In recent years the rapid growth of world population has come to loom as one of the great problems of the age. Vivid and ominous metaphors like the “population explosion,” the “population bomb,” or the “swarming of the earth” are by now part of the familiar vocabulary of public awareness—so familiar, indeed, as to have created the impression that we have a firm understanding of the danger. Yet because population trends are inseparably related to such emotion-laden matters as the role of women and the position of the family in society, to sexual practices and moral doctrines, and to the comparative sizes of national, religious, and racial groups, there has been a general reluctance to press hard upon the conventional wisdom embodied in the prevailing metaphors. Thus the way has been left clear for a host of misconceptions to flourish about the causes and consequences and control of population growth. These misconceptions, moreover, are held both by the “optimists” who refuse to regard population growth as a profound threat to human welfare, and by the “alarmists” who have for so long considered themselves voices crying in a wilderness of indifference and prejudice that they have become prone to shrill exaggerations and the brandishing of scare statistics.
Perhaps the most common of all the misconceptions concerning the so-called population explosion is that it poses a problem only to the economically underdeveloped, non-Western part of the world. Although most Americans take it for granted that their numbers will continue to increase steadily, they are not apt to regard this increase as amounting to anything so threatening as an “explosion” and are inclined to use the latter term only with reference to the larger countries of Asia. Yet the United States, as well as several other Western countries, have maintained rates of population growth since World War II equalling or exceeding those of many underdeveloped areas. The American rate of increase during the past decade, for example, has been as high as that of India and higher than Japan's. Moreover, the comforting belief that rapid population growth is a danger only to the underdeveloped world holds only if one adopts a thoroughly catastrophic perspective. Continued population increase in the United States may not threaten us with imminent mass starvation and civil disorder, but it does strain our human and material resources, and aggravate our most serious social problems.
A second widespread misconception concerning the world population explosion is that it has resulted from a rise in the birth rate in the countries of rapid growth. This notion stems from a confusion between postwar American growth and the quite different pattern of growth in the underdeveloped countries. For in these latter countries the crucial factor has not been a “baby boom” such as we experienced here after the war, but rather a sharp drop in the death rate. In other words, while the level of fertility has remained the same or declined only slightly, a far higher proportion of infants is being kept alive by “death control” in the form of newly adopted medical and public-health measures. The survival of two newborn babies where previously only one survived is the immediate, demographically explosive consequence of the introduction of those measures, rather than an increase in the longevity of adults. Although the effects on population increase of this decline in infant mortality are identical to those of a rise in the birth rate, the “mindless breeding” of the “Asian masses” has nothing to do with the issue—tasteless and irrelevant references to sex as the “Indian national sport” notwithstanding.
But why have Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans failed to adopt birth control to balance the effects of death control? Is the problem, as is sometimes suggested, a matter of illiterate, superstitious, church-ridden peasants fatalistically clinging to past customs and incapable of following the Western example by adjusting their behavior to a new demographic situation? Here again a misconception—and a self-righteous one—is at work, for the demographic situation in the underdeveloped countries is unlike anything in Western population history. In Ceylon—to take the standard, and only slightly extreme, case—the death rate recently dropped as much in a single year (1947) as it did over a full fifty years in the West during the period when the latter was going through its own modernization process. It took nearly a century of declining mortality and rapid population growth before fertility began to decline in the West; little wonder, then, that reproductive behavior in much of the underdeveloped world (where mortality levels are by now only a little higher than in the West) has not yet adjusted itself to the effects of death control. Unlike the contemporary underdeveloped nations, moreover, the West in its time had migration outlets to absorb part of its growth. And finally, the European states were never as large in absolute terms nor as densely settled as the major underdeveloped countries are today.
Still another common misconception is that the balance of power in world politics is likely to be altered by the rapid growth in the population of the underdeveloped world. In the past, this idea often inspired apprehensions with a racist tinge (the “yellow peril” and the “black hordes”); nowadays, it more usually inspires “wave-of-the-future” rhetoric. The truth, however, is that in the nuclear age sheer numbers can no longer turn a nation into a major world power; indeed, the rapid growth of population in the underdeveloped countries actually reduces both their military and their industrial potential. To be sure, defenders of the view that national power in some last analysis still rests on population size insist—in an effort to adapt this thesis to the facts of nuclear technology—that only large and wealthy nations can support a considerable nuclear defense establishment. But this claim loses any plausibility it may seem to have when one considers the destructive power of even a few “old-fashioned” nuclear bombs, or when one recalls the one-sided, unbalanced patterns of economic growth which totalitarian regimes such as those of Russia and China are able to sustain in order to build up their armaments.
Does the population explosion, then, pose no problem to the world? Are the forebodings to which it has given rise utterly unjustified? Since the pace of world population growth has been quickened by the spread of death control rather than by an increase in human fertility, are we not entitled to regard an extra thirty years of life as an unqualified blessing conferred upon us by modern technology? If death control results in a larger population, why should this be of concern to anyone except a few aesthetes, haters of crowds, and those people who (as Time once suggested) prefer birds and animals to human beings? The answer is that the population explosion remains a monumentally serious problem even though some of the fears to which it gives rise are groundless, and even though it is the result of a technical revolution that is beneficial in other respects. In order to grasp its true nature and dimensions, one must begin by distinguishing clearly between its long-run and short-run effects.
Looking several centuries ahead, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that world population growth must eventually come to an end. One can argue, as do the “optimists,” that new inventions, new sources of food, the marvels of science and technology in general, are capable of achieving gains in productivity that could support a vastly larger population than at present. But to grant that this is in principle possible is a very different matter from assuming that the benefits of such technological progress will in fact be made available in a short time to all of the world's peoples. The optimists are nowhere more optimistic than in their readiness to assume that increases in productivity that are now, or will shortly become, technically possible are likely to be actually achieved in this world of wars and national and imperial rivalries. Moreover, glowing estimates of future advances in productivity usually concentrate on possible gains in food production, ignoring the fact that human beings, however well-fed, also need space. Never-ending population growth would ultimately lead to a shortage of space even if the problem of food supply were solved.
Let us go further, however, and concede to the optimists the feasibility of a hypothetical world of planetary colonization, of human settlements underground and raised above the ground, of food acquired from the oceans or grown in high-yield chemical solutions. Let us concede also that such a world might feed its much larger population more adequately than we are fed today on earth. Is it not obvious that even this world could only continue to be viable if rapid population growth were to cease? For no matter what science and technology may achieve, the time must come when only stabilization of numbers will avoid disaster.
Alarmist writers on the population problem, on the other hand, are not always clear as to the nature of the disaster they predict if population growth should continue. Frequently, they draw depressing pictures of a future in which the entire surface of the earth has been converted into a human anthill. By extrapolating present growth rates into the future, they suggest that we are heading toward such a world. Yet far more probable than the continuation of population growth to the point where we are faced with an anthill world, is the cessation of growth as a result of a rise in the death rate long before such a level of density is reached. The real issue, therefore, is how present growth rates will be lowered: will we be forced to abandon the low mortality we now enjoy and suffer a sharp rise in the death rate, or alternatively, will we cut back on population growth by learning to control our breakaway fertility? For the disaster with which the population explosion actually threatens us is not that we will one day be standing shoulder to shoulder on the earth's surface, but that we will lose our control over death and return to the kind of population stability (based on high mortality and fertility) prevailing in pre-modern societies.
In the short run, however, it is the effect of rapid growth on economic development that is the essence of the problem. Strangely, economic development and technical progress are often seen as alternatives to actions and policies designed to arrest population growth. We should, it is sometimes argued, concentrate on encouraging economic progress instead of worrying about birth-control campaigns, for economic progress will obviously permit more people to live at a higher standard of living. In its crudest form, this argument poses more food as an alternative to fewer people. But an odd distortion is involved here. Social scientists who advocate governmental birth-control policies do not see such policies as an alternative, but rather as a prerequisite, to economic development, no less essential to development than, say, the construction of dams and heavy industry.1
A moderate version of the optimistic position contends that as agrarian peasant societies are modernized, population growth will be slowed up by the mass adoption of family limitation under the new circumstances of urban living, open class systems, and greater material welfare. (This, of course, is what happened when the West achieved modernization.) But high rates of population growth in underdeveloped societies may swamp and destroy all programs for economic development by diverting resources needed for capital investment to meeting spiralling consumer demands.
There is a further point of contrast between Western experience and the present situation of the underdeveloped world. Along with the faster decline in the latter's death rate, the greater density and size of its present population, and the lack of migration outlets, some sociologists and demographers have also pointed to the fact that the fertility levels prevailing today in the tiers monde are higher than was the case at the beginning of modernization in the West. They relate these higher levels to crucial differences between the Western family system and the so-called joint or consanguineal family systems of Asia and Africa, which are far more conducive to early marriage and to continuous childbearing through the wife's reproductive period. However, the importance of this particular difference may have been over-stressed, for the underdeveloped countries possess several advantages over the West so far as prospects of succeeding quickly at fertility reduction are concerned. In the first place, they have achieved national independence in an era when a strong state, assuming full responsibilities for social welfare, has become the norm. Moreover, their traditional religions and value-systems, while containing many injunctions in favor of large families and high fertility, have never made a prime doctrinal tenet of pro-natalism combined with sexual asceticism to the degree that Christianity has—and all branches of Christianity, not merely the Roman Catholic Church. Even the absence of a strong secular humanitarian and libertarian tradition which frowns upon practices like sterilization and abortion (not to speak of infanticide) is an advantage from the standpoint of attaining fertility control. Latin America, the most rapidly growing region and the one with the highest birth rates, is, of course, an exception to these generalizations since its culture and social structure are largely an offshoot of Western civilization. Yet the very fact that it is an exception suggests that the linkage between high fertility and the joint family system may have been overstressed
Given that modernization may be delayed and even prevented by the “premature” adoption of one of its essential features—namely death control—the underdeveloped countries can no more afford to follow a laissez-faire policy with respect to population growth than they can with respect to capital accumulation and economic growth itself. But once one speaks of the necessity of state policies designed to cope with population growth, further issues arise. It cannot be assumed that “voluntary” birth-control policies on the Japanese or Indian model are the only ones likely to be adopted: the ominous possibilities of man-made famines and even of direct genocide as means of reducing not population growth but existing over-population are already firmly established in the repertory of 20th-century politics. Hannah Arendt is among the few political thinkers to have recognized this danger. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she contends that rapid population growth in the huge, overcrowded countries of Asia has created hordes of “superfluous” people who constitute an ever-present temptation to resort to the precedent of political mass murder. And, indeed, a continuation of the pressures of rapid growth is bound to heighten the appeal of totalitarian techniques as a form of drastic demographic surgery, for totalitarianism is essentially a method of disposing of social problems by eliminating whatever and whoever makes them.
But it is by no means certain that mass genocide, demographically motivated wars, or even the milder policy of holding back death-control measures (which may be what China is now deliberately doing) could successfully “solve” the population problem. A temporary rise in mortality might facilitate rapid economic development, which would then lead to the adoption of family planning. But more probably, the result would be a cycle of wars, civil strife, mass bitterness, and apathy that would themselves retard or prevent economic development. It is sometimes argued that the Black Death, which carried away from one-third to one-half of the total population of Europe in the 13th century, was a necessary condition for the later emergence of the Industrial Revolution. But here again we are probably dealing with a confusion between short- and long-run considerations. Even though the Black Death was not a man-made disaster, two centuries of disorder, violence, and cultural lag intervened between its ravages and the immense release of energies we call the Renaissance and the Reformation. And most historians agree that the troubles of this period, “the waning of the Middle Ages,” stemmed directly from the trauma of mass death by plague and famine. Would man-made holocausts have a lesser effect?
As for the more benign ways of lowering fertility, some of them seem almost as offensive to Western sensibilities as a deliberate increase in the death rate. Western social scientists and medical specialists have generally favored the voluntary use of chemical or mechanical contraceptives by individual couples (the method that is chiefly responsible today for maintaining the relatively low levels of fertility in the Western world itself). But it is beginning to appear that abortion and sterilization may have more appeal to some peoples as forms of birth control than the advanced contraceptive techniques of the West. Nor is it necessarily the case that “the pill”—the yet-to-be perfected oral contraceptive so often seen as the solution to population control in the underdeveloped world—will have greater appeal. In Japan, a decline of 50 per cent in the birth rate in the decade from 1947 to 1957 was achieved largely by means of abortion, which was legalized in 1948. Since 1955, the number of abortions has dropped without a concomitant rise in the birth rate, which suggests that Japanese couples are learning to substitute other methods of birth control. Whether the new methods are mainly contraception or sterilization, however, remains open to dispute. Be that as it may, it seems likely that sterilization will become the favored method of achieving an initial reduction in the birth rate in countries as dissimilar as India and some of the Latin American nations. And since the goal of anti-natalist policies in the underdeveloped world must be to achieve fertility decline before rather than after the achievement of full social and economic modernization, it ill behooves Westerners to frown on the adoption of methods like sterilization and abortion. The underdeveloped countries cannot afford to delay fertility reduction until after they have attained the benefits of modernization, and perhaps contraceptive birth control will itself have to be viewed as one of these benefits.
The issue of whether American aid to underdeveloped countries should include advice on birth-control techniques is largely responsible for the fact that the population explosion has become a subject of public debate in this country. Formulating the problem in terms of distant and for the most part non-Christian peoples has doubtless served to moderate potentially rancorous religious differences within the United States concerning these matters. However, it has also allowed us to evade the question of whether it is desirable that the American population should itself continue to soar at its postwar rate. Among the few professional demographers who have confronted this question are Lincoln and Alice Day. Their recently published book, Too Many Americans,2 is refreshingly free from the strident alarmism that characterizes the writings of so many of the amateurs who have dealt with the subject. The Days readily concede that American population growth does not threaten us with the prospect of eventual famine or even declining living standards, for the almost universal practice of birth control among Americans provides a kind of built-in check on further growth should population pressure begin to depress standards of living. It is rather the “quality of life” that is threatened by ever-growing numbers of people: outdoor recreational areas are destroyed; air and water pollution spreads; traffic jams and urban congestion become more common; and the need for centralized administrative controls to provide services to a steadily enlarging clientele reduces personal freedom. The authors might also have stressed that population growth aggravates a great many other social problems we face: unemployment due to automation; the piling up of the poor in urban and rural backwaters; the strain on educational facilities; spiralling racial tensions.
Yet the Days are surely correct in distinguishing sharply between the drastic economic impact of population growth in the underdeveloped world and its less tangible effects on the quality of life in the United States. Catholics and others who take an absolutist position on population issues may go on advancing arguments designed to minimize the role of population growth in retarding economic progress in the underdeveloped world, but the arguments will remain dubious. For when all the misconceptions are cleared away, it becomes brutally apparent that there is no alternative to a decline in population growth, and that the only ways to achieve such a decline are birth control or a relaxation of death control. It is to the credit of the absolutists that they at least draw back from insisting starkly that the latter alternative be chosen.
1 Ansley Coale and Edgar M. Hoover have shown that at present rates of economic growth, per capita income in India would increase by nearly 40 per cent if the birth rate fell by half in one generation.
2 Houghton Mifflin Company, 227 pp., $4.95.