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What you think about population is wrong. debunking the 5 most common myths

Jul 10, 2024

Today we are celebrating World Population Day, an event that raises awareness of global population issues. Yet for many people, talking about population can be tricky. But why is that? We looked into the most common myths around population and uncovered them.

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1. Talking about population makes you a xenophobe.

Population is a word just like any other. Policymakers, statisticians, and public health experts study population trends to understand resource use, healthcare needs, and access to education. 

The problem comes when discussions about population target a certain ethnicity, religion or group of people. Such discriminatory practices must be called out immediately and stopped.

Unfortunately, many people in the Global North avoid talking about population altogether for fear of being identified as xenophobes. By ignoring global population growth, though, they are doing a grave injustice.

Discussing population can be a tool for positive change. It can help improve girls’ and women’s access to education and healthcare, particularly in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. And it can also help ensure a more sustainable future.

“Do you know where most of the criticism about racism comes from? It is mainly from white people. They ignore the reality of many families struggling to raise large numbers of children. When you go into our countries you find people genuinely interested in young girls and women getting education and women getting out of childbearing and childrearing. People here want to see change, governments have practical and ethical population policies with an aim of reducing population growth.“

– Florence Blondel, Ugandan advocate for women’s rights, family planning and sustainable population

2. All population policies are meant to control people.

Historically, restrictive policies have forced people to have a certain number of children or to be sterilized against their will. This was, and is, outright wrong. 

Many more population policies are voluntary and rights-based. They elevate the rights of girls and women in the form of greater reproductive autonomy and educational opportunities.

Policies that increase access to contraceptives and freedom from harmful patriarchal norms enable couples from places as diverse as Brazil, Costa Rica, Iran, Thailand, and Bangladesh to plan families and take good care of their children.

It’s natural to worry about control, but we rarely see that efforts to influence population go both ways – pressuring people not to have children, as well as to have children.

In fact, efforts to push women to have children are thousands of years old and continue influencing social norms and policies that encourage or even coerce reproduction to grow powerful institutions such as religion, the military, and the economy.

“Forcing women to bear children – pronatalism – is the longest and most pervasive form of population influence. Far more people in the world are being pressured into having children than have been prevented from having children.”

– Nandita Bajaj, Executive Director of Population Balance

3. Overconsumption is the #1 problem, not population.

We need to address overconsumption of resources and inequality. We must also, simultaneously, address population.

While efforts to reduce consumption are commendable, consumption typically isn’t reduced, but rather shifted into another area.

Imagine you quit driving and suddenly you have extra money. What will you do with it? Most probably, spend it. 

And that’s the trap. We think we are being eco-friendly by not driving, but we will spend the money on something else anyway.

Unless you rip money apart or invest it into land to preserve it, money will always generate more consumption.

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4.  Our country is aging. We need more babies.

Many countries are so worried about shrinking populations, they put out alarmist news. “There are too many old people!” “Who will pay for pensions?” “Women should have more children to support the economy!”

Not only is it unethical to force women to give birth against their will, there is also no evidence that a smaller aging population is a bad thing. Economic models assume that aging populations will mean worse economic outcomes for everyone, but there is no clear scientific evidence.

But there is evidence that population decline may improve quality of life. Housing becomes more affordable, infrastructure gets cheaper, and fewer job seekers means better wages, working conditions, and job security.

Japan is a well-known example of rapid population decline. Interestingly, as population shrinks, housing affordability has improved. While Tokyo was one of the most expensive cities in the 1990s, it has moved down the list. In contrast, places with rapidly growing populations like Canada and Australia are experiencing housing crises and rising homelessness.

It’s no wonder governments feel uncertain about how everything will work with a smaller population. But it’s better to acknowledge decline is happening in many countries and prepare for it, rather than foist the problem onto coming generations.

5. Why are we talking about this, hasn’t population growth already slowed down?

Yes and no! World population growth peaked at 2.3% per year in 1963 and has since dropped to 0.9% in 2023. But the actual number of people giving birth is much larger than it used to be. We are still adding 73 million people to the planet every year.

According to the UN, world population may peak around the year 2086 at 10.4 billion, and then start to decline. But these are just estimates. The population could peak at 8.9 billion or 12.4 billion.

In a nutshell: If we prioritize universal access to family planning and girls’ education, we will surely achieve fairer outcomes. If we instead let conservative governments impose restrictions on women, we can expect to see rising resource scarcity. 

“Many countries of the Global North experience dropping fertility rates. Thus, their experts, the media, and the public falsely believe that „population explosion“ is a solved problem. However, globally, the population keeps rising. For this reason, we should see human overpopulation as a phantom menace and deal with it as such.”

– Jan Greguš, Gynecologist and philosopher, scientific secretary of the Czech Society of Contraception and Reproductive Health

At Population Media Center, we believe it is important to talk about population.

But at the same time we know that most people don’t spend their days thinking about abstract global issues. They want to be healthy and happy and live well in a nice environment. And that is precisely what PMC is working on – improving people’s lives, sustainably.

Our work in Zambia shows that. Between 2019 and 2022, our two radio shows called Kwishilya (“Over the Horizon”) and Sinalamba (“Breaking the Barrier”) reached an estimated audience of 3 million people.

These shows combined thrilling storylines with issues core to daily life for Zambians, including family planning, child marriage, malaria, HIV, nutrition, and domestic violence.

Kwishilya listeners were also 50% more likely than non-listeners to believe they themselves can determine their family size and 20% more likely than non-listeners to be using a modern contraceptive method to delay or avoid pregnancy.

Sinalamba listeners were over 90% more likely than non-listeners to believe their spouse/partner supports the use of family planning to delay or avoid pregnancy.

After listening to these two shows, more than 85,900 listeners reported using family planning methods.

When radio characters talk about voluntary family planning and girls’ education, listeners find it easier to discuss these topics with their loved ones.

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