In the 1930s, the human population of the world was about two billion people. Now, only seventy years later, it is six-and-a-half billion. How could it more than triple in just seventy years?
There are many places to find population figures nowadays, including the U. S. Census Bureau and World Population Clock quoted here. No one knows the exact population of the world at any one moment, of course. Many things influence it: the percentage of people in child-bearing age, death rates from various causes, people’s attitude toward family size, and accuracy of census-reporting in different countries, to name only a few.
Surprisingly, natural disasters don’t make much difference. Even the tragic 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, where 60,000 lost their lives, only equals the increase in world population during seven or eight hours. Three million deaths from AIDS in 2004 equal only a two-week pause in the increase-rate.
Disease, war, and other disasters are not very effective in curbing population growth. It would take some unimaginable horror, killing 72,000,000 people, to counteract present-day increase by only a year, let alone reducing the population at all.
Why should it matter? Doesn’t the world produce enough food? It does. Famine is more a problem of economics and distribution than of crop production. But population growth affects much more than just the food supply.
Think about the world’s shrinking forests. The trees that renew the oxygen supply on which our lives depend are becoming fewer not only because of industry, though that may well be a contributing factor. Increasing numbers of rural people, not just in India or China, but in most of the world, depend on farming as their only way to make a living. More people farming requires more cleared land. Not only that, but low income city and rural people alike depend chiefly on wood for their cooking fires. Seventy-two million more people each year need food, fuel, and a place to live.
Only 15,000 people live within a radius of twenty miles of my home. But when an urban area contains ten million people (like Los Angeles), or twenty-five million (like Mexico City), the health problems associated with air pollution multiply.
The use of wood for fuel may be excused by saying that, if we don’t clear forest undergrowth, forest fires will pollute the air even worse than the cities do. That is quite possibly true. The smoke from a million-acre forest fire can be as big a problem as the exhaust from millions of vehicles, or the heat output of the hundreds of electric power plants burning coal, oil, or natural gas in America, Europe, China, or India. Not only in air pollution and acid rain, but also in global warming. And if you believe that global warming, enough to shrink the polar ice caps and raise the sea level is not going to be a problem, try sharing your thoughts with the people in Florida, or Bangladesh, or the Pacific Island nations.
There are other bad effects of rapid population increase. Clean water is becoming scarce in some parts of the world, and not only in desert regions. Cities in southwestern United States and the adjacent part of Mexico have water demands that no longer are met by the Colorado River or aqueducts from more distant sources.
Tearfund, a British organization, points out the shrinkage in Africa’s large Lake Chad to only 5% of its 1967 size, and a 53-foot drop in the level of Asia’s Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth biggest inland sea, has almost wiped it out. Coast lands become polluted with sewage and industrial waste; overfishing is diminishing the oceans’ fish supply.
I could go on about overcrowding and slums, migration of rural population to the cities, noise pollution, increasing crime, the increasing layers of bureaucrats needed to manage large nations. But the point is, population increase is basic to all these problems. Aside from real estate developers, manufacturers of baby products, and perhaps some politicians and unimaginative army generals, I cannot think of anyone who benefits from the world’s chronic baby boom.
How did the world get so many more births than deaths each year? People are living longer, on average. In the developed world, medicine and social improvements are raising the average age at death to beyond seventy years. Now it’s more like eighty, and may soon approach ninety years. Even in Asia and Africa, antibiotics, vaccines and improved agriculture are making a big difference. But a longer life of poverty, or even a rising standard of living does not solve the ultimate problems associated with uncontrolled birth rates.
Lest some think this essay is an argument for abortion, it is not. Abortion is a very poor way of population management, considering the alternatives available.
But if we are to deal effectively with all the problems associated with rapidly increasing world population, we must deal with the birth rate. Unless, that is, you advocate a return to genocide, famines, and mass disease epidemics. Calling it “playing God” is no more true for preventing conception than it is for healing the sick. On the contrary, it is responsible stewardship.
The recent attention given to teen sexual abstinence is commendable, but it is only a small factor in world population growth. Sex, like alcohol, requires responsibility and accountability, but its prohibition is unrealistic.
Premarital sex has its own set of problems, but the major factor in the world’s increasing population is the number of children that adult couples have. Many are unaware they have a choice. Actually, there have been a number of fairly inexpensive methods available for forty or more years now. Because they prevent conception rather than end a pregnancy, those who are anti-abortion should be glad that contraceptives decrease the number of pregnancies people want to abort. Those who say God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, should realize “Adam and Eve” have already done that. I am unaware of any command to have “standing-room-only”.
Some will protest that they want a large family. That’s okay, if the parents can support their children emotionally and financially, without going on public welfare. Most families are happier to have only two or three.
The desire for small families is not just a western cultural trait. During the years I lived in Thailand, I practiced medicine in Mae Sariang, in the rural northern province of Mae Hong Son. The small ten-bed hospital had many female patients, both Thai and hill tribes (mostly Karen and Lawa in that district.) During one twelve-month period I asked every woman patient between ages 15 and 45, “How many children have you had? How many are still living? And how many more children do you want?”
Women nearing the end of childbearing (age 40 to 45) in 1966-67, in that part of Thailand, had had an average of eight children. The town dwellers had seen an average of two of them die; the hill village dwellers had lost an average of four. When asked how many more they wanted, most with more than two living children said they wanted no more (though parents with children of all one sex sometimes wanted to try one more time.) Most with two or more children asked for contraceptive help on their own initiative, and by 1981 we had about 1,200 women coming every three months for contraception. (The most popular method at that time was a shot of DMPA, trade name Depo Provera, every three months.)
This surprised me, because most of them were low-income farmers with no social security plan, and the popular belief among western sociologists of those times was that the desire to limit number of children comes only after a rise in the standard of living. But in a rural town with few telephones, few newspaper readers, few television sets, and no advertising campaign except a small sign announcing availability of family planning help, some villages hired buses every three months to bring their women in for their shot. Family planning clinics reduced the annual population increase rate in Thailand from 3½% to 2% between 1963 and 1983. The techniques, safety, side effects and politics of popular family planning methods are well studied, and for anyone interested (or even argumentative), I would be happy to discuss them. Contact me via e-mail at this website.
Social scientists maybe need to re-think some of their assumptions.
The graph below shows the continuing increase in world population. In May, 2006, it passed 6.5 billion people.