from the pages of../



Michael Albert


What with the Cairo conference, population has resurfaced as a hot and controversial topic. Are there too many people afoot, or soon to be afoot? And if so, what do we do about it? Answers vary widely. Perhaps we can clarify by establishing the context of the debate, summarizing contending positions, and providing evidence to adjudicate. In a nutshell, here are the issues and main contending positions.

Issue 1: Everyone agrees that with too many people for a given social organization, productive capacity and technique, and infrastructure, the environment suffers and a reduced quality of life ensues. Under such conditions there not be enough output, too muc pollution, etc. But, and this is the contested issue, how many is too many people?

Position 1: We have too many people in the world now, indeed we have had too many for some time. Standards of living in much of the world, poverty, and environmental degradation, are already largely a product of overpopulation. The situation is a crisis. Particularly in Africa and Asia, population is disproportionately high. Population levels must be reduced and growth rates reduced at a break-neck pace to avoid catastrophe.

Position 2: Population levels are still far from being too high. Population density in many places is too high, but this is a matter of social relations, not population per se. Numbers of people has in no sense outstripped productive potentials, food availability, etc. Low standards of living, poverty, and environmental degradation are almost exclusively, at this point in history, products of oppressive institutions, not high populations. There is no immediate population crisis. There is, however, an immediate social crisis and a longer term population problem.

Issue 2: Next, everyone agrees that if growth rates are high, and stay high, eventually there will certainly be too many people. So growth rates have to level off to a no growth status, at least at some point. But when? And how?Everyone agrees that, at least to some extent, increased standards of living, levels of education, and levels of freedom and power for women all reduce birth rates, as do programs giving financial incentives to maintain low family size, imposing birth control or sterilization, emphasizing family planning, putting legal limits on numbers of offspring, etc. But, and this is the issue, which approaches work more effectively and more humanely and are thus more deserving of emphasis, taking into account not only the direct effects on different constituencies of the birth-rate reducing policies themselves, but also the inhumane impact of ineffectively addressed overpopulation? In short, what causes growth rates to be high, and what policies or actions should we adopt to reduce them?

(Position 1) Whatever causes growth rates to be high, the best way to reduce them quickly is to provide powerful incentives, legal and material, to limit procreation. The current population crisis more than justifies economically and legally compelling limited family size. Social programs of reallocation and education aimed at people making choices on their own don't work fast enough, and are too hard to win in the time available. More, they may temporarily raise growth rates, (by reducing mortality) before causing a decline. Emphasis should be on more forceful population policies, and where there is a dirth of resources for reform, population control should be the priority.

(Position 2) Poverty, insecurity, and ignorance cause high growth rates. The only humane way to reduce high growth rates is by social change that improves conditions of life, levels of education, economic security, and freedom of choice for women. While coercive measures can also have an impact, such measures will only add to current injustices, increase passivity in the populace and authoritarianism in elites, are in no way justified by the effects of current growth rates anyhow, and are unlikely to act faster than sensible social programs in any case.

Regardless of who holds which contending position, and regardless of how each is sometimes adulterated by ignorance or even wanton misrepresentation, or by racists, misogynists, etc., the first responsible task is to look at the evidence available and our understanding of associated factors, to try to reach an informed conclusion.

What Population Problem?

There are certainly a lot of people on the planet. And the numbers are increasing all the time. As Amartya Sen reports in the recent New York Review of Books essay, "Population: Delusion and Reality," "It took the world population millions of years to reach the first billion, then 123 years to get to the second, 33 years to the third, 14 years to the fourth, 13 years to the fifth billion, with a sixth billion to come, according to one UN projection, in another 11 years." (all quotes henceforth are from Sen's NYRB essay)

But is this too many? One claim, by those who think it is, is that population in Asia and Africa is way out of whack, proportionately way too high. This we can easily assess. For the fact is, "In 1650 the share of Asia and Africa in the world population is estimated to have been 78.4 percent, and it stayed around there even in 1750. With the industrial revolution, the share of Asia and Africa diminished because of the rapid rise of population in Europe and North America; for example, during the nineteenth century while the inhabitants of Asia and Africa grew by about 4 percent per decade or less, the population of `the area of European settlement' grew by around 10 percent every decade." (The pivotal factor in this growth was increasing longevity.) In fact, the combined share of Asia and Africa (now 71.2 percent) has yet to get back to what we might call its natural proportionate level. And, more to the point, even if UN predictions about future growth are right, and they do not assume significant social advances throughout the region, the Asia/Africa share will rise to 78.5 percent, or roughly what it was before the European Industrial revolution, by 2050, a reflection of Asia/Africa now enjoying entry into the developed world. Thus, there is no disproportion.

Moreover, the rate of world population growth is currently declining, rather than becoming a steadily worse problem, "and over the last two decades it has fallen from 2.2 percent per year between 1970 and 1980, to 1.7 percent between 1980 and 1992." But, we may well ask, is the decline sufficient? Is growth of population, despite the slow decline of growth rates, outstripping productivity growth, thus reducing the possible standard of living? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is no. "Instead, the average population of `low-income' countries (as defined by the World Bank) has been not only enjoying a rising gross national product (GNP) per head, but a growth rate of GNP per capita (3.9 percent per year for 1980-1992) that is much faster than those for the `high income' countries (2.4 percent) and for the `middle income' ones (0 percent)."

And even this picture would be considerably rosier were it not for some countries in sub Saharan Africa which are and have been for some time now suffering economy-devastating war and drought brought on not by population, but by social structures and problems and causing negative changes in GNP.

But what about food, the ecologist/demographer might reasonably reply? Surely population growth is now outstripping increases in food output. Well, no, in fact, it isn't. "Not only over the two centuries since Malthus's time, but also during recent decades, the rise in food output has been significantly and consistently outpacing the expansion of world population." But is this merely because of excess production in the less populated areas of Europe and the U.S.? No, just the opposite. "The largest increases in the production of food--not just in the aggregate but also per person--are actually taking place in the third world, particularly in the region that is having the largest absolute increases in the world population, that is, in Asia."

"Between the three-year averages of 1979-1981 and 1991-1993, food production per head in the world moved up by 3 percent, while it went up by only 2 percent in Europe and went down by nearly 5 percent in North America. In contrast, per capita food production jumped up by 22 percent in Asia generally, including 23 percent in India and 39 percent in China." Notice that this puts the lie to the idea that hunger is a product of population outstripping food. Where food production is outstripping population growth most dramatically, there is hunger, because, of course, social institutions maldistribute the food in the interest of elites, regardless of the widespread poverty and hunger for others that this causes.

But is food production keeping pace with population, and even outstripping it, because we are raping nature to extract all this food? If this was true, even with inadequately attentive market prices, still, there would be diminishing returns and thus higher prices as it got progressively harder and more costly to produce the food, good soil becoming rare, etc. Well, once again, the opposite is true. For example, a UN report "recorded a 38 percent fall in the relative prices of `basic foods' over the last decade." And, in comparing the period 1953-1955 to the period from 1983-1985 we show declines in the adjusted prices of, for example, rice (42 percent), wheat (57 percent), sorghum (39 percent), and maize (37 percent)."

Finally, to cap the argument, food production far from being driven to excessive heights by pressure from a demanding public is instead widely held back by the difficulty of profiting by its sale in current market conditions, not to mention by outright subsidies to reduce production.

It seems, therefore, that there is not an immediate wrenching crisis of population that must be addressed. Population growth is not outstripping growth in product or of food production. Current hardships for humanity such as enivronmental pollution, and, even worse, starvation, rampant curable disease, poverty, lack of education and health care, etc., are all functions of social systems aimed at profit for the few regardless of the devestation wrecked on the well being of the many. Still, it is undeniably true that population can't just keep growing without eventually causing serious ecological consequences, so reducing rates of growth of population to a point of steady state is an important item on any progressive agenda, even if it isn't the apocalyptic priority that some people suggest.

Social Versus Coercive Population Policies

What do we know about reducing population growth? Everyone agrees that "there can be little doubt that economic and social development, in general, has been associated with major reductions in birth rates and the emergence of small families as the norm. This was a pattern that was, of course, clearly observed in Europe and North America as they underwent industrialization, but that experience has been repeated in many other parts of the world." Moreover, even cursury examination reveals that "regions that lag in social development, education, rights of women, etc., also have highest birth rates." And, correspondingly, where there are increases in standard of living, rights of women, education, health generally, birth rates in turn decline. And the explanation is clear. People are more secure and do not procreate as insurance against old age, to increase the hands available to work, and as a guard against the likelihood that some children will, in any event, die young. Why isn't this the end of the discussion? "In country after country the birth rate has come down with more female education, the reduction of mortality rates, the expansion of economic means and security, and greater public discussion of ways of living." Why doesn't this recognition lead to the conclusion that as social development ultimately curbs population growth, and is otherwise preferable to coercion since social development is in its own right positive, whereas coercion is negative, the pursuit of social development is the way to curb population growth rates?

Well, the reason is, because "even though development may dependably work to stabilize population if it is given enough time, there may not be, it is argued, time enough to give." In other words, those concerned about population growth can and do argue that while it would be nice to wait until development reduces population growth rates, we do not have that luxury. The need for reduction is too urgent. "Also, the death rate often falls very fast with more widely available health care, better sanitation, and improved nutrition, while the birth rate may fall rather more slowly. Much growth of population may meanwhile occur" before the decline in birth becomes dominant and population growth rates decline, as every historical instance verifies.

We have already offered evidence, and much more is available, that the population situation isn't really quite the crisis many claim. But, nonetheless, let's consider whether, even if it were, the argument for coercive reduction of growth rate would be compelling. The argument for this invariably points to China as a success story for coercive methods of reducing population growth rates that ought to be emulated elsewhere. For the cries to do something other than foster development have no content without actual programmatic aims, and the Chinese pattern of regulating family size by law as well as providing financial incentives for not birthing and penalties for birthing is the one that points the programmatic way.

And, indeed, "China's total fertility rate (reflecting the number of children born per woman) is now at `the replacement level' of 2.0, compared with India's 3.6 and the weighted average of 4.9 for low-income countries other than China and India." This shows, goes the argument, that though the Chinese approach of legally limiting family size to one child has caused a large loss in reproductive freedom for women, has arguably enhanced state power at the cost of individual freedom more generally, and has led to large increases in infant mortality as parents commit infanticide of girl babies to try again for a preferred boy child, with all the attendant effects this type behavior no doubt has, on victims and perpetrators, at least the population growth rate is down, and the positive benefits of that outway the losses incurred due to the drastic means chosen for curbing births.

Well, hold on just a second. Even the demographic part of the argument is not as tight as it may at first appear, regardless of how one might feel about the assessment of relative costs and benefits. For given that China has also had very high levels of improvement of health care, literacy, female workforce participation, etc., before jumping to conclusions about the cause of declining rates of population growth, we need to ask just how much of the reduction in growth rate is likely due to compulsion, as opposed to what would have taken place any way, due to these other social gains.

We can't know the answer to this question for sure, of course, but we can look at some relevant data. For example, do countries that closely match China in life expectancy, female literacy rates, and female participation in the labor force have a higher fertility rate than China? It turns out that the three countries that fit this profile are very close indeed to China's level: Jamaica (2.7), Thailand (2.2), and Sweden (2.1).

But it turns out that there is an even more revealing comparison to make. The state of Kerala in India has a population of 29 million people, more than a great many countries, including Canada. It, like China and unlike the rest of India, has high levels of basic education, health care, female workforce participation, and so on. Kerala's fertility rate is 1.8 (without any coercive policies) compared to China's 2.0 (with the most coercive policies yet employed anywhere in the world). Kerala has a female literacy rate of 86 percent, where China's rate is 68 percent. Likewise life expectancy is longer in Kerala than in China--for men 71 years to 67 years, and for women 74 years to 71 years. It seems that Kerala is to China with coercive family planning as a hypothetical China without the coercive practices but with still great social progress would be to China with the coercive practices. Regardless of how much of the drop in Chinese growth rate we attribute to laws against procreation, rather than to China's real social gains, Kerala's somewhat greater social gains were equally effective, and, in fact, even more effective in reducing population growth rates.

But is the time required for reducing birth rates less under the Chinese model than under what we might call the Kerala model? Well, Kerala's fertility rate dropped from 3.5 in 1979 to 1.8 in 1991, while China's dropped from 2.8 to 2.0 in the same period. The numbers, again, point away from any justification whatever for pursuing coercive population control in place of, or to the detriment of, programs aimed at social development.

Finally, it is also important to note that Kerala's success has been social, rather than due to new found natural resources or other assets that might be unavailable elsewhere. Kerala is actually among the poorer of India's States. It's domestically produced income is actually lower than the Indian average. But its social conditions are vastly superior to the Indian average, the gain having been the result of institutional reforms coupled to labor intensive programs for health care provision and education.


So what is the upshot? (1) Of course population can reach a point where, for a given level of technical know-how, and with a given social structure, more people means more environmental degradation and a lower standard of living for most. But (2) there is no evidence that we are near such a population level. And (3) there is no evidence that current poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation etc. owe their origins or tenacity In any significant degree to a population problem, but, instead, the evidence is abundant that these particular crimes against humanity are rooted in oppressive institutional structures and the abhorrent misallocations of labor and energy and maldistribution of product that they foster. (4) In any event, non-coercive approaches to population reduction emphasizing improving standards of living, economic security, education, rights of women, and health care generally, not only promise reductions of growth rate to the 2.0 fertility level that marks no growth, but promise this in a time period comparable to or better than what can be accomplished with coercion, assuming the latter would in fact work at all without parallel social progress. And, finally, whereas the developmental approach to stabilizing population dovetails nicely with concerns for justice, equity, an end to patriarchy, etc., the coercive approach in practice leads almost inexorably to misogynist, racist, and colonialist formulations and practices, even against the protests of its more humane and thoughtful advocates.

So, is there really any doubt about what the position of leftists ought to be, however many nuances might still be open to reasonable debate? The notion that we ought to set aside development for family planning of any type, especially coercive policies, is, objectively, whatever the motives of its proponents, reactionary. For where this type of thinking leads, and by way of conclusion, we can do no better than to follow Alex Cockburn's lead (from the Nation, July 25) and quote the new star of the population-crisis school of thought, Garrett Hardin, from his 1949 textbook, Biology: Its Human Implications.While not all ecologically and demographically schooled people urging drastic population policies are as venal as Hardin, I do think that his views represent a kind of natural destination of this type of advocacy. He writes, as just one of many quotes that make the point: "Studies indicate that as long as our present social organization [democracy] continues, there will be a slow but continuous downward trend in the average intelligence--[while] there seems to be little danger of society's being deprived of something valuable by the sterilization of all feeble-minded individuals--more spectacular results could be obtained by preventing the breeding of numerous members of the sub-normal classes higher than the feeble-minded." I wonder whether, by Hardin's criteria, Hardin ought to be allowed to have kids?