Most of my adult lifetime one of the most common truisms among those who care about the people of the world has been that the population is growing so fast that it will soon outstrip available food, space, natural resources, and services. Since the 1970s this understanding has produced dire theories and predictions of calamity, and it has guided public policy and humanitarian service.
The predictions persist today in media analysis, among government policymakers, in the international aid community, and increasingly among environmentalists.
A challenge for the pro-life movement
There are three major errors: First, although surging population was a problem a generation ago, fertility rates and population projections have plummeted to the point that world population is likely to level off and actually decrease by mid-century. (see this article on population contraction in the Weekly Standard). Second, population groups are using outdated information to advance aggressive population control methods that include abortion, under the guise of “international family planning.” And third, it is families that will decide how many children they want and find ways to accomplish that, not governments who are inept at altering this decision short of coercion and violence. OnCite Weekly Standard article
My colleague Rusty Pritchard, a resource economist, leader in the Christian environmental movement, and president of the non-profit group that includes Flourish and the Terra Dei Institute for Environmental Policy, has written a startling article that exposes these problems and knocks the doors off of the overpopulation myth.
Pritchard warns of wasteful and even ominous developments:
Significantly accelerating the current worldwide decline in population growth is virtually impossible without oppressive policies, and spending vast sums to subsidize contraception has no effect on either family size or the environment. With limited foreign aid budgets, it’s at best a waste of resources. At worst it is immoral, since most family planning groups refuse to decouple birth control and the promotion of abortion. Linking population control to the environmental agenda rightly horrifies Christians, including green ones.
Exposing the folly of government family planning
In the article in Flourish magazine, Pritchard writes:
The only “family planning” measures that have proven successful in slowing birth rates are repression and violence directed toward mothers (as in the case of China) or information campaigns and subsidies of ridiculous proportions (as in countries like Thailand). A position of arguing for investments in family planning to reduce birth rates and improve the environment is simply not supported by the evidence, unless one is willing to tolerate repression.
Why are family planning campaigns so ineffective? It’s not because culture is so durable, or because parents want the same number of children as their own parents had. Family size changes drastically from generation to generation, not because of family planning efforts, but because economic conditions change.
Warning to the environmental movement
As a Christian environmentalist, Pritchard see great dangers for mistakes by and misuse of the environmental movement. Other enviros agree that overpopulation is the wrong target for the environmental movement.
The modern environmental movement largely suppressed the more misanthropic approaches of population control advocates, but it never overcame the fundamental mythology that overpopulation was a problem that was, in principle, solved by abundant and free contraceptive technologies. Demographers, however, began to paint a different picture. At the same time that doomsday messages were spreading about exponential population growth, social scientists noted that population growth rates were falling, all over the world, faster than anyone thought possible in the 1970s. Today, while it’s still growing, the world population has passed its inflection point and is expected to continue slowing in this century for reasons that are now well known to demographers.
Strangely, instead of being laid to rest, the idea of population control as an environmental strategy is being raised again by population control advocates who can’t find support for their policies on their own. Like a cuckoo’s egg, secretly placed in another bird’s nest in hopes of it being adopted by trickery, population control is an idea that is out of place in an environmental conversation. It needs to be pushed out of the nest, but the defrauded nest owners can’t recognize the danger to their own offspring.