A Response to “Regarding Population Messaging, Exactly What’s the Problem: Growth or Overpopulation?”

July 1, 2013 • Family Planning, United States, Daily Email Recap

You may recall the PMC Daily Email of May 30th, 2013, which featured an essay written by David Paxson and co-authors, Alan Ware, Karen Shragg and Carolyn VandenDolder. It was titled “Regarding Population Messaging, Exactly What’s the Problem: Growth or Overpopulation?“.

Below is a formal response, and it comes from Karen Pitts, vice-chair, Committee for a Sustainable World Population of the Motherlode Chapter of The Sierra Club (serving 24 counties in northern and central California). The CSWP’s mission is “to promote a SUSTAINABLE WORLD POPULATION… to increase awareness of the environmental impacts of population growth and overconsumption of natural resources, and to help improve access to family planning, reproductive health, and sex and environmental education services.” The group offers a speaker’s bureau, and promotes population awareness at public events, fairs, and conferences.

A Response to “Regarding Population Messaging, Exactly What’s the Problem: Growth or Overpopulation?”

By Karen Pitts

We  believe, like many of our fellow population activists, that the earth’s carrying capacity has been exceeded. Some experts have said that the earth can only sustain 2 billion people, but is that 2 billion people living a North American or European lifestyle, or is that 2 billion people living like the average Bangladesh person? It seems that consumption is a big part of the picture and not just all population.


It does indeed seem that we are nearing the end of our ability to feed all of earth’s human inhabitants (and that’s not even looking at the wildlife population). 40% of India’s children are malnourished, even though India has had its Green Revolution; and nearly 900 million people on earth do not get enough to eat. World grain consumption has outpaced production in 8 out of the 12 years between 2000 and 2011. We can eat less meat and stop using farmland for biofuels, but all gains will soon be wiped out by population growth, with projections recently revised to reach 9.6 billon by 2050 (medium projection) and nearly 11 billion by 2100, with a high projection of 16 billion by 2100.


Some population scholars, reasoning that we have exceeded our carrying capacity and that it will only get worse, have suggested that the world must instill a one-child program in order to attain a sustainable population. Variations of this include the repressive one-child policy of China, with fines and forced abortions, a one-child policy with rewards, or a strictly voluntary one-child suggestion.


One proponent of a one-child program, David Paxson of World Population Balance reasons: “We must speak this truth: “The world and nation are overpopulated. Therefore, it is crucial that couples are encouraged to voluntarily choose to have only one child.” Without ‘over-population/one-child’ messaging, humanely reaching a 1-4 billion global … population is impossible.”



We feel that a one-child policy – or even one-child messaging – is not a good idea.


1) Proponents of a one-child program seem to think that women have complete control over their fertility, yet around half of pregnancies in the U.S. and 40% of pregnancies worldwide are unintended. Reasons: a) not enough access to contraception; b) not enough information about the benefits of contraception to desire it; c) inability to make decisions about one’s own reproduction and health; d) contraception that is not effective enough or usage is spotty; e) lack of reproductive health care (where women usually learn about the benefits of contraception); f) poor access to education (where women learn to have a life not necessarily related to having children); g) lack of funding for programs to provide a-f.


According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2012 use of modern contraceptives in the developing world would prevent 218 million unintended pregnancies, which, in turn, will avert 55 million unplanned births, 138 million abortions (40 million of them unsafe), 25 million miscarriages and 118,000 maternal deaths.


The aversion of 55 million births will cut the global population growth from 80 million per year to 25 million per year. Once modern contraception is used and women discover they have healthier families when they can plan their families, they become motivated to have smaller families, just as has happened in North America and Europe, and growth will continue dropping.


In other words, “it’s good for my family and communtity” is a bigger motivator than “it’s good for the planet”.


2) The one-child policy in China is mostly a bluff and people know it. Only 39% of the population were required to follow it. China’s one-child policy, coercive as it was, has so far only produced a fertility rate of 1.55 (a 1.5 child policy?). Japan, Cuba, Spain, Italy, South Korea, and 30 other countries have fertility rates lower than China’s, and no one-child policy was in effect in those countries. Only 7 countries/states  in the world come close to having a one-child fertility rate, with Bosnia and Herzegovina 1.25, South Korea 1.24,  British Virgin Islands 1.24, Hong Kong 1.11, Taiwan 1.11, Macau .93 and Singapore .79. None of these countries/states needed a one-child policy to reach their low fertility rates.



3) A one-child policy is highly unpopular, even abhorrent, probably because of China’s forced abortions and heavy fines for having more than one child. Even countries with two-child policies – such as India where certain states have entertained two-child policies –  have seen backlash from these policies. In Myanmar this month, authorities in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state have imposed a two-child limit for Muslim Rohingya families (4% of the population, but population growth 10 times higher than neighboring Buddhists). New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused authorities in Rakhine of fomenting an organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya.



4) One and two-child policies – and other population control policies – have caused a lot of problems for us population activists. We are frequently accused of racism or of advocating genocide. Often these accusations are not made directly, but they are in the background of responses to letters to the editor we write, or media interviews that we participate in. Try Googling ‘family planning’ or ‘reproductive health’ or ‘population’ and you will find plenty of criticism of what are perceived as ‘population control’ policies – even if they are strictly voluntary.


We feel this perception is what is standing in the way of funding for family planning programs and educational media programs such as provided by Population Media Center.


5) Population momentum is the reason that countries with fertility rates below replacement – such as China – are still growing. Eventually, growth in these countries will stop and then become negative.


Part of our impatience is due to this slown motion reversal of growth.


On the way to negative growth, countries often go through a phase where there are way more old people in proportion to younger people. This can be an upsetting problem and people become worried that their kind will die out. Not very mindful that the old people will soon die of old age, restoring the balance, people have the tendency to want balance out the unnatural balance of old to young by having babies. When this happens, suggestions to have only one child goes against the grain, whereas, in reality, people are actually having fewer children because the economy has been so upset by the smaller proportion of workers to dependents. In today’s world, economies are also being upset by resource depletion.


6) Most of the growth is in the developing countries. Developed countries are starting to see the scenario in #5.  The new report from the U.N., World Population Prospects: the 2012 Revision, notes that the population of developed regions will remain largely unchanged at around 1.3 billion from now until 2050. In contrast, the 49 least developed countries are projected to double in size from around 900 million people in 2013 to 1.8 billion in 2050. It is the poor in the developing countries that have more children because they have less access to contraception, or for one of the other reasons outlined in #1. Larger families leads to more impoverished and/or failed states. While there is still plenty to be done in developed countries like the U.S., where there are still plenty of challenges to contraception and abortion, most of our efforts must be concentrated in areas where contraceptive usage is low, such as Sub-Saharan Africa. It is these countries with high fertility rates where a one-child policy will fall on deaf ears. Why? Because if they do not have sufficient control over their fertility, they cannot have fewer children, let alone only one.


We want to stress the importance of helping women plan their families and ‘lose’ the perception of population control. This would help us a great deal toward achieving a more sustainable world population size.

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