Volume 1, Number 6
16 April 2001

What About the Population Problem?

Dear Friends,

Here's a popular story making the rounds of Friends. An experimenter captured a small number of fruit flies in a bottle. Soon they had doubled in number, then doubled again, then more — by geometric progression. Finally, the bottle was full, and within a day or so the fruit flies were all dead. The implication is that the bottle is the earth, and we are the fruit flies.

With a forthcoming major report of the United Nations Population Division, whose highlights were released last month, this story needs some re-thinking. People are not fruit flies. Sex is only one of our urges, and we have minds that enable us to decide about our lives. We can also invent new ways of producing food, and even space. For me, a better likeness is to what Kenneth Boulding called "Space Ship Earth." We live in a space ship with resources we must nurture. And we can control what we nurture.

For decades we have been concerned with overpopulation. Now we discover that Europe, Russia, Japan, and other countries are deeply disturbed about loss of population. According to a study by the Federal Statistics Office in Germany, the population of that country is expected to drop 20% by 2050, from about 80 million to about 54 million. Italians have the lowest fertility rates in the world; each woman now bears, on average, only 1.2 babies in her lifetime. (The replacement rate is 2.1, which makes allowance for deaths). In Japan, that ratio shrank to 1.34 in 1999. In Northern America, Europe, Japan, and Australia taken together, the number is down to 1.59, by United Nations data. (I am not troubling you with references, but I have them in my file for anyone who wishes. These are reliable data, mostly from the United Nations).

Nicholas Eberstadt, probably our most learned demographer, makes the reasonable assumptions that life expectancy in more developed countries (MDCs) will rise from 71 to 85 years by 2050, that of less developed countries (LDCs) from 64 to 76; that fertility rates in MDCs will fall to 1.4 average in another decade and those in LDCs (which are now very high but falling) to 2 in 2020 and 1.6 in 2050. Given these assumptions, by 2050 the world will contain about 8.9 billion people. Global depopulation will begin in a bit over forty years, and beginning about 2050, world population will be shrinking by about 25% with each succeeding generation.

But suppose these estimates are wrong. Should we be teaching birth control now, just to make sure? Would it not be better for the world to have even fewer people by 2050 than Eberstadt estimates? I will conclude below that we should continue to teach birth control, but selectively and not in order to stabilize the world's population. If we are to influence population growth through birth control, it is essential to guess right, neither to overguess nor to underguess.

An optimal population is well distributed among age groups. Draw a Christmas tree made out of horizontal slices representing age groups: the lowest, biggest slice is age-group 1 to 10. Given that some of these will not survive, the next slice (10–20) is slightly smaller, and so on up to the top (90–100), the smallest slice of all. Slices get progressively smaller as people drop off in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. (If we all lived to 100 and then suddenly died, the Christmas tree would be like a rectangular box. Wouldn't that be grotesque?)

In a country of heavy population growth, the lower slices will be much larger than the middle and upper, but as time goes on, the "baby boom" will widen the slices in the middle, then at the top. That is happening in Asia, Africa, and Latin America now. But we may confidently expect a demographic transition, which in Europe lasted most of the nineteenth century. First, the death rate falls with improved health care, but the birth rate stays high until parents decide they do not need so many children. Then it falls. In the interim (death rate down, birth rate still high) population grows prodigiously. After the birth rate falls, it stabilizes again, as it did in the Western world.

Any society will organize itself around the shape of the Christmas tree. It must have the right number of schools for those in the younger years, the right amount of employment for those in the middle years, the right amount of health care, the right amount of food, and so on. Demographers speak of the "dependency ratio," which is the ratio of children and elderly, who depend for their care on the middle group. Whether with private or public social insurance, whether with day care centers or stay-at-home moms, workers in the middle years take care of the "dependents." If any of these ratios become out of kilter with the others, problems will ensue (unhappiness, riots, uneducated citizenry, political instability). So if we are to control population, we must know what we are doing: population should be neither too large nor too small, and it should be relatively well distributed among ages. The dependency ratio should be supportable, so that the Christmas tree looks like a natural one.

Eberstadt has detected four salient trends in the 2001 United Nations report: global aging, the decline of the West, the eclipse of Russia, and American exceptionalism. Let us consider them, in order.

  1. Global aging: Because of the "health explosion," average population is getting older in all parts of the world. Yes, there are scourges such as AIDS, but Eberstadt points out that "it would take a catastrophe of truly Biblical proportions to forestall this trend."
  2. The Decline of the West [and Japan]: This reflects the drop in population already cited earlier in this report.
  3. The Eclipse of Russia: "While more developed countries are positioned for decline, Russia is slated for an especially brutal descent. Today the Russian Federation displays one of the world's lowest fertility levels: an estimated rate of 1.14 births per woman per lifetime. Its appalling mortality levels, by UNDP [United Nations Development Program] estimates, currently hover between those of the Dominican Republic and North Korea" (Eberstadt in the Wall Street Journal, 3/9/01. I have discussed the reasons for this in Letter No. 4 on Russia.
  4. American exceptionalism:. The fertility rate in the United States is now the highest in the more developed world: just over 2 births per woman per lifetime. "The nation's population increased by more people in the 1990's than any other 10-year period in United States history, surpassing the growth between 1950 and 1960 at the peak of the baby boom, the Census Bureau reported. . . Even as many other industrial countries are suffering declining populations because of shrinking birth rates, the United States swelled by 32.7 million people in the last decade, to 281.4 million, the result of waves of young immigrants with families and a steady birth rate that outpaced deaths. The increase, which was greater than the country's population total during the Civil War, easily surpassed the previous record growth of 28 million in the 1950's." (New York Times, 4/3/01).
  5. There is a fifth point that Eberstadt did not mention in the article I am quoting, but he might have. The populations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are still growing, even though the rate of growth is declining. India crossed the one billion mark in 1999. With population growing at 1.6% per year, it will overtake China before mid-century. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, "ninety-nine per cent of global natural increase — the difference between numbers of births and numbers of deaths — now occurs in the developing countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America... On average, the number of children born to a woman living in the developing world is double the number born to a woman living in one of the world's more developing regions." Already by 1950, LDC population was two thirds of the world total (and MDC only one third). By 2020 it is estimated that LDCs will reach 6.2 billion people out of 7.8 billion total.

So, is birth control needed in the LDCs, or will they stabilize themselves over time? The problem lies not so much in gross population growth, but in its distribution. All over Asia, Africa, and Latin America people are migrating to the cities. The farms do not provide enough employment for the increased population. In the cities, they live in stinking slums, with flimsy huts such as of cardboard or sometimes tin; unemployment is high, health care abominable, and begging pandemic. It is these slums that, to me, are the dirtiest part of the world.

In all my peregrinations in the Third World, I found myself drawn most to the slums, partly out of concern for the lives of their inhabitants and partly to help me understand poverty. I wandered a for days at a time in the slums of all capital cities of Latin America except Havana, talking with the people there, and asking about their aspirations. Most wanted jobs and a secure roof over their heads. Population control (contraceptives especially) are badly needed, along with training. But more than that, jobs are needed. The peoples of any country do not need to grow their own food - there is enough food in all the world (and agricultural output is increasing yearly by more than population), but they need money with which to buy food.

This is something we might be thinking about, if we are disturbed by jobs moving to less developed countries. Is that not where jobs are most needed?


Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

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I thought "space ship earth" was Buckminster Fuller's coinage...

— Kenneth B. Powelson, Berkeley (CA)

I think my son Ken is correct. I had only heard it from Kenneth Boulding. — Jack

What if everyone felt they were adequately fed?
What if everyone felt their house kept them warm and dry?
What if everyone felt that animals were not unduly harmed by human activity?

If the answers to those questions were yes, then no one would be concerned about population. Therefore, I conclude that there is no "population problem".

Turn it on its head. Would fewer people ensure that all people were adequately fed? Would fewer people ensure that all people had adequate housing? Would fewer people ensure that animals were not harmed by humans? The answer is every case is "maybe, maybe not."

There is a hunger problem. There is a poverty problem. There is an environmental problem. These form a set of problems that people lump together and confusingly label the "population problem". But there is no intrinsic problem with "too many people".

— Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

I had just finished watching a C-SPAN panel discussion featuring National Security Advisors from Eisenhower to Bush (the elder). One of them, Walt Rostow, spoke of the need for planning for the "end of the human race" which would happen because of the decrease in population that is predicted for the human race in the 21st century. I was hoping that someone in the CSPAN audience would ask for an explanation of why a decrease in population was such a disaster, but no such luck. Can you shed light on his fears? Why would a decrease in the number of humans be so traumatic?

— Free Polazzo, Annewakkee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasville (GA).

Can anyone among the readers answer Free's question? — Jack

Of course, we should be teaching birth control now along with sanitation and other basic health care. We do it not so much to control population in general but to assist families to make their own decisions about whether and when to have children. Your article seems to reflect an attitude that we (Americans?) should determine the future population. Not sure that is what you meant, but that is what it seemed to convey to me. We can't and shouldn't delude ourselves that we have or should try to exercise such power.

If population increases, we will learn to cope. If it decreases, we will learn to cope, and perhaps some of the other species who share this earth with us will get some relief. In parts of North Dakota bison are on the increase as number of people decreases. Perhaps some indigenous people will have a chance to regain some of what they have lost too.

And I agree that what the poor need most is jobs. I'm also intrigued with the idea that perhaps they should be given title to the land they occupy so that they can accumulate capital. I don't have your list of future articles at hand, but would be interested in your reaction to some of the more inventive suggestions for helping the world's poor cope with globalization.

— Vici Oshiro, Minneapolis Friends Meeting.

I have been known to ask people, "Why is a job in the US more valuable than a job in Mexico? Who needs it more?" The problem with jobs in Mexico is bad working conditions and pay too low compared to the cost of living where the factories are located. The only effective response is organizing the workers and the larger community. The micro-credit movement, which I support with cash, not only provides people with employment under their own control but encourages the development of the multiple center of power in society which both Jack and Gene Sharp argue are the fundamental sources of liberty and justice.

— Bruce Hawkins, Northampton (MA) Friends Meeting.

A Tidbit from Singapore

Here in strait-laced Singapore, it's the new patriotism: have sex. Alarmed by its declining birthrate, this tiny city-state of just four million people is urging its citizens to multiply as fast as they can. "We need more babies!" proclaimed Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong last fall. The world, he said, is in danger of running short of Singaporeans. New York Times, April 21, 2001.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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