By Donella Meadows
–September 1, 1994–
Every day, as the International Conference on Population and Development meets in Cairo, the headlines could read, “World Population Grows by 250,000.”
That could be the headline every day of every week, of course. Human population growth is the biggest happening in our world. But it works like a glacier, inexorable, overwhelming, boring. It’s every day’s news, so it’s never news. Only when we stage an event like the one in Cairo, do we focus our attention on our growing numbers.
So we have a fleeting opportunity just now to spread some basic demographic literacy and to scuttle some population misconceptions.
First the numbers. In 1974, when the U, N, held a world population conference in Bucharest, there were about 4000 million of us. In 1984 the next population summit took place in Mexico City, and we numbered 4700 million. In 1994 there are nearly 5700 million of us, growing by 90 million a year. Most of the growth is taking place in what we call the “Third World,” which is really, in terms of numbers, the Two-Thirds World.
The most common misconception about population is:
– The situation is hopeless — the population bomb just keeps exploding. There is cause for concern, but not for hopelessness. The population growth rate has dropped from 2.1 to 1.6 percent per year. In the rich one-third of the world populations are growing slowly, if at all. In the poor two-thirds, birth rates are dropping nearly everywhere, faster than death rates.
– So birth rates are coming down — the problem is over. For every dire pessimist, there’s a sappy optimist. The population problem is not gone, it’s just getting worse at a slower rate.
U. N. forecasts (which make optimistic assumptions about future fertility drops) say that China’s population will grow from 1192 million now to 1504 million in 2025. That’s an addition over 30 years of a population larger than that of the U.S., on a land area the size of the U.S., which is already four times as densely populated as the U.S. India is expected to grow from 911 million to 1376 million by the year 2025. Africa from 700 million to 1538 million. Mexico from 92 million to 138 million.
Even if you’re a firm believer in the adaptability and technical genius of humanity, these are chilling numbers.
– The problem can’t be solved until the Pope sees the light. Reporters are attracted to conflict like moths to flame, so the Pope will receive more than his share of coverage during the Cairo conference. But the Pope makes no decisions about having babies. Catholics everywhere reason for themselves on this issue. Some of the most Catholic countries — Poland, Spain, Portugal, Austria, France, Ireland — have low or zero population growth rates. Italy has the lowest birth rate in the world. Whatever keeps fertility high where it is still high, it’s not the Pope.
– AIDS is nature’s solution to the population problem. AIDS is a terrible disease and perhaps a portent, but it is a long way from stopping population growth. Worldwide about 15 million people are now estimated to be infected with the HIV virus, 10 million of them in Africa. Even if they all died tomorrow, the world’s parents would replace that number in just over a month.
Unless it changes form drastically, AIDS is a drop in the demographic bucket. If we don’t bring our population under control, however, some infectious microbe may do it for us. We are, after all, steadily increasing the prime breeding ground for human disease, namely humans.
– Poor people have so many babies because they don’t know better, or they’re plain irresponsible. With this belief the One-Third blame the Two-Thirds for the population problem. In fact every culture knows two or three ways not to have babies — though these may be painful or semi-effective ways, which could be improved with modern contraceptive technologies. No one except U.S. teenagers takes the creation of a new human being lightly. Poor people have overwhelming economic reasons to have children. Kids provide a family labor force, they cost almost nothing, they are the only means of old-age support. If you lived in one of the poor families of the world, you would want many children too.
– People will stop having so many babies when they get “developed.” With this claim the Two-Thirds hand the blame back to the One-Third. They are right — wherever people are educated and secure, fertility is low. But this argument is used too often to endorse the present pattern of economic growth, which mainly enriches the rich, bypassing the poor who are having the babies. Or to spread the wasteful lifestyle of America, which is neither ecologically nor economically sustainable for 5700 million people (or for us). If “developed” means “included fully in the human community, provided with basic subsistence, health care, education, and modern contraception, and allowed to fend for themselves on a level playing field,” that kind of development is the only known solution to the population problem.
Probably the reason we so strongly resist turning to human decency in solving this problem (plus many others) is because of our deepest misconception of all: if we share, there will not be enough. But the essence of the population dilemma is this: the surest way to dire scarcity is to go on grasping, exploiting, heedlessly consuming, and turning our backs on those in poverty and despair — thereby perpetuating the population growth that will guarantee, if it continues, that there will indeed not be enough.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994