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Growing Population Is Not to be Feared
A new documentary highlights that the United Nations is predicting a global population decline by 2050 and questions why we never hear about it.

When World Population Day came and went on July 11, it was with the usual fear mongering about there being too many people.

There are not too many people on this earth … for well-being.

But, this accepted view — the fear of people falling off the globe — is not true. Under-population is in fact likely the more pressing problem in our future, not merely in rich industrialized countries, but everywhere. This sounds so foreign as to be false, which is evidence of the success of modern Malthusians, who believe the world’s societal ills could be staved off if only there were fewer people.

Enter Demographic Bomb, released July 1, a documentary highlighting the history and dangers of population decline. The documentary highlights how even the United Nations is predicting a global population decline by 2050 and questions why it is we simply never hear about it.

The documentary makes, put very simply, two major points.

There are not too many people on this earth, and efforts to control population have often been coercive and anti-democratic, intrusive and dangerous for different cultures that depend entirely on family — and large ones, at that — for well-being. It’s the worst of a modern form of colonialism to assert they’d all be happier with 2.1 kids, a white picket fence and the Saturday edition of the New York Times.

But for cynics about that, perhaps the second point is more critical: Even if the population did “explode” — why are people the problem?

The movie cites experts who show demographic decline is not associated with economic well-being. The past century has seen the largest population growth in global history, yet simultaneously, the standard of living has risen and life expectancies have increased as well.

A growing population is associated with economic well-being, points out Gary Becker, the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize for economics. “Adam Smith wrote,” he says, citing the renowned economist, “that prosperity is associated with growing populations and [depression] is associated with declining populations.”

Matthew Connelly, author of Fatal Misconception, a book about attempts to control the global population, adds Malthus was wrong in his predictions of mass starvation due to a rising population because people don’t merely suck life out of the planet. “The reason [Malthus] was wrong,” he says, “was because every new person brings not just a mouth to feed but also two hands to help.” Across the globe today, abject poverty is highly correlated with bad government, not “too many people.”

Still, Malthus has a long shadow. When Paul Ehrlich wrote Population Bomb in 1968 he again predicted mass starvation. That this prediction did not come true has not put the kibosh on overpopulation talk.

Still, Malthus, Ehrlich, even Margaret Sanger, the founding godmother of Planned Parenthood and a proponent of improvement of the human race by ensuring undesirable populations are not born — none of this would be enough if individuals had not also privately wanted fewer children. In developed nations, the fear of overpopulation fed into private decisions. Says Jennifer Roback Morse, formerly a professor of economics at Yale University, “[t]he zero population growth movement would not have gotten off the ground except that people had a personal interest in wanting to control their own fertility in the first place. It gave them a rationalization for having sex without having babies.” Birth rates fell, as did marriage rates. Sex without the corresponding responsibility of children has always sounded like a good idea: Now it would be a moral mandate to save the planet.

UN graphs reveal a prediction of a declining global population by 2050. The graphs show the prediction for the zero to age 14 category fall slightly off, while the older age ranges increase, likely due to the fact people today live longer. Indeed, another demographer, Nicholas Eberstadt, points out why it may appear that we have a “population explosion” today. “The reason the world has experienced a population explosion over the last century is not because human beings started breeding like rabbits,” he says in the film. “It’s because they finally stopped dying like flies.”

Demographic Bomb has numerous shortcomings, not the least of which is the narrator’s unnecessary alarmism — even the basic facts are put forward with conspiratorial overtones, making her into a caricature of those who worry about demographic implosion. Some valid questions also go unanswered. Yes, the developing world is in population free fall, but does this necessarily imply long-term recession? Is it not largely public pensions and state-run social security that will go bankrupt? Do we not perpetuate population decline by the very existence of socialized programs? (Who needs to have a family in old age when pensions are generous and health care is free?)

Still, taking this topic on is no small feat. There is a nefarious history to population and fertility control — coercion and eugenics. Then there are the better intentioned efforts to bring about a higher quality of life for everyone. But as Connelly writes in his history of population control, “when people set out to save the world, the devil is in the details.”

The devil, as it turns out, is also in the overarching world view. Are people a burden or a promise?

Modern, developed nations have already decided. It’s a question of whether we care enough to change the prevailing zeitgeist for places where the trend can still be changed.

Andrea Mrozek is manager of research at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

Originally published in Calgary Herald, August 15, 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009





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