With each additional billion people on Earth, the collective news pundits, academics, development experts, and politicians freak out. Many pundits have been talking about the world’s population hitting 7 billion and how that relates to all the issues that we are seeing today. To many authors, talk show hosts, and even economic and development experts, population is the cause of everything. This is just fear-mongering and bandwagon journalism. The facts give a clearer picture.
If you’ve ever read Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, the themes are all related to overpopulation and the Earth’s carrying capacity. We are constantly improving our health systems and keeping people alive longer than ever before in human history. As we grow in population there will be a breakdown in our social fabric and we will enter into international civil war over precious natural resources, like vegetation, water, etc. It happened on Easter Island, why can’t it happen on a global scale? In short, and to simplify: we are all screwed. I’m going to leave Malthus out of this conversation, but he is a good guy to read about if you are interested in population.
Environmentalism, Population Health, & Politics
Most of the pundits have talked about the impacts of overpopulation on the environment, but what about the impacts on health? This is an important area where the late Dr. Paul Epstein was world-renowned for his work connecting the growing environmental threats and their serious impacts on human population health.
By connecting climate change, exacerbated weather and environmental conditions, and the deep crises these create for the health of human populations, Dr. Epstein made the critical link between the health of our planet and the health of the people living on it.
Recent years have seen increased famines, droughts, and floods, loss of arable lands and increasing desertification, not to mention the inability of governments to respond to these crises. Some of Epstein’s work highlighted the increase of cholera after severe flooding and the increased range of malarial mosquitos as mountain tops warm up. Climate change and environmental issues are related to consumption, which is disproportionately carried out by wealthy countries consuming the majority of the world’s resources even with smaller percentages of total world population. Likewise, famines aren’t caused by too many people, but rather from bad government, violence, and global inequality.
The issues that many would like to attribute to the growing population are really fueled by politics. Population growth and climate change are above all else a political issues.
Fertility vs. Population Growth: (think incidence vs. prevalence in epidemiology)
Everyone needs to take a step back and look at the numbers. Population numbers are increasing with population growth increasing in a number of key countries, however we need to also look more closely at fertility rates rather than simply population growth numbers.
Many areas that have high birth rates also have high infant mortality rates, so it is not completely implausible that families would have a higher number of children to account for the poor health conditions their children might face and not survive. Likewise, areas with high fertility rates often see high infertility rates due to the increased risk to women of infection from multiple attempts to have children.This is where the debate about family planning and contraceptives enters the discussion.
Helen Epstein writes that if men and women have “frank conversations” that may be the best contraceptive. However, John Seager, President of Population Connection, offers a rebuttal that conversations cannot replace contraceptives. He notes that the need for access to knowledge and adequate health care is just as important. He writes,
“When women can control the timing and spacing of their childbearing, they can get an education and a job, and take better care of their own health and the health of their existing children. What could be more empowering than that?”
Population Control as Development
Following Word War II, population control became an important issue for the US to pursue around the globe. The world food crisis in 1967 made Congress recognize the importance of population growth and it allocatd $35 million to USAID for population control activities. Today, USAID is single largest funder of population control activities in “developing” countries.
During the World Population Conference of 1974:
“Opposition came not only from traditional Roman Catholic quarters, but also from many Third World countries, which saw the focus on population growth as a way to avoid addressing deeper causes of underdevelopment, such as inequalities in international relations. […] India argued that ‘development is the best contraceptive,’ and criticized the high consumption of resources in the West.”
Many began calling for changes to the status quo, however no one asked why the needs of the poor weren’t being met in the first place. Glaring inequalities in distribution of income, land, and power were avoided. Politics came out on top as Western powers pushed “developing” countries, with the backing of international donors, to deliver family planning to the poor, “without fundamentally altering the social order in which they live.”
Developing countries and activists called for “integrated development” focused on addressing both poverty and population.
Nothing is so cut-and-dry or simple when it comes to development, especially in regards to population health which pulls on issues ranging from: climate change, women’s rights, income equality, access to health care, infant mortality, family planning, and the list could go on. The population question touches on so many different issues that it only makes sense that health is at its core.
Seager makes good points about the need for women to be able to care for their own health and that of their existing children. Others have lauded similar ideas, specifically feminist groups who called for “voluntary motherhood” and the idea that unwanted children would become defective.
Recently, Bill Gates has touched on the issue of a growing population. He noted that a greater focus on infant/ child health could have a significant impact on slowing population rates and improving the health of populations around the world. As discussed in “fertility vs. population growth” – more surviving children will decrease population rates, in turn this would ideally improve the quality of health care available with smaller, healthier populations.
Gates pushes the idea that mobile technology can help to register new births and ensure that all children are vaccinated. However, the flip side of his optimism is the need to increase the capacity of health care systems to make this goal a global reality. Women play a critical role in this discussion and too often they are marginalized without the knowledge or resources to make changes. Women and health care systems need to be empowered to provide for newborns and children who will be the future of our world.