The World Debates Population Growth

A Status Report

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With the birth of the 7 billionth human being just around the corner, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on the evolution of global thinking about population and where things stand today. Few subjects have aroused more debate among more diverse actors around the world than this one. And it all began 213 years ago with an essay by the English philosopher and economist, the Rev. Thomas Malthus.

Debates about whether population growth is a good or a bad thing and what can or should be done about it have been raging ever since Malthus first published his Essay on the Principle of Population. As everyone knows, Malthus predicted that the rapid population growth England was experiencing during the Industrial Revolution would inevitably outstrip food production, leading to widespread starvation and rising mortality. He was, of course, wrong, and Malthusian thinking has been suspect ever since. Nonetheless, it has persisted, rising to the level of near consensus among Western think-ers by the mid-20th century in the face of an apparent population explosion, first observed in post-World War II Asia and then throughout the developing world.

As Earth’s population rose from 1 billion around 1800, to 2 billion in 1930, ballooning to 6 billion by 1999, and now, merely 12 years later, reaching 7 billion, alarm about the consequences has been widespread among a diverse array of thinkers: agronomists, climate scientists, ecologists, environmentalists, national security experts and many others. The prospect of further growth to 10 billion by 2100, now projected by the United Nations, only causes additional alarm.

But in the face of the concern that arose in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps best exemplified by biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 publication, The Population Bomb, an equally vociferous group arose to contest what it saw as the excessive alarmism of these neo-Malthusians, as they were called. Perhaps foremost among them was the late economist Julian Simon, whose book, The Ultimate Resource, reflected the thinking of many other economists, as well as most of the conservative political movement in this country and elsewhere. Simon and his allies held that human ingenuity and technological change have always enabled us to adapt to rising human numbers and, indeed, to advance and thrive as a consequence of, not despite, population growth.

Thoughout most of the 1970s and 1980s, and well into the 1990s, the neo-Malthusian view tended to prevail, with the result that many governments in the global south, as well as most donor governments and international agencies, built and sustained strong policies aimed at achieving slower population growth rates and eventual population stabilization. These efforts achieved varying degrees of success in different parts of the world but resulted in an overall decline in total fertility rates in the developing world, from around six children in the mid- 1960s to fewer than three today. Perhaps as a consequence of this success, which was reached during the 1990s, and because of a rising tide of anti-Malthusian thinking, attention shifted away from population growth as a global problem in the latter part of the 1990s.

Parallel to the debate about whether population growth should be a cause for alarm has been an equally sharp divide about how to address it. Generally speaking, the two sides have been divided over the question of whether intensified efforts to promote and provide contraceptive use should receive priority, or whether a broader approach that addresses the underlying causes of high fertility should predominate. At issue was the question of whether and to what extent couples are already motivated to limit family size. Everyone could agree that improvement in living standards would reduce the demand for children, especially higher rates of educational attainment, reduced infant and young child mortality, urban residence and employment.
The UN’s first World Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974 was bitterly divided on the issue, with many developing countries calling for massive infusions of aid to raise overall living standards, and the donors preferring the more limited family planning option.

Over time, a great majority of developing countries did adopt a family planning approach to population policy alongside parallel efforts to, inter alia, raise school enrollment rates for girls, reduce under-five mortality and improve employment opportunities for women. But the strong focus on contraception provoked a reaction from the Roman Catholic Church, which, in its campaigns against family planning programs increasingly conflated family planning services with abortion, thus muddying the waters and creating controversy about family planning where little had previously existed. First the Reagan and then both Bush administrations in the United States, which were by far the largest donors to family planning programs, joined forces with the Vatican in its anti-family planning, anti-abortion crusade.

At the same time as conservative religious and political forces were attacking family planning, the organized international women’s health and rights movement used the International Conference on Population and Development, the third global UN population conference, held in Cairo in 1994, as a platform to launch its attack on the “family planning approach” to population policy, arguing that family planning programs were too narrowly constructed and that their focus on fertility control was, at best, disrespectful of women’s rights and needs and, at worst, coercive. The history of coercive contraception in some Asian countries gave credence to this charge. Cairo produced a worldwide shift away from the emphasis on family planning and toward a broader and somewhat more amorphous “reproductive health approach.”

Where has all this left us? First of all, the evolution in global thinking and policy just outlined has resulted in a major shift of resources away from contraceptive services. Much of this money has, since the 1990s, been devoted to HIV/ AIDS treatment and care. The result has been a flattening out of the decline in fertility and a plateau in the use of modern contraception. The momentum that was achieved during the last quarter of the 20th century has pretty much come to an end.

Getting it going again will take considerable political will and commitment of resources. Fortunately, there is some evidence that opinion leaders in various countries are once again becoming persuaded of the need to intensify the provision of family planning services as a means toward both reducing unsustainable rates of population growth and achieving several of the Millennium Development Goals, particularly those aimed at reducing maternal, infant and young child deaths. While renewed interest in family planning and somewhat bigger investments in reproductive health programs are still quite tenuous, there is unmistakable movement in this direction, spurred by rising concerns about the impact of population growth on rapidly rising food prices and greenhouse gases, among other problems. Hopefully, the world has reached a stage of maturity in its discussion about population that nations can avoid being distracted by extreme versions of either the debate about whether population growth is a problem – neo-Malthusian vs. anti-Malthusian hyperbole or the debate about how best to resolve it. That means giving appropriate attention to family planning without entangling it in the abortion controversy, while ensuring that it is embedded in a broader development and reproductive health context.