Seven Billion people….
It is currently estimated that there is seven billion humans inhabiting the planet Earth. The theme of population, and more specifically, overpopulation has been in the popular mind for the last thirty years or more. Schools, national governments, international legislative bodies, interest groups and the media have all but insured that the public sees the issue of population as a problem, and increasingly, in reference to natural resources and the environment. At the heart of the population-resources-environment debate lies the question: can the earth sustain seven billion or more people? How one answers this question depends greatly on whether or not one sees population as a problem.
Is population a problem? Some would argue that yes, population is a problem in that the earth is limited, that it can only sustain a certain number of people (although no one knows what that particular number may be), that the more numerous we become, the poorer we will become. Others argue that no, population is not a problem, but that it is government policies, economic structures and the organization of society that is the problem. Some contend that numbers in themselves do not equal poverty; rather, poorly structured societies and economies foster poverty.
How people perceive the issue of population is critical, for it is by these perceptions that international legislative policies are formed, economic development packages are crafted, federal social and economic programs are formulated, and local sex education classes are designed. Thus, it is equally critical that people ensure that their perceptions are grounded, not in rhetoric and emotion, but in established scientific and empirical data. An accurate understanding of the data will enable people to think and act rationally with regard to population on a local, state, national, and international level.
Perspectives in the Debate Today
There are many groups taking part in the current population debate. All approach the question of population from very different points of view and with different motivations. A working knowledge of the parties and their underlying philosophies will allow one to sift through the diverse rhetoric and hold them up to the light of scientific data. Frank Furedi, in his book Population and Development: A Critical Introduction, (1997) has provided a brief outline of the variety of approaches to the issue of population.
1. · The Developmentalist Perspective. Until the nineties, this was one of the most influential perspectives. Its advocates argue that rapid population growth represents a major obstacle to development, as valuable resources are diverted from productive expenditure to the feeding of a growing population. Some also contend that development in turn solves the problem of population. They believe that increasing prosperity and the modernization of lifestyles will create a demand for smaller families, leading to the stabilization of population growth. A classical account of this approach can be found in Coale and Hoover (1958). It is worth noting that at least until the early eighties, this was the most prominent argument used by many leading demographers and most of the influential promoters of population control. …
2. The Redistributionist Perspective. Those who uphold the redistributionist perspective are sceptical of the view that population growth directly causes poverty and underdevelopment. They often interpret high fertility as not so much the cause but the effect of poverty. Why? Because poverty, lack of economic security, the high mortality rates of children, the low status of women and other factors force people to have large families. They also believe that population is a problem because it helps intensify the impoverishment of the masses. For some redistributionists, the solution to the problem lies in changing the status of poor people, particularly of women, through education and reform. Repetto (1979) and the World Bank (1984) provide a clear statement of this approach. This perspective is linked to the Women and Human Rights approach discussed below. Some proponents of redistribution contend that the population problem can only be solved through far-reaching social reform. (See Sen and Grown (1988) for a radical version of the redistributionist argument.)
3. The Limited Resources Perspective. This perspective represents the synthesis of traditional Malthusian concern about natural limits with the preoccupation of contemporary environmentalism. According to the limited resources perspective, population growth has a negative and potentially destructive impact on the environment. Its proponents argue that even if a growing population can be fed, the environment cannot sustain such large numbers, population growth will lead to the explosion of pollution, which will have a catastrophic effect on the environment. See Harrion (1993) for a clear statement of this position.
4. The Socio-Biological Perspective. This approach politicizes the limited resources perspective. Its proponents present population growth as a threat not only to the environment but also to a way of life. They regard people as polluters and often define population growth as a pathological problem. In the West, the ruthless application of this variant of Malthusianism leads to demands for immigration control. Some writers call for the banning of foreign aid to the countries of the South, on the grounds that it stimulates an increase in the rate of fertility. Other writers believe that the numbers of people threatens the ecosystem, and even go so far as to question the desirability of lowering the rate of infant mortality. Abernethy (1993) and Hardin (1993) provide a systematic presentation of the socio-biological perspective.
5. The People-as-a-Source-of-Instability Perspective. In recent years, contributions on international relations have begun to discuss population growth in terms of its effect on global stability. Some writers have suggested that in the post-Cold War order, the growth of population has the potential to undermine global stability. Some see the rising expectations of large numbers of frustrated people as the likely source of violent protest and a stimulus for future wars and conflicts. The key theme they emphasize is the differential rate of fertility between the North and the South. From this perspective the high fertility regime of the South represents a potential threat to the fast-ageing population of the North (See Kennedy (1993)).
6. The Women and Human Rights Perspective. This perspective associates a regime of high birth rates with the denial of essential human rights. Those who advocate this approach insist that the subordination of women and their exclusion from decision making has kept birth rates high. Some suggest that because of their exclusion from power and from access to safe reproductive technology, many women have more children then they otherwise would wish. The importance of gender equality for the stabilization of population is not only supported by feminist contributors but by significant sections of the population movement. At the Cairo Conference of 1994, this perspective was widely endorsed by the main participants. For a clear exposition of this approach see Correa (1994) and Sen, Germain and Chen (1994).
7. The People-as-Problem-Solvers Perspective. In contrast to the approaches mentioned so far, this one does not believe that population growth constitutes a problem. On the contrary, its advocates believe that the growth of population has the potential to stimulate economic growth and innovation. From this perspective, more people means more problem solvers, since human creativity has the potential to overcome the limits of nature. Some believe that in the final analysis, the market mechanism can help establish a dynamic equilibrium between population growth and resources. Others emphasize the problem-solving abilities of the human mind. See Boserup (1993) and Simon (1981) for illustrations of this approach.
8. The Religious Pro-Natalist Perspective. Some of the most vocal opponents to population policy are driven by religious objections to any interference with the act of reproduction. They argue that population growth is not a problem and are deeply suspicious of any attempt to regulate fertility. Although some supporters of this perspective mobilize economic arguments to support their case, the relationship between population growth and development is incidental to their argument. For them, the argument that population growth is positive is in the first instance justified on religious grounds. See Kasun (1988) for a clear exposition of this perspective. Other pro-natalist voices regard the growth of population of the South as a positive asset that will contribute to a more equitable relation of power with the North. They view population programmes as an insidious attempt to maintain Western domination.