Overpopulation: The environmental problem that isn’t

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In an opinion leader and an associated issue briefing, the Economist newsmagazine last week (Oct 29 issue) reported on the worldwide decline in fertility rates, which mollify concerns about how to address the “overpopulation” of the planet. (The “fertility rate” is a technical term from demography–how many children a woman has during her lifetime.) In the undergraduate teaching program in Environmental Studies I helped found in 1999 at Emory University, I would survey incoming freshman on what they thought the world’s most pressing environmental issues were. Nearly always, they expressed grave concerns about “overpopulation”, by which they mostly meant population growth in less developed countries. Never mind that the United States and other first world nations consume far more than their share per capita of the world’s resources–these students were worried about the sheer number of people the planet would be called on to support.

What to do about it? I shudder to think about the despotic and manipulative practices a few of the students advocated. Some were insufficiently repulsed by China’s draconian “one child” policy. So many had already picked up their not-so-latent misanthropy in old-school environmentalism–the evil “lifeboat ethics” of Garrett Hardin and others. Others, more enlightened, figured that easier access to contraception would help reduce birth rates, although the Economist article shows that this is rarely the case. Families the world over have about the number of children they want to have.

Falling fertility is most obviously a result of the demographic transition–first infant mortality declines due to modern medicine, leading to a short-lived population boom. Then other factors make large families less attractive, and enlightened public policy has reduced birth rates as a side effect. When stable financial systems make it possible to save for old age and even participate in pension programs, when education for girls, rising pay and job opportunities for women make employment possible, when industrialization moves people off farms, it is no longer so attractive to have large families for economic survival, as the article details.

So the “problem of overpopulation” is taking care of itself. Public policy should focus more directly on the things that make people better off, rather than trying to control their reproductive decisions. Coercive population control is immoral, and other efforts at regulating population are less effective than helping families lead productive, rewarding, and flourishing lives.

[I’ll be posting a longer essay on this topic in the next few weeks, based on my recent lectures on population and environment.]

6 thoughts on “Overpopulation: The environmental problem that isn’t

  1. Hi Rusty, Great thoughts!
    This is an issue I am deeply concerned about. I am always aghast when I hear of ‘solutions’ to our environmental problems that view humans as a blight on nature that needs to be controlled. When sustainability issues become too creation-centric human rights are trampled. What’s better: Careless Capitalism or Eco-Fascism? There has to be a third way.

    My wife and I have 5 children but we make every effort to be mindful of our consumption habits. Living in Northern Virginia for most of my life and now living on a small farm in Central Virginia, I can reasonably say we consume far less resources than a childless couple commuting to work and living in a huge house in the D.C. area. It’s not a matter of too many people, but unwise lifestyles and short-sighted resource stewardship in many regions. I could go on.

    I would love to feature this post on our upcoming Sustainable Traditions blogazine. We would provide you credit and a link back here. If you are interested please let me know.

    Jason Fowler

    WISELY WOVEN {Creative Media}

  2. Great to know that you read the Economist, Rusty! However, having read the same briefing the day before, I was surprised at your comment, “Families the world over have about the number of children they want to have” when what the article actually says is this:

    //A surprising amount is known about how many children parents want, thanks to a series of surveys by the Demographic and Health Surveys programme. The picture it paints is of huge numbers of unplanned pregnancies. In Brazil, for example, the wanted fertility rate in 1996 (the most recent year available) was 1.8; the actual fertility rate then was 2.5. In India the wanted rate in 2006 was 1.9, the actual one, 2.7. In Ghana the figures for 2003 were 3.7 and 4.4. The rule seems to be that women want one child fewer than they are having (except in some rich countries, where they say they want more).//

    Further, while it is true that the population juggernaut appears to be rapidly decelerating more or less on its own, built-in inertia means we still have to find room and resources for about 50% more people than now live on the planet before absolute numbers level off – this means more than 50% more food, energy, water and living space, since increasing levels of wealth mean the new arrivals will require more of all of this per person than their parents and grandparents have settled for.

    So, yes, what the Economist is reporting is good news – but we can hardly be said to be out of the woods yet.

    Ed Brown
    Care of Creation

    • Thanks, Ed, for the clarification. My point was that even in the absence of freely available modern contraceptive technologies, families choose how many children to have, based on a range of zero to about twenty (which is roughly the physiological maximum fertility rate). Nowhere on earth do very many women have the maximum possible number of children. Practices for limiting childbirth include late marriage, post-natal abstinence, extended breast-feeding, and the custom of abstinence after becoming a grandmother. A range of other low-tech, low-cost family planning methods exist and are in fact used.

      The fact that parents may actually have 2.5 children when they desire 1.8 children, or for that matter 6 children when they desire 7, and that they aren’t having 17 or 18 children, indicates that parents the world over get pretty close to their targets, regardless of availability of modern contraceptives. The data you cite from the Economist indicate that parents are overshooting by less than one child, regardless of access to birth control. And as the Economist points out,

      A further reduction of fertility would be possible if family planning were spread to the parts of the world which do not yet have it (notably Africa). But that would only reduce the growth in the world’s numbers from 9.2 billion in 2050 to, say, 8.5 billion. To go further would probably require draconian measures, such as sterilisation or one-child policies.

      Old-school environmentalists who continue to complain about overpopulation marginalize themselves and their concerns. We’d do better to characterize our global situation as a hunger problem than an overpopulation problem. It points us to a different, more healthy set of solutions.

  3. Pingback: Overpopulation: The Environmental Problem That Isn’t

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