Weeding Out Population Control Efforts to cap global warming pollution have withered and died without yielding a harvest. Some new and good fruit may grow in its place, but probably not this year, and in the interim there is a danger of weeds popping up. One of those weeds is the population control agenda. After the election sealed the fate of climate legislation for the near future, Grist magazine’s Lisa Hymas posted an article called “What should climate hawks do next? Fight for free birth control.” Hymas’ real agenda seems to be fighting for population control rather than environmental improvement. It’s an old idea—and an example of where common sense can lead one horribly astray. In 1968 ecologist Paul Erhlich became famous for his book The Population Bomb, which argued that in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people would starve to death because of ecological catastrophes caused by overpopulation. After all, world population was rising rapidly and showed few signs of slowing. Those dire predictions never came to pass, but the idea of “overpopulation” came to be lodged in the popular imagination as a fundamental part of environmentalism. Yet for 20 years in my work among mainstream environmentalists, I’ve heard only two kinds of environmentalists talking about overpopulation: senior citizens asking cranky questions after one of my public lectures and undergraduate students on the first day of their Environmental Studies 101 class. The only place I saw the idea in print was in undergraduate textbooks, mainly written by end-of-career scientists still fixated on the nonexistent population bomb. Advocates of population control did not find a home in modern environmentalism. Instead they merged with pro-choice advocates and created a “family planning” subculture—a descriptor that sounds innocuous enough but is laden with circumlocutions about abortion and a misanthropic worldview. Too often it blends with (and offers funding for) anti-immigrant sentiment, borrowing much from the
D ifferent Shade of Green “lifeboat ethics” of Garrett Hardin, another population control advocate who was nothing if not consistent (besides making a strong case against helping the poor, he promoted population control and euthanasia, eventually committing suicide together with his wife in their 80s). Population control advocates had much more in common with the contraceptive culture of Planned Parenthood. Today demographers realize that population growth rates are falling, all over the world, faster than anyone thought possible in the 1970s. While still growing, world population has passed its inflection point and is expected to level off in this century for reasons that are now well known to demographers. To their credit, most mainstream environmental organizations are not outspoken proponents of population control. Many are working to broaden their outreach to “non-traditional constituencies” (evangelicals, hunter/anglers, security hawks, the business community, etc.). They’ve dropped much of their rhetoric of gloom and doom, and they promote solutionsoriented campaigns that inspire action, not fatalism. Part of Erhlich’s intuition was correct: Rapidly growing populations, whether in poor or rich countries, can press hard on the resources that give them their livelihoods. But shrinking populations have their own social costs, as fewer workers are asked to support growing populations of the retired elderly and as young families abandon their elders in the countryside for the better services of the city. Populations whose fertility levels have dropped far below the replacement rate—as has happened in much of Western Europe, Japan, and Singapore— find themselves at risk of committing the demographic equivalent of suicide. Pro- and anti-natalists can tot up arguments in favor of larger or smaller populations ad nauseam. But they have one thing in common—they are both nearly powerless to do anything about population size, short of coercion. Fertility rates (the number of children an average woman bears in her lifetime) vary dramatically from place to place, not because of investments in family planning efforts or inducements to
have more or fewer children but because of economics. In fact, family planning efforts are singularly unsuccessful in slowing fertility rates. The only “family planning” measures that have proven successful in slowing birth rates are repression and violence directed toward mothers or information campaigns and subsidies of ridiculous proportions. The costs of contraception, after all, are swamped by the costs of raising a child, which leads one to the proper conclusion that family size is a choice. Economic development makes large families less attractive. When women are offered education and employment, they are less likely to stay home rearing large numbers of children. Stable financial systems also make it possible to save for one’s own old age rather than being dependent upon offspring. Population control advocates point to the correlation between prevalence of contraceptives and falling fertility, but the relationship is actually driven by a desire for a smaller family. Significantly accelerating the current decline in population growth is virtually impossible without oppressive policies, and spending vast sums to subsidize contraception has no effect on either family size or the environment. At best it is a waste of resources. At worst it is immoral, since family planning advocates refuse to decouple birth control and abortion rights. Linking population control to the environmental agenda rightly horrifies Christians, including green ones. Environmentalists need as big a tent as they can pitch in this political climate, and adopting positions with so little scientific merit and so much political cost is foolhardy. It’s time to weed out the population control agenda. A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the co-founder and president of Flourish (FlourishOnline.org), a national Christian ministry that serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.