Just too many?

Malthus was wrong; we're not facing worldwide famine. But the 20-year silence on population growth is calamitous for the environment and poverty
October 19, 2011
Migrant workers travel home to Mali and Niger, 2006, on a two to three week journey across the Sahara from Libya

If you type the words “population clock” into a search engine, a ten-digit number appears. Its first figure represents 6bn, and its second, 900m; two and a half times a second, the units column ticks by. It’s hard to credit that each click represents one human birth—where? Karachi? Nairobi? Birmingham? Sometime on 31st October, the clock will show that the total number of people on the planet has reached 7,000,000,000.

And then? “There is a common myth that the peak will be 9bn,” said Professor Malcolm Potts, of the school of public health at the University of California, Berkeley. In May, the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) raised its projections, reckoning there would be 9.3bn people in 2050, and 10.1bn—still rising—at the end of the century.

But the UNPD has a “low” estimate, too: that there might be just 6.2bn people in 2100. And it has a high one: of 15.8bn, still rising, at that date. Where the figure falls between those poles will help shape the 21st century: which countries are rich, which powerful, which have revolutions and wars, what happens to migration, pollution and climate change. The peak will depend partly on what governments do now to slow the rate of growth.

Not much, if you look at the past two decades. Population policy grabbed attention in the 1960s and 1970s. But a stormy 1994 UN conference in Cairo fused together half a dozen strands of opposition to efforts to slow the rate of growth. Since then, many governments, rich and poor, have been loath to try again.

True, some of the silence is due to success. The total is rising, but the rate of growth is slowing. In October 2009, the Economist magazine carried the cover line: “Falling fertility: how the population problem is solving itself.” Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, notes that “most economists are now more worried about the effects of imploding populations than they are about exploding ones.”

But discussion of how to slow growth has also been the casualty of a 20-year taboo: coyness, or aversion, on a global scale. As the developing world found its voice, the debate sounded ugly, like rich countries telling poor ones how many babies to have. Environmentalists have also chosen to attack rich countries for their consumption, downplaying the role of population in climate change. American social conservatives—helped by religious groups and, inadvertently, by liberal activists for women’s rights—savaged the budgets for family planning aid. John Sulston, head of the Royal Society working group on population, due to report next year, says: “The Royal Society was active 20 years ago on population, but the issue became muted on the political agenda because it became uncomfortable.”

In a debate that is furiously divided between optimists and pessimists, the optimists have some good points. Two centuries have shown the Reverend Thomas Malthus to be one of the worst forecasters in history, in predicting, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798 that the human race faced worldwide famine. More recently, 40 years of warnings of energy shortages have also failed to bite. Yet this cheery position is too blithe about the wider effects on the environment, on poverty, and on stability. Projected growth makes a nonsense of climate change targets, of the UN’s prized Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, and the painful, bloody missions to rebuild failed states. It threatens to wipe out half a century of effort in sub-Saharan Africa.

For my part, although I am hard-wired to regard people as ingenious and society as resilient to change, my conviction that it had been disastrous to neglect efforts to reduce population growth crystallised when I visited Afghanistan and Pakistan. The struggles to build schools and clinics more quickly than the demand for them rose seemed almost impossible, as did the battle to persuade people that government might improve their lives more than the Taliban. Sitting in Peshawar, listening to a woman in her mid-20s who had seven children and said with distress that she didn’t want any more, it seemed only humane that she should have the means to bring about her wish.


Preoccupation with fertility is almost synonymous with humanity; so is concern about controlling it. Written discussion of how to have fewer children—and whether to do so—stretches back to the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus in 1550 BC, to Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), to the Greek Soranus (around 100 AD), as well as to the Bible, Talmud and Koran. One of the earliest depictions of abortion is found on the walls of the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia (around 1150 AD). For their part, rulers have always been interested in how many people they governed, generally equating numbers with power as well as burdens. But for centuries, the world’s population barely grew, assaulted by plague and war.

Malthus was one of the first to predict that failure to slow down growth would lead to catastrophe. He was not a puritan; in his “Essay,” published in six editions between 1798 and 1826, he maintained: “No move towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes has taken place in the five or six thousand years that the world has existed.” But in the well-known prophecy that reads like a curse, he wrote: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” The arithmetic of his extrapolations was accurate; his timing was farcically poor. As he was writing, family sizes in France had begun falling, followed in the 19th century by Britain and Scandinavia, and the rest of Europe in the 20th century.

But a century and a half later, as global population growth accelerated, reaching the highest rate in the history of the species, the worry triggered a new age of Malthusian warnings. Paul Erlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb and the first Earth Day in 1970 signalled that the subject was centre stage. The Club of Rome, a gathering of leaders and politicians, warned of crippling energy shortages in its 1972 report, The Limits to Growth. At the same time, the Pill and improvements in other contraceptives spurred a sense that something could and should be done.

Those decades of explosive growth have transformed the world, rendering the visions of a generation ago out of date. In 1959, when Tom Lehrer sang “We’ll all go together when we go,” he imagined a nuclear holocaust of “nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak.” Of all the changes, India has seen one of the most dramatic; a few years after independence in 1947, it was thought to have around 350m people; it now has 1.2bn and can expect 1.5bn by 2030, when it will be the most populous country on earth.

True, the rate is slowing. The world is adding 78m people a year, compared to nearly 90m back in the late 1980s, and the rate of growth has halved since the 1960s. In all but a handful of countries, mostly ex-eastern bloc, family sizes are falling. Almost exactly half the world lives in countries where people are having only just enough children—2.1 on average—to replace themselves. That isn’t true just of ageing Europe, Russia and Japan. Brazil, China, the southern part of India and Indonesia have now reached this point too.

But half of the world hasn’t. The latest UN revision recognised that family sizes in Africa were not falling as projected. The model predicts that Africa, now with 1bn people, will have 3.6bn by 2100. In Niger, where the rate of population growth has outstripped economic growth for part of the last five years, a fifth of women have ten or more children and a third of children are malnourished. If the birth rate remains at current levels, the population will soar from 14m to 80m by 2050; even if the rate is halved, there will still be a projected 53m.

Why do some countries move quickly to smaller family sizes when others don’t? At the heart of the population debate is a fierce row over this “transition.” On one side are those who hold that development leads to lower fertility rates. This is the classic model: as people get richer, they have fewer children, because there is less risk of them dying and they don’t need them to work the land. Proponents of this school point, for example, to Afghanistan, where more than 13 out of every 100 babies die in their first year, and women have on average 6.3 children. But in Nepal, with an infant mortality rate of a third as much, women have, on average, just 2.9. So, this argument goes, we should concentrate on development, such as girls’ education, and let the family sizes shrink of their own accord.

But demographic transition theory is, as Matt Ridley has written, a splendidly confused field. There are many exceptions to any correlation you might propose: between family size and, say, women’s education, or national wealth, or infant mortality. The counter argument is that focusing on development takes too long—and it may never happen. Instead, the view is that lower fertility helps development, because each person gets more education and other resources. In essence, it is only the oil-rich states that have managed to develop or to extract themselves from poverty while family sizes have stayed high. “Access to family planning is much more important than education,” says Potts, an obstetrician who was the first male doctor at the first Marie Stopes clinic, in London, and is now one of the most authoritative writers on demographic trends.

The strength of this second case is that birth rates have fallen in places that have remained poor, such as Bangladesh, or Kerala in southern India, or Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which has good contraceptive advice even in its gigantic slums. A small investment by Kenya in family planning in the 1980s brought down the average family size from eight to five.

Iran stands as the most dramatic case where government provision of voluntary family planning led to a precipitous fall in average family size, from about seven to 1.8. There are not many global problems where Iran represents the solution, but it has legitimate claim to this one (see box below). The fall was greater than that which China achieved through the loathed coercion of the “one child” policy (a fall from 5.6 to 1.7 children since 1979). The clerics of the 1979 Islamic revolution proved numerate, and prescient; they reversed their initial enthusiasm for a large population, foreseeing the threat in the aspirations of a soaring population. They used rural health clinics to deliver contraceptives, made sterilisation legal, and built the Islamic world’s only condom and Pill factories.

But access to family planning in many places remains limited—particularly in Africa. Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the UN Population Fund, has said: “Some 215m women in developing countries, who want to plan and space their births, do not have access to modern contraception.” Sulston describes a clinic in Ghana “that is short of supplies. Things tend to run out, especially in rural areas.”

And even where logistics need not be an obstacle, it is an understatement to say that culture and religion often are. The Vatican has had a clear effect on curbing access to modern family planning. It stopped the World Health Organisation, in its early years, from talking about birth control, and Humanae vitae (Of Human Life), the encyclical issued by Pope Paul IV in 1968, was a blow to liberals in upholding the ban on birth control. While the encyclical is largely ignored by Catholics worldwide, statistics show, the poorest have the fewest means to get around it. In the Philippines, where access to birth control is difficult, the richest families have two children, and the poorest, six; analysts put the number of illegal abortions at more than half a million a year.

If birth control touches cultural and religious taboos, abortion does so even more; in the US, inevitably, the debate became mired in the war over abortion rights. But demographers are adamant that it is hard to get family size to fall below about three without access to safe abortion. As Joseph Speidel, a public health academic, and others, put it in a paper for the Royal Society Philosophical Transactions (2009): “The importance of abortion in child-bearing choices is seldom recognised. Given the high unmet need for family planning and the high failure rates of existing methods of contraception, access to safe abortion is necessary for women to fully control their fertility.” In the apparent exceptions, such as Malta (with the lowest birth rate in Europe) and Ireland, both very Catholic, women are travelling over the border. Potts had “the most harrowing experience of my life” in Bangladesh after the 1971 war of independence “when I carried out abortions, some very nasty, for women who had been raped.” But he and his colleagues left behind modern, easy to use, safe equipment in the hospitals, which he believes played a key part in the subsequent fall in the birth rate.

In 1994, at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, some of this age-old opposition to family planning programmes came together with new objections, “in a perfect storm,” says Martha Campbell, a public health expert at the University of California (and also Potts’s wife). The meeting proved a watershed in stifling support for such programmes—and even much discussion—since then.

Even by the standards of these gargantuan global gatherings, Cairo was extraordinary. The city was too appropriate a site for a debate on overpopulation—the conference hall marooned amid the dusty, shrieking traffic, jammed with fuel trucks and skinny brown horses wildly dragging carts. The agenda set out to achieve written consensus not just on population policy, or family planning, but almost every aspect of human sexuality and reproduction, from women’s rights to gay rights, child marriage, circumcision and marital rape. It touched on the deepest beliefs and taboos of every culture and religion on the planet—and it exploded. Reporting on it for the Financial Times, I watched the Vatican spokesmen and Iranian clerics in black robes running—actually running—along the air-conditioned corridors, heady with the sense of being at the heart of the drama, pursued by four or five dozen journalists. The translators stalled over the tortured language of the communique, as countries claimed that they had no neutral word for “couple” which applied to both heterosexual and homosexual, and the Chinese delegation argued that “reproductive rights,” the key phrase of the text, was simply untranslatable.

The mangled idioms revealed the new politics of population. “Reproductive rights” was the creation of women’s groups in the US, who had battled to make the conference’s priority women’s education, health and empowerment. Aids, new on the scene, was also suddenly competition for money and attention. American social conservatives, in tandem with the Vatican, seized on the moment to mount an energetic campaign.

Meanwhile, revulsion had grown at the spectacle of coercive family planning in China and India. It is estimated that without China’s one-child policy, its present population of 1.3bn would be several hundred million higher, but the programme led to forced abortions, abandonment of babies, female infanticide, and misery. In India, it remains astonishing that Indira Gandhi, a sophisticated politician, turned to a programme of coerced sterilisation from 1976 to 1977, which tarnished her otherwise largely liberal social policies, and lost her the election that year.

Cairo’s legacy is clear. Much of the American and European budget for family planning (although not in Sweden’s case) was then dispersed over the diffuse, far bigger canvas of women’s issues. America’s enthusiasm for active family planning programmes had already been waning under Ronald Reagan, but became more pronounced. Seven years later, George W Bush removed the US from the arena almost entirely with his ban on US aid to groups which even offered abortion advice, while favouring programmes preaching abstinence. Before Cairo, Kenya had a reasonably well funded programme that produced a consistent steady decline in total family size, but after 1994, the trend levelled off, then rose.

Advocates of family planning are, these days, something of a beleaguered band, keeping to themselves, convinced of the cause but exhausted by defending themselves from the accusation of being part of a global eugenics conspiracy, and by trying to persuade those who don’t see the argument the same way.


The silence since Cairo matters, first, in the most humane sense: that many women in poor countries want to have smaller families but lack the means to do so. The numbers are significant; demographers estimate that with more extensive services in Africa, the continent might have several hundred million fewer people in 2050. It is not only a problem for poorer countries, though; even in the US, unwanted pregnancies (according to Speidel’s analysis of the census) represent roughly half of the annual population increase of 2.9m.

Second, the growing numbers thwart the two great global causes of the last 20 years: poverty, and the environment. Both have been conducted almost without reference to population. The issue was conspicuously left out of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, the international pledges to reduce poverty. Even countries with traditions of strong government find it hard to improve health and education when the numbers are rising fast—and the poorest countries lack that tradition. A soaring population makes it more likely that those states will fail comprehensively.

Even more striking, many environmental groups have contested the relevance of the debate. As Speidel has written: “population seems to have largely dropped off the environmental movement’s agenda.” Friends of the Earth argued last year that it “recognises that population growth is one of the drivers of environmental degradation. However, in our view it is not the major driver. Rather, it is consumption issues which present a much greater and more urgent threat.” That is, the US and other rich countries should take most of the blame for climate change and other harm. George Monbiot, Guardian columnist, blasted that “Population growth is not a problem—it’s among those who consume the least. So why isn’t anyone targeting the very rich?”

But as John Sulston argues, this fails to take account of the aspirations of people in poorer countries to consume as much as those in the “rich” world. “People are entitled to aspire to equal standards,” he says. The same challenge applies to those who argue that human ingenuity, in the shape of technical improvements, is in Matt Ridley’s words, “steadily decreasing the footprint of each human life.” Yes, modern Malthusians are too rigid if they predict shortages of food and energy; people are devising answers to those problems. But this optimism understates the wider threat to the climate, to social stability, and to conditions of some of the poorest people on the planet.

This debate, at heart, is about how ingenious people will be in finding technical solutions, and how flexible societies will prove in the face of great demographic change. You can score the human race highly on both those counts—as I do—and still hold that the greater the numbers, the more migration there will be, the more carbon emissions, and the more pressure on states to fail. It is fanciful to think that these are not easier to manage if there are fewer people.

The world’s population is indeed, at last, growing more slowly. But governments and aid agencies could accelerate that trend if they tried harder to help women postpone the birth of their first child, or to have fewer if they wanted. That would, however, mean rolling back the layers of taboo, discomfort, boredom or outright opposition that have combined with new force to undermine such efforts over nearly two decades.

“That lack of attention may well prove to be one of the worst foreign policy mistakes of recent decades,” argues Potts, in a joint paper with Campbell. If the population reaches the higher UN estimates at the middle of this century, “it could do irreversible damage to the planet. It’s just too many people.”