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On Population Control

November 28, 2011

The concept of population control has been considered taboo in political conversation for a long time, for a variety of reasons. At this point in human development, however, it is impossible to deny that the direction that our species is currently headed in is at least moderately, if not completely, unsustainable. There are a variety of possible ways to go about enacting policies geared towards both population control and reduction in consumption, but the most important aspect of going about implementing such policies would be finding a way to make such policy palatable to the public.

It must also be recognized, however that population control on any state level is simply not a large enough step; for any action to prove effective, it will have to be carried out on a supranational level. The only current supranational body that has a mission statement with anything even resembling a population control agenda is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The UNFPA’s objectives, however, are too broad to allow the fund to effectively serve as a tool for population control. Population control itself has never been a primary facet of the fund’s mission statement, which is more related to gender equality and safe reproductive practices than to population control or issues of overconsumption. Ultimately, it will become discernable that the best available option to confront what is quickly becoming an overpopulation crisis is to create a supranational body that deals solely with the expansion of population control policies.

That is not to say that such a body could not have many cooperative efforts with organizations such as the UNFPA, because the UNFPA’s goals of reproductive safety and gender equality are widely compatible with the objectives of population control. The United Nations estimates that approximately 200 million women worldwide have an unmet need for effective and safe contraception, resulting in an estimated 80 million unwanted pregnancies every year.

One of the population fund’s primary policy programs is designed to encourage proliferation of family planning. If the UNFPA hypothetically succeeded in providing universal family planning opportunities, it would result in a hypothetical decrease in global births of up to 61 million per year (after one deducts the estimated 19 million abortions from the estmated 80 million unwanted pregnancies). Such a decrease would be incredibly helpful for any population control efforts, especially insofar as most of the areas that have limited access to family planning and contraceptives are third world countries that are already suffering from ailments related to overpopulation.

The expansion of availability of contraception should be the first, and most vital, step in population control; the easiest and most humane way to slow population growth is to prevent the pregnancies that are unwanted in the first place. Universal access to contraception was a very popular idea for international developmental aid in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but suffered because of rumors and scandals related to methods of coercion in India and China. The UNFPA also encountered difficulties in its relations with the United States because of the complexities of politics relating to abortion, and ultimately had its US funding cut off. Since taking office, President Obama has reinstated US aid to the population fund, which raises hopes for future initiatives.

In many third world countries, however, family planning and population control is often portrayed as a tool of the West in subjugating the third world. This portrayal is compelling to many people, since the history of population control includes a veritable plethora of unseemly ties to racist policies and eugenics. The modern incarnation of population control, however, should not be condemned based on the concept’s failings in the past, but should be investigated in its own right for its merits and flaws. In order to counter some of these misconceptions, the global presentation of any new population control efforts must dissociate it as much as possible from its own ethically dubious history, but the re-branding of the efforts themselves are of secondary importance in comparison to the need for the expansion of simple sexual education that many third world countries direly need.

The western efforts to distribute contraceptives in the ‘60s and ‘70s provide a vital understanding of what tactics do and do not work. Simply distributing contraceptives is not enough to effectively curtail the exorbitant birth rates of many impoverished countries. In the words of New York Times editorialist Nicholas Kristof, “Planners always assumed their programs would lower fertility. The reality, however, was more nuanced. Evidence from careful, randomized studies suggests that well-designed, intensive birth control programs can reduce fertility somewhat, but that simply shoveling pills or condoms at peasants has little or no impact. Poor and uneducated people often want lots of children, so to be successful, family planning has to focus as much on reducing desired family size as on curbing ovulation.” It is a common misconception in the developing world that having more progeny will lead to more financial and social security in old age, which translates directly to the population explosion we are seeing in some parts of the world today.

Don’t get me wrong, the policies of the ‘60s and ‘70s also had some other, less favorable results. Ultimately, the desire to maintain a low-cost structure for the proliferation of contraceptives resulted in an overabundance of health problems involving IUDs (intrauterine devices) that were either improperly inserted or lacked sufficient follow-up procedures. While from a utilitarian perspective it could be argued that these complications were less common and less severe than those that can come with pregnancy, such an argument does not make such policies acceptable by any ethical standards.

With a projected world population of over 9 billion people by the year 2050, there is little time for dawdling at this point in the game. In spite of its many historical faux pas, population control is vital for both its humanitarian benefits and for its contribution to the sustainability of our planet. The incredible importance of this issue is underscored by its continually increasing political support in the developed world, support that has been garnered in spite of what are often strong social taboos on the subject. Jonathan Porritt, chair of the United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Commission, claims that population control efforts should also be at the core of attempts to combat global warming, going so far as to say that couples that have more than two children are “irresponsible,” goin on to explain that he is “unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate.” By refusing to address the problem of population growth, Porritt says, lawmakers are betraying the interests of their own constituents.

According to Paul Ehrlich, president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University and author of The Population Bomb, the average global fertility rate is currently about 2.6 children per mother, and for the world to return to its sustainable carrying capacity that number will need to reduce to about 1.6 children per mother. Not surprisingly, the number of children per mother in developed countries is substantively lower than in developing countries. Ehrlich also provides a very appealing angle from which to approach population control:

“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.”

As Ehrlich elucidates, keeping children alive is a key part of furthering the population control agenda; the more likely a child is to survive, the less inclination that child’s family is to continue having children.

Needless to say, that population control has such a long and controversial history will ultimately prove a major setback for any ongoing efforts towards that goal. Thus far, I have made many claims as to our need to enact population control, but I have provided no in-depth explanation as to why these policies are necessary.

It essentially comes down to the fact that every human being inevitably uses a certain amount of resources in their lifetime. For the purposes of this investigation, we must distinguish the resources that a given person uses from the resources that that person needs: we will call the difference between these two quantities supplementary spending. With few exceptions, citizens of more developed countries use many more resources, because their increase in relative wealth provides for a much higher amount of supplementary spending. Unnecessarily high amounts of supplementary spending create overconsumption.

Overpopulation is only a problem because there are a finite number of resources to go around- competition for global resources is a zero-sum game. When a person engages in supplementary spending (that is to say, purchases any product that would be considered nonessential), they are then expending resources that could otherwise go towards the needs of another person. Overpopulation only becomes a problem when there are not enough resources to go around. It could be argued that there is no global resource deficit by necessity, a recent World Bank study showed that a full 1.4 billion people in the world live on $1.25 or less per day. Overpopulation and overconsumption are problems that come hand in hand, as they both ultimately contribute to the depletion of resources.

The shortage in resources creates a division between the developed world and the developing world. The developing world would obviously be inclined to think that the shortage is due to the overconsumption of the first world, while the developed countries would be inclined to view the shortage as due to the overpopulation of the developing countries. The true source of the blame comes from both constituencies, although it is difficult to accurately allocate the blame for the problem. The bottom line, however, comes down to one overarching fact: the world has too many people using too much stuff.

It is with this idea in mind that Paul Ehrlich founded the Population Connection, the preeminent population control lobbying group in the United States. The Population Connection’s political actions, in addition to curbing the US’ population growth and resource consumption, also have a secondary effect of leading by example. In the words of Ehrlich, “Until the U.S. had a population policy, we didn’t have any reason to preach to others.” As a result of enacting population control-friendly policy initiatives in the US, our advocacy for similar programs abroad would be given far more weight. The enactment of population control policy on the national level in the United States both aids in curbing US consumption and is vital in providing the basis for more vigorous and compelling advocacy when we engage in diplomatic discussions with other nations that are considering adopting, or allowing, such policies. But what are the specific policies that we should be advocating?

There are a wide variety of ways to pursue population control on a global scale, but it is necessary to walk the fine line between violating people’s inalienable rights and doing too little. Through population control’s brief history many measures have been tried, from alleged forced abortions to mass sterilizations to the previously mentioned expansions of contraceptive and family planning clinic availability. With the sole exception of China’s controversial one-child policy, there are very few comprehensive bases on which to judge the effectiveness of any given technique. However, in addition to such potentially oppressive tactics as have been used in the past, technology and globalization are creating a significant amount of room for innovation in how to deal with this resource shortage crisis.

Since the mid-1970’s China has espoused a one-child policy, with a few exceptions that allow for families to have two children. The one-child policy is an incredibly ambitious population control program, employing propaganda, social pressure, and even, in some cases, coercion to further its objectives. The one-child program was also unique in that it associated reduced reproduction with long-term economic benefit ( While use of these tactics did provide significant results, the Chinese method of approaching these policies should be viewed with a degree of wariness because of the many inhumane acts that have allegedly occurred as a result of the China’s policy position. In certain rural areas in China, dubious family planning practices often resulted in the compulsory sterilization of couples that had more than one child. Compulsory sterilization ought be approached as a last case resort, as it is an ethically dubious practice even in theory, and in practice it could certainly be widely misused.

The policies used in urban China require a more serious investigation. In many Chinese urban centers the government used an incentivized approach to family planning. Couples with only one child were given a “one-child certificate” that entitled them to benefits like cash bonuses, extended maternity leave, and preferential housing assignments. Such incentive-based systems of population should be viewed as a valuable option, as it manages to sidestep some of the moral questions raised by any obligatory policy actions. While still controversial, many of the humanitarian concerns would be assuaged at least to some degree were an incentive-based system to be adopted. The origins of the funding for the incentives, however, is another issue entirely, and not one that will be investigated here.

India is now also beginning a long-overdue look into means of population control as well, and is considering some unorthodox but very interesting means of slowing population growth. One such technique is the expansion of electricity and television access into poor slums and remote communities. Indian politicians are considering the possibility that the access to such media will provide a much-needed alternative social activity to procreation for the poor throughout the country. For India, already in the throes of its own overpopulation crisis, this effort alone is obviously a case of too-little-too-late. That said, the expansion of television could certainly help in decreasing India’s per capita birth rate, and this idea is certainly a great example of recent innovation in population control policy.

Ultimately, there are a variety of ways that population control can be implemented and presented to the global public, but any options must be, first and foremost, transparent and humane. China’s one-child policy and the international contraceptive aid programs of the past have served as a crash course in the dos and don’ts of how to approach this issue, and, while there may be far more don’ts than dos in the ranks of those lessons, there is certainly a lot we could learn from careful study of those policies’ continued effects. The continued proliferation of contraceptive devices and knowledge, while incredibly important in and of itself, is not sufficient to entirely deal with the problem. It has become necessary for us to think outside the box and introduce innovation in how to handle and replenish the constantly diminishing resources we have at our disposal. Problems of soil erosion and potable drinking water are just the beginning of the severe societal issues that could be brought about by continued population growth and overconsumption. Inaction is not an option.

Krebs, Michael. “Late-night TV considered as population control tool in India.” Digital Journal. 2 Aug. 2009. Web. 14 Aug. 2009. .
Kristof, Nicholas D. “Birth Control for Others.(Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population)(Book review).” The New York Times Book Review (March 23, 2008): 14(L). Academic OneFile. Gale.
Kristof, Nicholas. “Pregnant (Again) and Poor.” New York Times [New York, NY] Op-Ed sec. Print.
Mieszkowski, Katharine. “Do we need population control?” Salon Media Group, 2009.
Mission Statement. “UNFPA, The United Nations Population Fund.”
“Population Control Programs.” CountryStudies.US. Source: Library of Congress.
Templeton, Sarah-Kate. “Two children should be limit, says green guru.” Times Online. The Sunday Times, 1 Feb. 2009.


From → Economics, Politics

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