Defusing the Population Bomb- Los Angeles Times
Earth cannot handle an infinitely increasing population. Education and birth control are
May 15, 2011
It's getting crowded out there. According to an updated report from the United Nations, the
planet's population is not following the expected curve: topping out at about 9 billion mid-
century and then leveling off. Instead, the demographic trends point to continued growth,
bringing the worldwide population to 10.1 billion by the end of the century — nearly a 50%
increase for a planet now inhabited by just under 7 billion.
The highest rates of growth will be concentrated in poverty-stricken countries with low
education levels, especially those in Africa, where the population is expected to more than triple
to 3.5 billion. Nigeria's population, for instance, would more than quadruple, to 730 million. In
the Middle East, the population of Yemen is projected to more than quadruple by the end of the
century; this in a country that has a limited water supply and already must import much of its
The news led some population experts to call for improvements in agriculture to feed a world
with so many hungry mouths. But that is, at best, a temporary patch. No matter how efficient we
become at growing food, the Earth cannot provide for an infinitely increasing population.
If the U.N.'s numbers hold true, the increased number of poor people will strain the world's
environment and natural resources. It will also create far more demand for foreign aid from the
When the figures are adjusted for inflation, worldwide family-planning aid to poor countries
dropped by more than half from 1995 to 2007. The United States has long been the world's
leader in this kind of assistance, but gave it shorter shrift during the George W. Bush
administration, which launched a multibillion-dollar initiative on AIDS in Africa but flat-lined
spending on birth control aid. In addition, the AIDS prevention campaign emphasized abstinence
and marital fidelity, which were not particularly effective, rather than condom use.
President Obama's budgets have called for increased spending on family planning overseas, but
in the current budget battle, that funding was cut by 5% (even on the domestic front, the
Republican Party has waged an attack on women's reproductive rights by attempting to withdraw
funding for Planned Parenthood). Meanwhile, no other country has stepped in. As a result, at
least a fourth of the women in Africa have no access to effective birth control methods.
According to Robert Engelman, vice president of the Worldwatch Institute, more than one in five
births results from an unwanted pregnancy. Without all the unintentional births, fertility would
be below the replacement level, the rate needed to maintain the current population.
In other words, it wouldn't take much to drastically change the end-of-century numbers. Bad
crops, lack of water, epidemics — any or all of these could tip the balance back toward a
population that levels off at 9 billion. But those are tragic scenarios. In contrast, more education
for girls and wider access to safe, effective family planning would serve a dual purpose, moving
the world population toward sustainable levels and helping to avert famine, illness and premature
Forty years ago, early efforts to provide family-planning aid in developing countries ran aground
when they became associated with coercive birth control programs such as China's one-baby
policy and India's forced vasectomies. Such violations of human rights are not just unacceptable;
they also are unnecessary. Surveys find that women in developing countries would choose
smaller families if they had the means to do so.
Women who have no schooling give birth to an average of 4.5 children; with just a year or more
of schooling, the number drops to 3. As education increases, the number of births drops. Girls in
Africa who receive some education will have fewer children and have them later in life. Their
children will be healthier, and more educated as well.
Of course, foreign aid is of limited help in countries where religious beliefs or oppressive
regimes make it all but impossible for women to exert control over any aspect of their lives. But
as individual nations find it more difficult to provide for burgeoning populations in coming
decades, there could be some surprising changes. In Iran, a campaign to increase the birthrate
after the shah was deposed in the late 1970s — the legal age to marry was lowered to 9 — was
reversed when the country struggled to find housing, employment and even enough water for a
population that had nearly doubled in two decades. The new smaller-families campaign included
birth control counseling before a couple could obtain a marriage license, and the birthrate
plummeted to just above replacement level. More recently there have been calls to raise the
number of births again.
The industrial world struggles with a different form of ambivalence about population growth.
When birthrates in Japan and Italy fell to well below replacement levels, leaders were horrified
and the Western news media reported it as terrible news. It's true that such a decline in birthrates
presents a challenge: a smaller population of working-age people to support a larger population
of retirees. Radical drops in birthrates and the subsequent aging of the population have presented
formidable problems in some countries. But the situation is temporary; that smaller population
will age in a few decades and become easier for future generations to support.
This much is certain: Nations cannot indefinitely produce larger and larger generations to
support older ones. Humans may have the reproductive ability to keep raising their numbers, but
the planet on which they do it is finite.