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Boom or Bust?
By Laura E. Huggins, Hanna Skandera
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
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FRAMING THE DEBATE
Will humankind's propensity to multiply exhaust the earth's ability to provide?
Population, Resources, and Environment: A Survey of the Debate
Ann F. Wolfgram and Maria Sophia Aguirre
This selection was excerpted from "Population, Resources, and Environment: A Survey of the Debate" (available online at http://artssciences.cua.edu/econ/faculty/aguirre/Harvard.doc).
FRAMING THE DEBATE
It is currently estimated that there is, or there will be shortly, 6 billion humans inhabiting the planet earth. The theme of population, and more specifically, overpopulation has been in the popular mind for the last thirty years or more. Schools, national governments, international legislative bodies, interest groups, and the media have all but ensured that the public sees the issue of population as a problem, and increasingly, in reference to natural resources and the environment. At the heart of the population-resources-environment debate lies the question: can the earth sustain 6 billion or more people? How one answers this question depends greatly on whether or not one sees population as a problem.
Is population a problem? Some would argue that yes, population is a problem in that the earth is limited, that it can only sustain a certain number of people (although no one knows what that particular number may be), that the more numerous we become, the poorer we will become. Others argue that, no, population is not a problem but that it is government policies, economic structures, and the organization of society that is the problem. Some contend that numbers in themselves do not equal poverty; rather, poorly structured societies and economies foster poverty.
How people perceive the issue of population is critical, for it is by these perceptions that international legislative policies are formed, economic development packages are crafted, federal social and economic programs are formulated, and local sex education classes are designed. Thus, it is equally critical that people ensure that their perceptions are grounded not in rhetoric and emotion but in established scientific and empirical data. An accurate understanding of the data will enable people to think and act rationally with regard to population on a local, state, national, and international level.
PERSPECTIVES IN THE DEBATE TODAY
There are many groups taking part in the current population debate. All approach the question of population from very different points of view and with different motivations. A working knowledge of the parties and their underlying philosophies will allow one to sift through the diverse rhetoric and hold it up to the light of scientific data. Frank Furedi, in his book Population and Development: A Critical Introduction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), has provided a brief outline of the variety of approaches to the issue of population.
The Developmentalist Perspective
Until the 1990s, this was one of the most influential perspectives. Its advocates argue that rapid population growth represents a major obstacle to development, because valuable resources are diverted from productive expenditure to the feeding of a growing population. Some also contend that development solves the problem of population. They believe that increasing prosperity and the modernization of lifestyles will create a demand for smaller families, leading to the stabilization of population growth. A classic account of this approach can be found in Coale and Hoover (1958). It is worth noting that at least until the early 1980s, this was the most prominent argument used by many leading demographers and most of the influential promoters of population control.
The Redistributionist Perspective
Those who uphold the redistributionist perspective are skeptical of the view that population growth directly causes poverty and underdevelopment. They often interpret high fertility as not so much the cause as the effect of poverty. Why? Because poverty, lack of economic security, the high mortality rates of children, the low status of women, and other factors force people to have large families. They also believe that population is a problem because it helps intensify the impoverishment of the masses. For some redistributionists, the solution to the problem lies in changing the status of poor people, particularly of women, through education and reform. Repetto (1979) and the World Bank (1984) provide a clear statement of this approach. This perspective is linked to the Women and Human Rights approach discussed below. Some proponents of redistribution contend that the population problem can only be solved through far-reaching social reform. (See Sen and Grown  for a radical version of the redistributionist argument.)
The Limited Resources Perspective
This perspective represents the synthesis of traditional Malthusian concern about natural limits with the preoccupation of contemporary environmentalism. According to the limited resources perspective, population growth has a negative and potentially destructive impact on the environment. Its proponents argue that even if a growing population can be fed, the environment cannot sustain such large numbers; population growth will lead to the explosion of pollution, which will have a catastrophic effect on the environment. See Harrion (1993) for a clear statement of this position.
The Sociobiological Perspective
This approach politicizes the limited resources perspective. Its proponents present population growth as a threat not only to the environment but also to a way of life. They regard people as polluters and often define population growth as a pathological problem. In the West, the ruthless application of this variant of Malthusianism leads to demands for immigration control. Some writers call for the banning of foreign aid to the countries of the South, on the grounds that it stimulates an increase in the rate of fertility. Other writers believe that the number of people threatens the ecosystem, and even go so far as to question the desirability of lowering the rate of infant mortality. Abernethy (1993) and Hardin (1993) provide a systematic presentation of the sociobiological perspective.
The People-as-a-Source-of-Instability Perspective
In recent years, contributions on international relations have begun to discuss population growth in terms of its effect on global stability. Some writers have suggested that in the post-Cold War order, the growth of population has the potential to undermine global stability. Some see the rising expectations of large numbers of frustrated people as the likely source of violent protest and as a stimulus for future wars and conflicts. The key theme they emphasize is the differential rate of fertility between the North and South. From this perspective the high fertility regime of the South represents a potential threat to the fast-aging population of the North. See Kennedy (1993).
The Women and Human Rights Perspective
This perspective associates a regime of high birth rates with the denial of essential human rights. Those who advocate this approach insist that the subordination of women and their exclusion from decision-making has kept birthrates high. Some suggest that because of their exclusion from power and from access to safe reproductive technology, many women have more children then they otherwise would wish. The importance of gender equality for the stabilization of population is not only supported by feminist contributors but by significant sections of the population movement. At the Cairo Conference of 1994, this perspective was widely endorsed by the main participants. For a clear exposition of this approach see Correa (1994) and Sen, Germain, and Chen (1994).
The People-as-Problem-Solvers Perspective
In contrast to the approaches mentioned so far, this one does not believe that population growth constitutes a problem. On the contrary, its advocates believe that the growth of population has the potential to stimulate economic growth and innovation. From this perspective, more people means more problem solvers, since human creativity has the potential to overcome the limits of nature. Some believe that in the final analysis, the market mechanism can help establish a dynamic equilibrium between population growth and resources. Others emphasize the problem-solving abilities of the human mind. See Boserup (1993) and Simon (1981) for illustrations of this approach.
The Religious Pronatalist Perspective
Some of the most vocal opponents to population policy are driven by religious objections to any interference with the act of reproduction. They argue that population growth is not a problem and are deeply suspicious of any attempt to regulate fertility. Although some supporters of this perspective mobilize economic arguments to support their case, the relationship between population growth and development is incidental to their argument. For them, the argument that population growth is positive is in the first instance justified on religious grounds. See Kasun (1988) for a clear exposition of this perspective. Other pronatalist voices regard the growth of population in the South as a positive asset that will contribute to a more equitable relation of power with the North. They view population programs as an insidious attempt to maintain Western domination.
Not all people belong strictly to one perspective or another, as Furedi is also quick to point out. In fact, most people adopt different strands of argumentation pulled from the various perspectives. However, some approaches to the issue of population are more specific to particular aspects of the debate. For instance, the "People-as-a-source-of-instability" perspective only touches on resource and environment concerns and deals more specifically with issues of immigration and trade policy.
An Essay on the Principle of Population
This selection was originally published as chapter 1 in An Essay on the Principle of Population, edited by Geoffrey Gilbert (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
It has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal.
The most important argument that I shall adduce is certainly not new. The principles on which it depends have been explained in part by Hume, and more at large by Dr. Adam Smith. It has been advanced and applied to the present subject, though not with its proper weight, or in the most forcible point of view, by Mr. Wallace, and it may probably have been stated by many writers that I have never met with. I should certainly therefore not think of advancing it again, though I mean to place it in a point of view in some degree different from any that I have hitherto seen, if it had ever been fairly and satisfactorily answered.
The cause of this neglect on the part of the advocates for the perfectibility of mankind is not easily accounted for. I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet. I am unwilling to doubt their candour. To my understanding, and probably to that of most others, the difficulty appears insurmountable. Yet these men of acknowledged ability and penetration scarcely deign to notice it, and hold on their course in such speculations with unabated ardour and undiminished confidence. I have certainly no right to say that they purposely shut their eyes to such arguments. I ought rather to doubt the validity of them, when neglected by such men, however forcibly their truth may strike my own mind. Yet in this respect it must be acknowledged that we are all of us too prone to err. If I saw a glass of wine repeatedly presented to a man, and he took no notice of it, I should be apt to think that he was blind or uncivil. A juster philosophy might teach me rather to think that my eyes deceived me and that the offer was not really what I conceived it to be.
In entering upon the argument I must premise that I put out of the question, at present, all mere conjectures, that is, all suppositions, the probable realization of which cannot be inferred upon any just philosophical grounds. A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him. But before he can expect to bring any reasonable person over to his opinion, he ought to shew that the necks of mankind have been gradually elongating, that the lips have grown harder and more prominent, that the legs and feet are daily altering their shape, and that the hair is beginning to change into stubs of feathers. And till the probability of so wonderful a conversion can be shewn, it is surely lost time and lost eloquence to expatiate on the happiness of man in such a state; to describe his powers, both of running and flying, to paint him in a condition where all narrow luxuries would be contemned, where he would be employed only in collecting the necessaries of life, and where, consequently, each man's share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure ample.
I think I may fairly make two postulata.
First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.
These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe, and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.
I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food. But Mr. Godwin has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished. As, however, he calls this part of his work a deviation into the land of conjecture, I will not dwell longer upon it at present than to say that the best arguments for the perfectibility of man are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made. It appears to exist in as much force at present as it did two thousand or four thousand years ago. There are individual exceptions now as there always have been. But, as these exceptions do not appear to increase in number, it would surely be a very unphilosophical mode of arguing to infer, merely from the existence of an exception, that the exception would, in time, become the rule, and the rule the exception.
Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.
Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.
By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.
This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.
Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all-pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. The former, misery, is an absolutely necessary consequence of it. Vice is a highly probable consequence, and we therefore see it abundantly prevail, but it ought not, perhaps, to be called an absolutely necessary consequence. The ordeal of virtue is to resist all temptation to evil.
This natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.
Excerpted from Population Puzzle by Laura E. Huggins, Hanna Skandera. Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Figures and Tables by Part,
"Man's March to 'The Summit,'" Kenneth Boulding,
PART I: BEGINNINGS,
Chapter One: Framing The Debate,
Chapter Two: Ethical Divide,
PART II: POPULATION AND NATURAL RESOURCES,
Chapter Three: Water,
Chapter Four: Pollution,
Chapter Five: Food,
Chapter Six: Land,
Chapter Seven: Energy,
PART III: POPULATION AND QUALITY OF LIFE,
Chapter Eight: Fertility,
Chapter Nine: Mortality and Disease,
Chapter Ten: Immigration,
Chapter Eleven: War and Violence,
PART IV: POPULATION AND PROSPERITY,
Chapter Twelve: Prosperity by Design,
Chapter Thirteen: Prosperity Laissez Faire Style,
PART V: WHO DECIDES,
Chapter Fourteen: The Spectrum,
PART VI: PREDICTIONS,
Chapter Fifteen: Forecasts,
Chapter Sixteen: A Shift in Thinking,
Appendix A: A Brief History of Population,
Appendix B: Population Timeline,
Appendix C: Population Vocabulary,