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.]