of wanting to delay their next child, or have reached their desired family size, but do not have the means to access the resources necessary (“Sexual and Reproductive Health”).  In the United States, approximately 30% of women, thirteen million women, do not have access to these resources (Cheney-Rice 2014).  Reproductive justice must be achieved to appease these conditions.

Reproductive justice and environmental justice are intertwined.  As represented in fig. 1, reproductive equality and environmental equality is not the same as justice.  Equality is making sure everyone has access to an equal amount of resources regardless of the different resources or status each party may possess to begin with, while justice takes into account the different states of each party and what resources would be necessary to ensure everyone would have a fair chance of receiving and equal outcome.

Figure 1: A visual representation of the difference between equality and justice. Image: (Escobar 2013).
Figure 1: A visual representation of the difference between equality and justice. Image: (Escobar 2013).

“Reproductive justice is complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights” (Ross).  Meanwhile, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (“What is Environmental Justice?”).  The two combine by through the people.  If people had access to family planning resources, family size overall would most likely be smaller and less environmental resources would collectively be used.

2.2 Pollution caused by Population Strain

A lack of access to family planning resources creates a positive feedback effect.  Population is relatively small  environmental resources available  people are more able to sustain the next generation  population increases  resources insufficient to sustain a larger population  reproduction becomes costly and environmental resources become scarce.  This, of course, is a simplified example of the feedback that is created.  The decreased health of the mother after many pregnancies, the education availability or lack thereof either for the family or for the area, the economic status of the family, the mortality rate, the resources needed or available to sustain the family, as well as many other factors all influence the feedback cycle created in the connection between family size and the environment.  The larger population that is created in this feedback uses a greater amount of natural resources for each individual home. These resources are, for the most part, utilized in a hazardous and inefficient manner, exposing individuals to hazardous airborne toxins. For example, approximately half of the world’s population, and up to 90% of rural households burn wood, dung and crop residues to heat the stoves in homes, creating indoor air pollution from the smoke produced (Bruce, et al. 1078).

The population size creates a strain on the regions’ natural resources.

Family-planning methods vary greatly in terms of effectiveness…Even the least effective method is considerably better than using nothing, since 85% of couples will become pregnant within one year without contraception (Cleland, et al. 9).

The issues caused by population size encompass deforestation, erosion, water pollution, toxic emissions into the atmosphere and the burning of fossil fuels.  Not only is the environment suffering, but humans are too.  Asthma, reproductive health issues, birth defects, and cancer are all increasing due to pollution and exposure to toxic elements.  The effects the populations of each country have on the environment does not remain within that country.  It spreads and affects the surrounding countries, regions or even causes global issues, making population strain a trans-boundary issue.

3 Strain on environment

Population size and the state of the environment are intrinsically related.  Due to the size of the population (influenced by the lack of family planning resources), especially in developing areas, there has been a strain on all resources necessary to sustainably support a population.  When people do not have the freedom or luxury to decide what they believe is best for their own body, whether it is to have children, to wait, or to never give birth, the child’s and mother’s health are stake, both during and after pregnancy.  If a woman is too weak from too many pregnancies or from pregnancies occurring too close together, she loses her autonomy and cannot support the health and development of her community.  This puts the family in economic despair, perpetuating the vicious cycle for generations, increasing the strain placed on the environment.  The cost of having a child, or multiple children, is ever increasing due to the economy and the strain a growing population has on the available natural resources.  This can be seen in regions including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and south Asia (Cleland, et al. 4).  This is not to say the Unites States, and other developed countries use resources efficiently.  The United States has been in an uphill battle with overconsumption since the industrial revolution; however, the toxins released are regulated and are released from power plants and factories instead of being released inside each family’s individual home.  The level of direct exposure is reduced.  Environmental issues arise through various influences, including the unequal global consumption and distribution of resources, adding unequal strain on communities and environments around the world.  These resources include those necessary for family planning.  Usually, in developing countries, or any country for that matter, the more children a family has to care for, the more resources necessary to sustain each individual household.

Figure 2: The wedge approach as developed by Professors Pacala and Socolow.  Image: (Tomlinson 2007).
Figure 2: The wedge approach as developed by Professors Pacala and Socolow. Image: (Tomlinson 2007).

Lack of access to family planning more often than not will contribute as a non-point source pollutant.  Having children does not directly expose people to pollution, nor does population itself.  The increasing amount of resources inefficiently used and consumed by the ever-increasing population contributes to the negative impact on the environment.  Less waste would be created with the population advancing at a more sustainable rate than is currently the case.  Princeton professors, Robert Socolow and Steve Pacala, introduced the ‘wedge approach,’ as seen in fig. 2, to visualize the feasible options to mitigate climate change (Pacala, et al.  2014). The unmet need for family planning was dismissed or simply not put into consideration for the list of impacting environmental processes addressed in the wedge approach.  Nonetheless, if this need was met and stabilized globally, then 1.1 billion tons of carbon emissions per year could be prevented (“The Population-Climate Connection” 2).  Each wedge in this chart, as seen in fig. 2, represents one of the fifteen processes that if mitigated and stabilized, could each result in the prevention of one gigatonne of carbon emissions (Pacala, et al. 2014).  These processes include energy conservation, renewable energy usage, fossil-carbon management, and enhanced natural sinks (Pacala, et al. 2014).  Population size and strain is interconnected within each wedge that was discussed.  In terms of cost efficiency and ease, stabilizing the unmet need for family planning is both the cheapest and easiest to enact.  It is beneficial for both, the women who do not currently have access to these resources and for the governing powers or organizations that would aid in the mitigation.  Until the unmet need for family planning is stabilized, the rise in population size will result in various suffering environmental resources, including deforestation, erosion, drought, fossil fuels, and pollution.

 3.1 Deforestation

Soil erosion and deforestation is, in some areas, highly interconnected.  Soil erosion generally increases due to deforestation.  For instance, in Cambodia and the Philippines, both legal and illegal logging has caused sever soil degradation and erosion (Ananda & Herath 345).  Logging is necessary to obtain the needed resources to sustain increasing population pressure and density.   There is an economic necessity to sell lumber as well as use the cleared land for agricultural purposes.

60 million people are wholly dependent on forests while more than 350 million people largely depend on these areas for subsistence and income.  About 10 million people are employed in forest management and conservation.  For all these people, forest destruction means the loss of livelihoods (“Why Population Matters to Forests” 1).

Population pressure has led to clear cutting much of the forests to satisfy the agricultural demand, while this would keep farmers employed, those whose livelihood is dependent on the forest become economically threatened.  Population pressure has been, evidently, sustained when family planning is available in the region.  People frequently choose to have a family that is economically feasible for the household as well as ergonomic for the family when given access to family planning resources, obtaining the freedom to plan their family as desired.  Population becomes erratic, disorderly and rampant when there are unmet family planning needs.  Areas where family planning is not available tend to exhibit deforestation at a higher rate.  Since populations tend to be higher than the surrounding environment can support, available resources are depleting at a faster rate.  Deforestation leads to a loss of habitat and therefore, a loss of biodiversity as well as a loss of structure containing the soil.  Trees anchored into the soil via roots help prevent soil and wind erosion, as well as a multitude of other possible environmental degradation processes.  If the regional and global population continues to increase at an exponential pace, the marginal land available will be over worked, over grazed and soil fertility depletion, vegetation coverage and erosion (Cleland, et al. 5).  The resources necessary to sustain a family and a community are in high demand; however, the availability of them is diminishing as increasing population pressure creates an unsustainable environment. 3.3 Fossil Fuels

3.2 Soil Use

Deforestation, soil erosion, and usage of fossil fuels can be observed on an individual scale as well as a global one.  Each year 75 billion tons of soils are removed due to erosion, a majority from agricultural practices (Ananda & Herath 343).  This erosion has adverse effects including siltation, water flow irregularities, reduced irrigation, water pollution, and “agrochemical” runoff (Ananda & Herath 343).  Siltation, which is the accumulation of fine particles in water, can cause reservoirs to have a smaller holding capacity and can also cause the turbidity of the water to increase, which would decrease the productivity of the photosynthetic organisms that reside within the body of water.

Population pressure has required farmers to expand their farmlands and may be forced to grow their crops in areas that are not ideal and often increase the erosion.  This includes hillsides, slopes, and other easily eroded areas.  The erosion caused by growing crops in these areas can cost millions of dollars, especially when the topsoil needs to be replenished.  Regions experiencing this intense erosion issue appear to be Africa, tropical Asian countries, India, and South America (Ananda & Herath 345).  Population pressure develops as a distinct issue in countries that do not have the resources to meet the family planning need.

The ever-increasing population creates an ever-increasing demand for food.  The need for food and the demand for more residential land has forced people to clear forestland to build either homes or replace with agricultural production (“Why Population Matters to Forests” 3).  Often in these areas, soil degradation is a result of over use, overgrazing and deforestation.  “Small frontier farmers, living on the edge of forests, drive much of the developing world’s deforestation by cutting down forests for settlement and food production” (“Why Population Matters to Forests” 2).  The trees in place help contain the soil.  Once the trees are removed gravity, weather, and climate aide in the erosion process.  If the cleared land was converted into farmland or residential areas, aside from the vast amount of freshwater necessary to sustain these newly converted areas, fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, hormones and oil will drain or be absorbed into the local bodies of water, contaminating freshwater sources that are already limited in many of the regions discussed.  “If institutional dynamics dominates environmental dynamics, then new institutions that protect the land will emerge, while improving the economic status of the farmers” (Ananda & Herath 345).  Regulations, community participation and support, enforcement, and monitoring are all necessary from the institution, or governing body, to best combat the erosion degradation.  It is believed that private property rights may be the best solution to minimize land degradation and soil erosion; however, population pressure leads to erosion of fragile soil, devaluing the land and discouraging the proper institutions from developing (Ananda & Herath 345).  The need for regulation and protection of the land must dominate over the degradation of the land and the influences population pressure may attempt to impose on it.

4 Forms of Pollution

Having a large family in developing countries increases the chance of exposure to indoor air pollution.  As mentioned earlier, many in rural areas and in developing countries use simple, poorly ventilated stoves, burning wood, dung and crop residue for domestic energy (Bruce, et al. 1078).  This form of energy is used to heat homes, cook, provide light and even to dry clothes.  “Exposure to this form of indoor air pollution increases the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and of acute respiratory infections in children, the most important cause of death among children under five years of age” (Bruce, et al. 1078).

Figure 3: Deaths from indoor air pollution is highest in developing countries. Image: (“Indoor Air Pollution and Household Energy”).
Figure 3: Deaths from indoor air pollution is highest in developing countries. Image: (“Indoor Air Pollution and Household Energy”).

Low birth weight, asthma, pulmonary tuberculosis and many other life threatening diseases can develop from long term exposure to the toxins created by indoor air pollution.  As seen in fig. 3, death related to indoor air pollution is a global issue.   Women and children experience a higher exposure to these toxins than men in developing countries because of the culture of women doing the majority of the cooking and raising the children in the home.  The children are often carried on the mother’s back while cooking, consequentially breathing in the smoke arising from the stove for anywhere from 3 to 24 hours a day, depending on the season (Bruce, et al. 1080).  Fig. 4 describes the damaging affects exposure to indoor air pollution has on the health of these women and children.

The unmet need for family planning is a non-point source pollutant.  While there are many different environmental processes influenced by population pressure, pollutants are emitted into the water and air in these areas because they are utilizing the limited resources at their disposal.  Family planning is a beginning to be considered a human right and will aide in reducing the overall population stress on the environment in developing countries; however, this will only solve the reproductive justice aspect of the issue.  There is a great disparity within the distribution of natural resources.

Figure 4: The results of exposure to indoor air pollution. Image: (Young 2014).
Figure 4: The results of exposure to indoor air pollution. Image: (Young 2014).

Environmental justice will be achieved when these resources are globally distributed based on necessity rather than economic wealth and when attention is given to the regions being most heavily affected by climate change.  People in these regions are suffering from indoor air pollution, water pollution, and drought.  Their environment is being overgrazed, suffering from deforestation, flooding, and natural resources in the area are being strained.


5 Pollution as an International Issue

The pollution being caused by population pressure does not only affect the regional area.  The ecology of one region is not secluded from the ecology of the entire earth. The air pollution added to the atmosphere everyday does not stay stagnant over one country.  The winds and the rotation of the earth transport the pollution across the artificial boundary lines.  The validity of this statement is seen everyday.  For instance, the smog that covers China, emitted mostly from the production of China’s exports, is transported over the Pacific Ocean and seeps into the western United States (Wong 2014).  Consumerism has acted as a double-edged sword.  It satisfies the instant gratification demand in developed countries, but releases particulate matter, smog and black carbon into the atmosphere.  This smog and particulate matter, depending on the winds of the day, may increase the concentration of toxic atmospheric levels in California, exceeding Federal ozone limits (Wong 2014).  How is one country to regulate the emissions from within their boundary lines when other countries’ emissions are influencing the scale?

This year, the United States recognized 137 countries out of a total of 195 to be defined as ‘developing’ (“Developing Countries”).  The trans-boundary pollutants being emitted from developing countries are creating a vicious cycle for the nearby countries.  As pollution increases and is dispersed, fresh water sources become polluted, natural resources begin to be affected by the pollution, limiting resources even further.  Developed countries are also influencing the pollution and climate change seen in developing countries.  Polluted waters containing chemicals from hydrofracking, agricultural runoff, factory wastewater, plastics and garbage are transported through currents changing the pH, salinity, turbidity, and productivity of the water.  When the concentration of these factors change, the ecology of the water changes.  This could mean certain species dying off, migration routes change or some species becoming too toxic to safely ingest.  The hazardous effects water pollution can have on livelihoods, availability of exports, economic development, and availability of potable water increases exponentially when the anthropogenic influence is accurately accounted for.

6 International Discussions

In the United States, there is a constant debate on what role we should have in international and transnational human rights issues.  The benefits of supporting family planning campaigns are two-fold.  For one, the women in these developing countries receive access to the family planning resources they so desired.  At the same time, the populations of these developing areas slowly begin stabilizing, as family size becomes a choice instead of an uncontrollable entity.  Before developed countries can make the decision to intervene in the injustices apparent in developing countries, they have to be wanted.  There must be a clear signal that the women want outside help.  If we do not wait for such movement, then we are perpetuating the idea of unwanted western colonialism.  Without the request from the people of the developing countries, a developed country’s interference will have the unintended appearance of being imperialistic.  Fortunately, there has been contact from the women in some of these regions.  This led to various campaigns to give funding for family planning services in developing countries.

6.1 The Lobbying Movements   

One of the various campaigns being lobbied for this year is the appropriations request to give one billion dollars worth of funding toward the international family planning and reproductive health assistance.  With this funding, every one hundred million dollars spent toward family planning would help prevent 1.5 million unintended pregnancies and 700,000 fewer abortions in developing countries alone (“What Will $1 Billion Buy?”).  This funding would give 5.2 million more couples access to contraception, resulting in a higher maternal and child survival rate, social stability and more natural resource security.  As of now, more than two billion people live in countries without adequate water sources, by the year 2025, the number will grow to 3.1 billion (“What Will $1 Billion Buy?”).  By insuring families have the control over their family size; the stress on the environment will begin to ease.  “Empowering women with the tools and resources to time their pregnancies would provide 8-15% of the reductions needed to avert climate change” (“What Will $1 Billion Buy?”).  Though industrialized countries are responsible for a majority of the emissions released each year, the emissions of developing countries will exponentially increase as the strain on the environment increases via population growth and inefficient energy production.

There is also a clean energy access campaign currently being lobbied for support.  It is asking for appropriations to be given to the World Bank and to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s US-Africa Clean Energy Finance, as well as a fund to be created supporting the “Beyond the Grid” sub-initiative of Power Africa.  These funds would aim to bring off-grid and mini-grid solar power to Sub-Saharan Africa (Guay, et al. 2).  Off-grid and mini-grid solar power allows excess energy to be stored in batteries and for basic energy to be produced.  This small step toward clean energy production in developing countries would give basic energy access to 1.3 billion people.  Using renewable energy technologies will reduce emissions and create a safer environment for families currently suffering from high exposure to indoor air pollutants.

In the latest congressional session the Global Sexual and Reproductive Health Act was introduced, but unfortunately died in committee.  The goal of this Act was to give authorization of assistance to improve sexual and reproductive health of people in developing countries and to implement sexual and reproductive health programs, offering a continuum of care that is responsive to the range of sexual and reproductive needs of young people and adults (Ipas 2013).  This Act was to fund universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, including safe abortions, sexual education, and reproductive health care.

7 Methods

Gathering data for this paper was a challenging experience.  Not only is there little information on family planning availability, there was a limited amount of scholarship to be found relating it to pollution.  My selection process of what sources to use was restricted simply because there was not an overwhelming amount of research available.  I focused mostly on advocacy groups and peer-reviewed scholarship. This paper is largely my interpretation of the statistics and information available on family planning resources, pollution in developing countries and population stress.

8 Conclusion

The lack of access to family planning resources in developing countries are contributing to the strain on natural resources as well as to the degrading state of the earth.  Having access to family planning resources is a human right.  It is a human right to have the control over one’s own body, to be able to decide the amount of children and timing of one’s family.  This is not only a developing world issue.  Even in the United States women are battling, on both, the federal and state levels, to have access to the family planning resources that is so desired.  The affordability and accessibility of these resources must be improved on a global scale.  Population pressure will slowly lessen in intensity as women have the resources necessary to avoid unwanted pregnancies.  The legislation currently being discussed would only be the beginning of the fight to bring both, reproductive and environmental justice to the developing world.


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