Do we need population control?

Notorious doomsayer Paul Ehrlich and other population experts debate the consequences of a crowded world, and how a McCain administration could set back decades of progress.

Published September 17, 2008 10:40AM (EDT)

Some 6.7 billion people live on planet Earth today and close to 3 billion more may be in the mix by 2050. Given those staggering numbers, it's easy to assume surging human population is the real root of the world's evils, from global warming to poverty, starvation to habitat loss. Not so fast. Three recent books by renowned experts on the subject paint a far more complex portrait of the world's population and what it portends. It's by turns dire and hopeful.

To separate the facts from fables about overpopulation, Salon convened a round-table discussion of the authors. They include the world's most famous Cassandra of overpopulation, Paul Ehrlich, who, in his 1968 bestseller "The Population Bomb," predicted that hundreds of millions of people would imminently die of starvation. Forty years later, Ehrlich is a professor of population studies at Stanford University and the president of the university's Center for Conservation Biology. In his latest book, "The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment," which he co-authored with his wife, Anne Ehrlich, he explores how humanity threatens to overwhelm the planet's life-sustaining systems.

Challenging Ehrlich's alarms about population is Matthew Connelly, a professor of history at Columbia University, and the author of "Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population." Through primary sources, Connelly documents human rights abuses that have taken place in the name of population control, from mass sterilization camps in India to China's one-child policy.

Completing the lively and often contentious conversation is Robert Engelman, vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, and the author of "More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want," which convincingly champions women's reproductive rights the world over.

Just today, an 83-year-old wrote to "Dear Abby," declaring "overpopulation" the "greatest crisis facing the world today." What do you think of that statement?

Paul Ehrlich: I think it gives the wrong impression. Overpopulation is a huge problem. But most people think of it as just being too many people. It's when you add up the numbers of people, how much they consume, and what kind of technologies they use, that it's an accurate statement.

Robert Engelman: "Overpopulation" is not a term I like using very much because it implies that somebody who is here shouldn't be here. The idea that population itself is a great crisis is something of a misinterpretation of history when you realize that population has been growing for much of the history of the species, and certainly for most of the last 10,000 years.

The ongoing increase of human presence on the planet does have effects, but it didn't just start having them last week or last year. So it's not a crisis the way that energy prices might be a crisis. But there's something real to the idea that suddenly population is an issue in a way that it wasn't a generation or a century ago. And that's related to the consumption problems that Paul is talking about.

If the human population had stabilized around 1 billion, which it was a couple of centuries ago, we would not be in a lot of situations that we're in now. We wouldn't be so concerned about whether we're driving SUVs or living in houses that are too large, or what the price of gas is.

Matthew Connelly: Reducing the size of a population can mean that you increase the number of households because people are living by ones and twos and threes. When people live in smaller households they tend to consume more of everything. That's why it's terribly deceptive to think that we can address the environmental problems of overconsumption just by getting people to have fewer kids. It's more complicated than that.

Ehrlich: Yes, if we cut the population in half over the next 50 years by any means, and we double each person's consumption, we're exactly where we are now.

Engelman: It sounds like what you're suggesting, Matthew, is that we'll be better off environmentally if we continue growing our population indefinitely.

Connelly: Far from calling for larger populations, what I am calling for is that we trust parents to make sensible choices. We have to trust that women, when they're given the means to control their own fertility, are going to make smart choices for themselves, and for their children. The idea of population control is a dangerous illusion.

Ehrlich: We have lots of evidence that when women are given job opportunities, education and the means to control their reproduction, they make what boil down to proper choices. You can see that happening all over Europe. What we need is an average family size of something like 1.6 children over the entire planet. The point-sixes aren't so we can have more George Bushes! But everybody should have slightly fewer than two children.

Isn't it true that right now the average woman has about 2.6 children?

Ehrlich: That's right. And that's got to come down. But women's literacy is lower than men's literacy around the world. Women are treated miserably in many societies, and not given job opportunities. There are whole huge outfits trying to keep women from having the means of controlling their own reproduction.

Population control doesn't mean somebody saying: "You personally have to do this." What population control consists of is having policies that encourage proper birth rates and proper death rates -- trying to keep children alive once they're born. The World Bank just came out and said the poor of the world are much poorer than they thought. I think it's 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. We're losing lots of kids to malnutrition.

Engelman: Governments need to be involved in providing the services that allow women to have healthy pregnancies and healthy births. That's not population control. That's a provision of universal access to reproductive healthcare. We're not even very good about it in this country, as recent news events demonstrate. Governments need to work a lot harder on making sure that women have access to contraceptive options, and sexuality education is available to everybody who wants it, including governors' daughters.

Connelly: When Paul says that population control doesn't mean telling you what you personally can and can't do, and punishing you if you disagree, that's not, unfortunately, what he said in "The Population Bomb," the book that made him famous.

"The Population Bomb" wasn't wrong just because of its predictions that hundreds of millions of people were going to die, and that there was nothing to do to stop it. It was wrong in its prescriptions. It called for paying people if they agreed to sterilization and penalizing them if they refused. Unfortunately, in many countries, that meant planning other people's families, with governments telling parents how many children they could have and punishing them if they resisted.

Ehrlich: Well, "The Population Bomb" was written 40 years ago. There are some things that I wouldn't say anymore, and when I discovered, much to my horror, that many of the people who were interested in population control were interested in controlling other people's populations, I worked very hard to show that's not the way to go. In fact, when I founded the Population Connection, the main lobby for population limitation in the United States, I made it very clear that we only dealt with population in the United States. Until the U.S. had a population policy, we didn't have any reason to preach to others.

What do you mean by that? What is the U.S.'s role in contributing to world population?

Ehrlich: We have over 300 million people, which makes us the third largest population. But when you factor in our consumption and the technologies we use, like SUVs, our impact on life-support systems is much higher than even China's, and certainly higher than India's, which are countries with 1.3 billion and 1.1 billion people each.

I believe it is immoral and should be illegal for people to have very large numbers of children because they are then co-opting for themselves and their children resources that should be spread elsewhere in the world. You only get a chance to get your fair share.

How many is "very large"?

Ehrlich:The issue is: What is the political position to take? In a country like the United States, we should stop at two. But if you had an ideal situation, you might have a lot of people who have no children at all, and some people who have as many as three or four because they happen to be particularly good parents, and are going to raise their children very well.

But how could you accomplish that goal without a coercive policy?

Ehrlich: It depends on what your definition of coercion is. You could simply raise the taxes very high on people who have beyond two children.

Engelman: Can I just suggest that what Paul is getting at is unnecessary? When you look at countries that have widespread access to contraceptive services, family planning and access to safe abortion, women make it very clear that they don't want to have more than two children. And often fewer.

There is no question that the international family-planning program brought incredible benefits to women, children, families and the world. We have a much smaller world population than we would have had absent the international family-planning movement, which, I might say, Paul's book made a great contribution in spurring. I've met many people in the family-planning field who got into it after reading "The Population Bomb."

So what's the result? Today, most women the world over are using contraception and family size has shrunk from five children to a little more than two and a half. That has been an incredible success story for the world. We'd have a much larger population, be much further along in global warming, lack of water supplies, the loss of nature and biodiversity, if this movement had not gotten going when it did.

But should the family-planning movement really get credit for that, or is it the increasing education of women, and improvement of their status, that leads to the drop in the average number of children?

Connelly:The education of women is far and away the most important factor in explaining how it is that fertility rates have fallen worldwide, even in countries where there were no organized family-planning services. The reason is simply that women, when they become educated, when they realize that they have choices in life, when there are other ways to gain status, to improve their welfare, they typically choose to have fewer children, and they avail themselves of whatever means available.

Engelman: I would argue that it's disingenuous to say that the spread of family planning wasn't important to the fall of fertility. Some countries didn't need active government programs because they had private-sector medical care and NGOs, who, without much government assistance, were making sure that a variety of family-planning programs were available to people.

If you don't have contraceptives, you're going to have a large family, or you'll have to be abstinent, and I think that the record shows that most people don't tend to be abstinent. You can't avoid pregnancy by wishing. You can't avoid pregnancy by reading books. You have to have contraceptives in order not to become pregnant when you're sexually active. And someone, whether it's the government, or the private sector or non-governmental organizations, needs to make sure that those contraceptives are there and there is information provided to women about their availability.

That's a problem we have in this country. Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are not the result of a woman intending to become a mother. That's a shocking statistic and it betrays the fact that we ourselves have very ambivalent feelings about sexuality and reproduction, and are not very good about allowing women to achieve all that they would like to in life by planning when they want to be a mother and when they don't.

Can you imagine an ethical policy to try to stabilize the world's population?

Engelman: Absolutely.

Ehrlich: I cannot imagine it being anything but an ethical policy. The truth is, if we do not get our numbers and consumption down, there is a very real chance that the global civilization that we have will collapse. And anyone who does things that oppose that is, in my view, extremely unethical.

What would an ethical policy look like?

Ehrlich: First of all, we have to do something about the equity situation in the world. We need to see that all the people have enough to eat and have decent shelter, water and medical care. A much tougher problem is what to do about everybody wanting to consume like Americans, and have an SUV. The answer to the population situation is crystal clear: You improve the condition of women, you give women job opportunities, and you give everybody who is reproductively active the opportunity to control their reproduction with backup abortion, which you hope will be rare, because you're going to distribute good contraception.

Engelman: Every society that has made reproductive healthcare, including safe abortion, available to everyone who wants it has a replacement-fertility rate, or even lower. That's a real clear picture of success over the past 40 years, and it can be a much bigger success by simply making sure that we don't miss half the world. When we get these services available to everyone in the world who wants them, we will see population growth end. It will take a little while because of population momentum.

Will that solve all our environmental problems? No, but you'll no longer be able to talk about population as being a contributor to those environmental problems. So population does not need to be dealt with unethically in order for the world to end population growth.

Ehrlich: We also don't have to invent a lot of new technology either. We basically know how to do it. It just means treating half of humanity -- the women -- decently, and educating men about how they should treat women decently. The problem is when you get insane people saying things like, "We'll only teach kids about abstinence." That's like telling them to solve the global warming problem by not breathing because they won't be putting out CO2.

Connelly: I'm a little more pessimistic than Bob and Paul on this. It's true that fertility rates are declining all over the world. They've been declining, even in poor countries, since the mid- to late 1960s, and in many cases even before governments began to make family planning services available. From seeing an average of almost six children per woman 50 years ago, we're now down below three. The biggest reason is that women have choices now that they didn't have before, like access to paid work and access to education.

Beyond that correlation, we don't know why women who have access to education tend to have smaller families. It's a strong correlation, but even population experts really don't know where babies come from. We don't have a good theory to explain, much less predict, why fertility rates vary. Because we don't understand why people have children in a way that's predictable, we don't have the ability to design population policies that will manipulate fertility rates without coercion.

It's important that we make our stand on reproductive rights when we're arguing for family planning services, and for safe and legal access to abortion. If you continue to argue that the reason we need family planning and safe and legal abortion is because there are too many people and we have to control population growth, then on what basis are you going to oppose those many countries that have negative rates of population growth when they think they need to withdraw access to family planning and abortion to increase fertility rates?

Ehrlich: The solution is getting the leadership of those countries to understand that if the population continues to go up, the problem will not be solved by family planning, it will be solved by gigantic rises in the death rates.

Let me ask you a question: Let's suppose that every woman on the planet wanted to have four children. Would you encourage them to do that if you knew that it would lead to a collapse of civilization and the death of 7 billion people? Would it still be ethical to encourage people and supply them with whatever is necessary to have four children per woman? Where do you draw the line?

Connelly: Whatever I say to them is not going to make a damn bit of difference because parents make their own choices. And when you try to manipulate them, it inevitably leads to pernicious consequences. Look at China, where the government tried to limit people to one child. What happened? People decided that they needed at least one son. So now, in some parts of China, there are 30 to 40 percent more boys than girls.

Ehrlich: That's right, and the Chinese are working hard to change that now. Anne [his co-author and wife] and I went to China, and met in secret with a group of highly educated women. We wanted to see what their attitudes were on the one-child family situation, and every last one of them, within two minutes of our meeting, said it was absolutely the right thing to do. The Chinese government, by the way, is the only government that has connected population numbers to global warming, and pointed out how much they have saved in the way of CO2 emissions by their family-planning policy.

China is a country where people care about social responsibility. If the Chinese were still growing at the rate that they were previously, then many Chinese would have worse lives, and all of us would be in much worse shape.

Connelly: Here's the thing: You're putting it all on China, as if the problem of sex determination is just something that happened in China. In "The Population Bomb," you specifically called for more research on human sex-determination, because you said that if people could chose the sex of their offspring, they would have fewer of them.

Ehrlich: What's wrong with that?

Connelly: What's wrong with that? In a patriarchal society, when international aid agencies began to send in ultrasound machines, as they did in the 1980s, what do you think is going to happen?

Ehrlich: There are unintended consequences. What you're going to get is a mob of males, and there will be a correction.

You are not really informed on how close we are to the whole mess collapsing, on how bad our life-support systems are. With the melting of the Himalayan water tower [ice masses], the food and water for 1.3 billion people is now seriously threatened. That is just in one area in South Asia and parts of China. We are arming to fight the Chinese over the fossil fuels of the Caspian Basin. Every scientist I know is scared witless of the current situation.

Connelly: Paul, any social scientist will tell you that you can't use the future for evidence, and that's what you've been doing for 40 years.

Ehrlich: The social scientists I know use the future for evidence, and also are scared of what's happening in the world today. It's very fine to say you can't tell what's going to happen in the future. Unfortunately, to a considerable degree, you can.

Engleman: I don't think that you need to debate all these things. Population is extremely straightforward. You're not going to be able to fine-tune it. You're not going to be able to avoid a disaster, which we still might have, even if we do stabilize our population. In fact, we may have already overshot the earth's capacity to have a balanced climate, even if we didn't have a single more baby being born as of the end of this conversation.

But we do know that we can bring population into a favorable position relative to the environment, simply by making choices available to women. The world needs to prioritize good sexuality education. The kind of education that Gov. Palin says she opposes, and which Sen. McCain has opposed, is exactly what this country, with its nearly 50 percent unintended pregnancy rates, desperately needs. And what other countries around the world need.

Now, I can't make other countries do that. It wouldn't be proper for me to say here is what you ought to do in other countries. But it does affect my support for a presidential candidate in this country, knowing that one group would favor women of all ages' right to have access to these rights, and the other party and the other set of candidates doesn't favor them having access to that information and those rights.

Ehrlich: You might also point out that the Bush administration, the Reagan administration and, God help us if we get one, a McCain administration will probably continue the Mexico City policy, which has the effect of killing women around the world because it withdraws support for safe abortion and ends up withdrawing support for contraception in many places.

So, in fact, it is important what we do in the United States because we're the most powerful country in the world. We muck around with our international aid in ways that are harmful to women around the world, and to men too, because they suffer from many of these things, including STDs, that get transmitted because there is not access to condoms.

How does concern about world population color contemporary debates in the United States about immigration?

Connelly: If you look back at history, the very first world population control programs were those programs that were meant to contain Asians to their own continent. This was beginning in the 19th century but continuing through the first half of the 20th century. It wasn't just the United States. Australia, South Africa, Canada and several states in Latin America decided that they had to contain Asians to Asia because their own people could not reproduce at the same rate and live on so little. They feared this "yellow peril" would take over the world. So that's the kind of tainted legacy that we're talking about when environmentalists say that the only way that we can deal with our environmental problems is to keep the Mexicans in Mexico.

Ehrlich:One has to remember that as long as the resources of the world are flowing disproportionately toward the United States, people are going to flow in the same direction. If we put a 40-foot fence on the southern border, the coyotes will get 42-foot ladders. I think that this country has been enormously enriched by immigration.

On the other hand, immigration amounts to us increasing the consumption in the world because immigrants have tended to be very hardworking, very successful and get to be prosperous. We're not changing the size of the world population, but we are changing the amount of consumption, and the U.S. is already consuming, in some sense, more than its fair share.

Connelly: Then, Paul, why not export the most overconsuming Americans?

Ehrlich: That would be a great idea. I think that's what we ought to do, just throw them the hell out.

Connelly: If we want to use migration to try to deal with environmental problems, then wouldn't it be just as obvious that we should take the wealthiest lawyers and bankers and send them to subsistence societies?

Ehrlich: I'm absolutely with you on that. But I've never suggested using immigration policy as a population policy.

If you could give the next president of the United States one piece of advice about population, what would you tell him to do?

Connelly: I think that it's time for a peace process in the abortion wars. There are a whole range of issues where pro-life and pro-choice people could work together, including providing infertility treatments for everybody who wants and needs them, and reforming international adoption, which is now anarchic and inequitable. Even a lot of pro-life people, many of them in Congress, now agree that the best way to reduce rates of abortion is by making contraception available to everybody who wants it. It's time to get beyond the rhetoric.

Ehrlich: We have to have politicians who know something about where we came from, and where we're going, as far as science can tell them. The Bush administration has tried to suppress the scientific community, but our citizens deserve to have the consultation and opinions of scientists on areas ranging from reproductive health to how our life-support systems run and what's happening to them.

Engelman: The next president must be willing to talk about population and be willing to discuss it with Americans. We used to have presidents who did that. Lately, it's been an absolutely taboo word for presidents of both parties. But we need to make it part of the conversation, make it part of the public issues that we discuss as a nation. And at home and abroad, we need to have policies that guarantee that women have the capacity to decide for themselves whether, when and how often to have children.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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