Population-Control Explosion

There are too many people who think there are too many people.


Though it was advertised as a forum for deliberation, the fix was already in on the United Nations' International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo last month. The international popucrats just wanted to stage a media event to rubberstamp a foregone conclusion to maximal p.r. effect. Sadly, they got away with it.

The headlines on the conference played up the phony conflict over abortion and contraception. By calling the conflict phony, I don't mean to imply that the Vatican and the handful of other countries joining in its disapproval were insincere in their objections to the conference document's stance on abortion and other artificial birth controls.

But their objections did play a useful role for their opponents, who had no intention of heeding them. Popucrats and the press were able to portray only superstitious reactionaries straight out of the Middle Ages as fighting the self-evidently humane and necessary goal of tripling world government spending on birth prevention to $17 billion a year. Thus, even the thought that there might be informed secular arguments against centralized population control was shut out of the debate. Cries of "Will no one save me from this meddlesome priest?" echoed through the still Cairo air, but it was howled with a wink. The pope played perfectly his role as Court Reactionary in the judgment hall of world opinion.

Since the Vatican is as much against genuine reproductive freedom as the mainstream popucrats, the real question about overpopulation wasn't asked at Cairo. What are we talking about when we talk about "overpopulation"?

In his statements at the conference, Vice President Al Gore indulged in the usual anti-natalist trick of merely tossing out growing population numbers ominously, as if they were self-evidently frightening. Are they?

The total population density of the Earth right now is around 97 people per square mile (not counting Antarctica)—less than 1/90th the population density of Los Angeles, and less than 1/1,120th that of Dhaka, Bangladesh, a country often used as an example of the ultimate nightmare awaiting all of us through overpopulation. To put it into perspective, if everyone on earth were divided into families of four and given a quarter acre of land to live on (a good-sized suburban plot), they could all fit into one-sixth of the land mass in the United States alone.

Of course, the world's population isn't evenly spread. Most of it, by free choice, is concentrated in urban areas; strangely, people seem willing to pay a premium to live in "overpopulated" conditions. Anyone who travels outside of metropolitan areas or looks out the window of the plane as they fly over the country will see much more unpopulated land than populated. (While looking, thank the densities of population that create the economies of scale that make expensive endeavors like commercial jetliners prevalent.)

This is just anecdotal, though, while the evidence marshalled by population fearmongers consists of cold, hard numbers. Cold, hard, and dumb. Without a conceptual context for understanding how many is too many, the mere tallying of heads tells us nothing.

And by any operative measure of "too many," we are nowhere near "overpopulated." Our natural resources, including food, keep getting cheaper and more abundant. Since 1970, world population has increased around 50 percent. An alarming figure, no? But food prices have fallen 50 percent, despite government policies to drive them up by reducing production. Everything we use to live and thrive takes fewer man-hours to produce, costs less, and is more abundant than 100 years ago, despite the population more than doubling in the same period.

With the proper market institutions and technologies, there is no reason to assume we are 80 stories down in a 100-story plummet, either. While demography and resource economics are both uncertain disciplines, most signs indicate that the only surefire way to stabilize fertility rates is to make people richer. And the way to do that, historical evidence suggests, is more freedom and more economic growth, not central management.

Cairo's announced goal of curbing population at 7.2 billion in 20 years (it is currently 5.6 billion) is couched in rhetoric of female empowerment and "reproductive freedom" through relentless state-sponsored anti-natalist propaganda and birth control technologies spread whether they are wanted or not. China's violently enforced one-child policy might seem a reductio ad absurdum of the Cairo spirit. But the sort of programs popucrats want more of are already in effect in international aid programs, and they are only slightly more attractive than China's.

Such programs include India's policy of bribing women into sterilization through promises of government loans and gifts, and enforcing quotas on civil servants to bring women to sterilization camps for assembly-line procedures taking 45 seconds. (During the sterilization "season," teachers can be hard to find in classrooms since they are out meeting their sterilization quotas, for which they often resort to dragging in post-menopausal women.) In Indonesia and Bangladesh, women are given Norplant by popucrat medical technicians, who then often refuse to remove the implants when the undiscussed side effects are found unpleasant by the "patients." Under such circumstances, the doctor serves the goal of population reduction, not the interests or health of the patient.

Popucrats insist that only ignorance and lack of access to contraceptives make Third World women have as many babies as they do (though even less-developed nations' fertility rates are declining). Yet a recent World Bank-sponsored study found that "actual fertility increases almost one-for-one with desired fertility."

Though the Cairo document talks of reproductive freedom, the popucrats are bedeviled by pesky human desires that don't jibe with what they know is good for us. There is thus a stark contradiction between population goals and reproductive freedom. Popucrats see overpopulation as the cause of almost all the world's poverty, environmental decay, and violence; and the record of government attempts to manage population so far is unsettling. The spirit of Cairo will thus mean less reproductive freedom and more central control to stifle the tried-and-true way more people become boons, not banes: the free play of choices and markets.