First Person

Do not assume anything about population

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Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America
Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

I frequently have an awkward moment when I interview women, particularly in some parts of Africa, when I ask them how many children they have. Some hesitate, because speaking about your children in public may be seen as boasting. It invites bad luck on your family.

Sometimes, a woman will look at me and ask if I want to know how many children she has who are still living, or should she include the ones that have passed away?

When we write stories here about women who have five, seven, nine, or even more children, some of our readers have a strong reaction. How can we eliminate poverty when people are having so many children? To them, it seems like the obvious place to start.

The recent debates about food prices, along with anxiety over climate change, seem to be ratcheting up the call for reducing our population. This promotes discussions about family planning, women’s reproductive health, gender, economics, development, culture, poverty…it’s a really complicated stew of social policy.

You can also layer on top of this a shameful history of population control efforts (that go beyond family planning and birth control) that have violated women’s rights, or forced sterilization on certain ethnic groups. So when the subject of reducing the population comes up, I for one start to worry because people seem to want easy answers to complex problems.

The debate about population is not going away. I decided to raise it here after reading a recent post by Duncan Green of Oxfam International, a development economist who is vastly more knowledgeable than I on this subject (and most others I suspect). Here are a few key points he and others are making on the population question:

  • The rate of world population growth is actually slowing down significantly. The population will probably peak in the next 40 years at around 9 billion. (If you read the Economist, see their 29 October 2009 issue.) But just because world population growth will slow and eventually fall does not mean poverty will go away, so we need to continue to focus on the underlying causes of poverty, and create ways of producing cleaner energy and ensure food is available to everyone who needs it.
  • One important theory bears repeating here: Educating women leads them to have smaller families. This is an example of what we call a rights-based approach to a problem: when women understand their right to control their reproduction, that they have options (in terms of employment, birth control, marriage, etc), and get access to proper health care for them and their children, they tend to have fewer children.
  • The world is in fact producing enough food to feed everyone:  World agriculture produces 17% more calories per person today than 30 years ago, despite a 70% population increase. “Hunger has increased not due to poor harvest, but because of high domestic food prices, lower incomes and increasing unemployment due to the global economic crisis,” says the Food and Agriculture Organization.  Food needs to be produced sustainably and distributed equitably.
  • Some people believe that there are too many people on the planet, and that their greenhouse gas pollution is causing climate change. Duncan Green and others say this is a red herring: The problem really involves how people consume natural resources. The average person in Bangladesh (a very densely populated country) produces a mere fraction of the carbon dioxide of an average American (0.3 metric tons vs. 19.1 in 2006). Reducing population in countries where people produce a lot less greenhouse gasses than citizens of wealthier countries will not solve the climate change problem! The wealthiest countries with the lowest fertility rates and smallest families are consuming and polluting a lot more than poor countries.
  • Many women in poor countries have a lot of children because they need them to help run a farm or other business. Children are also a form of social insurance for people with no retirement savings or pension: When you get old they take care of you. And in areas where there is a high rate of child mortality, families may have more children to compensate. Reducing poverty, providing better health care, and generally helping young people grow up safely will also help reduce birth rates.

There is rarely a straight line between population and poverty. I recognize people have deep beliefs in this area, so I invite comments about population, poverty, and the environment. Please share your best, rational arguments, but please also cite facts. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+