Rethinking World Population Day
While many population control advocates spend World Population Day deeply concerned about projected growth trends, an economist says such unchecked anxiety is misguided.
“To have sort of an unmitigated fear of the population future … is to ignore the evidence of the economic history that we and our parents and grandparents have lived through,” Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, told CNA July 10.
“To have a more balanced view of the situation, one has to be a bit more nuanced, and see how population change is affecting opportunities and constraints,” he added.
“And you don't get that with people who see it as a matter of secular faith that the instrumentality of dealing with changing human numbers is contraceptivism.”
July 11 is observed as “World Population Day” by the United Nations, and this year is focused on adolescent pregnancy, with the head of the United Nations Population Fund saying that “good quality reproductive health services” must be readily available to adolescent girls.
In an increase from previous projections, the U.N. recently issued a report saying that population is expected to be 9.6 billion in 2050. This gives rise to much concern over population growth, focusing on resources and sustainability, suggesting that world population will be too great for the earth to support.
Eberstadt, who holds a Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard University, responded by pointing out that while it's “true that there are an awful lot more people on planet earth, despite that, we've had this accelerating increase in living standards.”
“It's not because there are more atoms of resources on planet earth … it's because human ingenuity and human knowledge have transformed production possibilities for the entire species.”
So even with a limited area, or a limited number of resources, he says, the human spirit has proven so capable of discovering new ways to use those resources that they have not – and likely will not – run out.
“At the end of the day, it's not clear to me that human ingenuity and knowledge is an exhaustible resource,” Eberstadt said.
While acknowledging that its “certainly possible” for population to theoretically overshoot resources, he said that human resourcefulness has been able to draw ever-increasing levels of goods out of natural resources, and so “we have to look at population growth in a different way” than the pessimism of Robert Malthus. The 18th century Anglican priest – who's adherents are typically known as Malthusians – was one of the first to ignite fears over the planet being unable to sustain rising numbers of humans.
Eberstadt said that “we can be cautiously optimistic about the resource aspect of the population question,” because the price of of natural resources has experienced a downward trend throughout the last 150 years. This means that even though population, and thus the demand for resources, has increased tremendously, resources have not become more scarce.
“If you take a perspective that includes the process of modern economic growth,” he explained, this can actually make sense: humans have found better ways to use existing resources, so they are effectively becoming more, not less, available.
Though “we can't guarantee that as-yet undiscovered inventions will come on the line just as we need them,” it seems reasonable to expect the use of natural resources to keep pace with population growth, through human inventiveness.
Eberstadt emphasized that depending on one's outlook, “every human being can be an opportunity or a problem.” Calls for population control, he suggested, stem from the “secular faith” that increasing numbers of human persons is a problem.
In coming years, population growth is expected to come primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, the least educated and healthy, and poorest region on earth. Eberstadt said that to look at this issue “and see that the proper way to fix it is by regulating the number of babies that come into the region, is to look completely backwards through the telescope.”
Rather than pushing contraception, efforts to address challenges in sub-Saharan Africa should instead help to establish policies and institutions that will promote economic development.
“It's possible to have stable rule of law, respect for individual rights – all the rest of the desideratum of things that we in the U.S. generally take for granted in our institutional policy structures,” Eberstadt said.
“We who follow population questions would be much better advised to fix on the fragility of the fragile states – trying to make them less fragile – than to think we can solve this problem by attempting to regulate the number of new humans who come into these societies.”
Susan Yoshihara, senior vice president for research at Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, agreed that what needs to be re-considered is the “underlying assumption that the number of human beings is the problem.”
The underlying premise of population control advocates is that “you need to curb the number of people in these countries, rather than helping these children,” she told CNA July 10. “Why isn't the emphasis rather on creating a better lifestyle for them?”
Yoshihara also called it a “fallacy, that women don't have control over their fertility.” There is a lot of evidence, she said, showing that in the developing world, where population is growing, family size is largely determined by women and that contraception use is not popular there because “couples are already planning their families.”
Rather than population control advocates distributing contraceptives, the developed world's emphasis should be put on helping developing countries to educate, feed, clothe, and shelter their growing population, she said.
Yoshihara also expressed skepticism at the U.N.'s World Population Prospects, taking note of the fact that – for example – projections of Nigeria's population in 2050 vary from 290 to 440 million.
“Their probabilistic model they came out with two years ago is very controversial,” she explained, saying that both the data that are entered into population growth models, and the data that come out, are “arbitrary.”
“If you read the fine print in their report, they say half of the countries they analyze don't really have data.”
When countries don't collect demographic data, the numbers for population growth are based on surveys which may not be representative of the true situation. Moreover, tiny differences in estimated fertility rates “might not change it next year, but it will change it a lot in 18 years,” when a given group itself will have started to reproduce, Yoshihara said.
Eberstadt weighed in, emphasizing that “population projections do change, because there's no science of guessing how many babies the currently unborn are going to have.”
Originally published at Catholic News Agency on 11 July 2013. Used by permission, all other rights reserved.