Opinion on Overpopulation: Not so Fast, Fred

By Robert Walker

When it comes to rapid population growth, Fred Pearce (who recently authored a guest post on 3p called “Overpopulation is the Wrong Focus“) wants to declare victory in the worst way. And he does. He does it by ignoring all the evidence to the contrary.

He says, for example, “that the population bomb that I remembering being scared by forty years ago as a school kid is being defused fast.” Not so fast, Fred. World population is still on track to add more than two billion people by mid-century. The U.S. Census Bureau projected last month that world population will increase from 6.8 billion today to 9.3 billion by 2050, and that assumes that fertility rates will continue to fall.

Undaunted by those numbers, he says that the “world’s population will probably be shrinking within a generation.” But according to the demographers at the U.S. Census Bureau, world population by 2050 will still be growing by over 40 million people a year.

As further evidence that the challenges posed by population growth have evaporated Pearce cites the successes that Bangladesh and India have had in reducing fertility rates. But, oddly enough, leaders in those countries are not declaring victory.

Citing concerns about poverty and the environment, Bangladesh’s President Zillur Rahman earlier this month proposed an expansion of family planning services and said the slogan, “Not more than two children, one is better” should be extended across the country to promote smaller families.

In Delhi, India, this month Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Union Health and Family Welfare Minister, ruled out any coercive policies, but said that the government needs to raise awareness about the benefits of having smaller families. He also said that the government should strictly enforce laws banning child marriage.

Here’s why.

Population growth in India is, once again, in danger of outpacing food production. In fact, the Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank based in India, just released a report titled ‘The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia,” which warned that wheat and rice production in India and China could drop between 30 and 50 percent by 2050, while the demand for food grains will grow by at least 20 percent.

Pearce acknowledges that in parts of rural Africa, “women still have five or more children,” but he says it’s not a problem. In fact, women on average in Uganda have 6.7 children; in Niger it’s 7.4. And these high fertility rates, Pearce’s assertion notwithstanding, do pose a serious challenge.

Take Niger, for example. No one knows how Niger will feed itself in forty years. That’s because no knows how Niger will feed itself today. Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Programme warned this month that Niger is in danger of “losing an entire generation” to severe malnutrition and stunting. In fact, she’s urgently trying to raise $100 million to feed 4.5 million hungry people in Niger and other parts of the African Sahel. Meanwhile, Niger’s population is expected to jump from an estimated 15.3 million in 2009 to nearly 60 million by 2050.

To bolster his dubious assertions about population growth, Pearce resurrects poor old Bob Malthus, the 19th century demographer, and flogs him for his support of draconian poor laws. He even summons Charles Dickens as a posthumous witness for the prosecution. What does this have to do with anything? Nothing. It’s just a convenient way of demonizing what Pearce likes to call the “population doom-mongers.”

Malthus is irrelevant. What matters today is whether the U.S. and other donor nations are doing enough to educate and empower women in developing countries, giving them the right to decide how many children to have. Last year, the United Nations Population Fund and the Guttmacher Institute estimated that the total cost of providing modern family planning in the developing world is $6.7 billion: $3.1 billion for current users and another $3.6 billion to meet unmet need. Donor nations, including the U.S., are simply not doing enough.

Fred Pearce says he supports family planning assistance, and I believe him, but blithely declaring that population growth is no longer a problem undermines the case for boosting such assistance. Many of his arguments and assertions are not just wrong; they are, to use his phrase, “dangerous nonsense.”

Mr. Walker is executive vice president of the Population Institute

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