Population solutions: a snapshot

Improved educational opportunities for girls are vital.I want to touch briefly on a topic which came up in discussion with Verdurous two articles ago. It’s the issue of what actions might help address the problem of population growth. I’ll merely touch on the subject in this entry, examining it in more detail in subsequent posts.


Occasionally, when I’ve mentioned to someone the need to address population growth, they’ve reacted with indignation. They assume I’m suggesting some sort of forced sterilization program or other draconian measure. Admittedly, this has occurred in Web based discussion in which some participants’ civility and impulse control often leaves something to be desired. (Okay, a lot to be desired!) Still, I’m not sure why they jump to this assumption. (Does it say something about how the topic of population growth has become taboo in many circles? That’s a fascinating topic for an upcoming post.)

Good options

In reality, there are a number of worthwhile methods we can and should employ to reduce fertility rates and thus population growth. Some have proven track records, while others, if not proven, are eminently sensible. In the discussion I linked to a recent Scientific American column by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. There, Sachs tells us, “We will have to help the poor regions of the world to complete the demographic transition to achieve stable populations, a process that is underway but by far not fast enough.” He explains why it’s necessary:

Fifty percent of the projected global population increase by 2050 will fall within Africa and the Middle East, the world’s most politically and socially unstable regions. That development could well mean another generation of under-employed and frustrated young men, growing violence due to unemployment and resource scarcity, growing pressures of international migration, and growing ideological battles with Europe and the U.S. The global ecological toll could be as disastrous, because rapid population growth is taking place in many of the world’s “biodiversity hotspots”–that is, unique assemblages of species and habitats that are a vital part of the global biological heritage.

Sachs concludes by listing four steps for reducing fetility rates in countries where they’re highest:

  1. Improve child survival rates because, “When parents have the expectation that their children will survive, they choose to have fewer children.”
  2. Provide better educational opportunities for girls. Girls in school will wait longer to marry, and educated, working women have more choices in life and so tend, on average, to have fewer children.
  3. Improve the availability of contraception and family planning information. Making sure every child is a wanted child is a huge step.
  4. Increase farm productivity because, “Income-earning mothers use their scarce time in productive employment rather than childrearing.”

All good ideas, I think. To them we can add the idea of economic incentives, as Verdurous suggested in discussion. Tax incentives and disincentives nudging families to have fewer children might make sense, and have in fact been used in some countries. This kind of benevolent, mutually agreed upon “coercion” was advocated by Garrett Hardin in his classic article, The Tragedy of the Commons.

A long list of such possibilities, as well as others such as publicity campaigns, is seen in an article posted on the ominously named Die Off site. Such information (and, one would hope, more updated information) shows us there are indeed humane strategies governments (or, in some cases, even private groups) can employ to influence fertility rates.

But that’s not all

There is much more, though, to think about. Focusing on U.S. environmental issues, for example, some call for tougher immigration restrictions to reduce this country’s population growth. Might we focus instead on providing assistance to Mexico to improve its economy so its citizens are not forced to come to the U.S. to make money they can’t earn at home?

Moreover, I recently received from Al Bartlett an article he had published in a recent issue of The Physics Teacher. In it, while acknowledging the good points in Jeffrey Sachs’s column, he is critical of Sachs’s line of argument for several reasons. Dr. Bartlett is one of my favorite thinkers on issues of sustainability and population growth, and his points were as incisive as ever. While I’m not as critical of Sachs, there is much in Dr. Bartlett’s article to think about. But that is for an upcoming post.
Image source: Gregor Rohrig, as posted on flickr

Another upcoming topic: “If the UN tells us world population may stabilize around 2075, what’s to worry?”

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15 responses to “Population solutions: a snapshot

  1. Sachs missed one very important solution for
    reducing fertility rates in developing countries:
    provide basic reproductive health. By basic, I mean
    something as simple as a $5 birthing kit, consisting
    of a sterile sheet, a gauze pad to stem the flow of
    blood, a sterile razor to cut the cord, and a string to
    tie off the cord. The mother-to-be, as I witnessed in
    Bangladesh, vists the village female health worker
    (training the female health worker is a huge step
    forward for a Muslim country). The health worker
    gives instructions, provides the birthing kit, and
    tells the mother to return after the birth, which is
    when the mother receives instructions on how to
    space her births for healthy children. Options
    include: the pill, IUD, an injection, sterilizaion, and
    menstrual regulation.

    By this means, and by concentrating on the two
    major killers of infants: diarrhea and pneumonia,
    Bangladesh managed to get its fertility rate from
    around 7 to under 3, where they seem to be stuck
    until such time that the girls are educated enough
    to make male child preference a thing of the past.

  2. Karen,

    Thanks for that excellent information. It’s good to see there really are some effective tools for reducing fertility rates. Word of them needs to spread.

    And thanks very much for your site!

    For those who don’t know, Karen’s site…


    …is one of the Web’s most comprehensive sources of quality information on the issue of population growth. I’ve gone there many, many times to research one question or another. If you need info, it’s likely there!

    Hope to see you here again, Karen. 🙂


  3. Quoting from the post:

    “Sachs concludes by listing four steps for reducing fetility rates in countries where they’re highest:

    1. Improve child survival rates because, “When parents have the expectation that their children will survive, they choose to have fewer children.”
    2. Provide better educational opportunities for girls. Girls in school will wait longer to marry, and educated, working women have more choices in life and so tend, on average, to have fewer children.
    3. Improve the availability of contraception and family planning information. Making sure every child is a wanted child is a huge step.
    4. Increase farm productivity because, “Income-earning mothers use their scarce time in productive employment rather than childrearing.””

    Add Ms. Pitt’s additional comment as well.

    All five of those solutions are reasonable and very doable.

    We need more simple straightforward, doable solutions, rather than just lofty intellectual dreams of some “green” la-la land that would seem to require an Orwellian “1984” type government to implement. I saw an “environmentalist” on television a while back suggesting that automobiles should be outlawed. Radical change like that can’t reasonably expected to be adopted.

    May I ask for us less educated folks, what specific real world doable task can one take on individually?. Basic things like recycling, reducing pollution, things like that?

    A real world example. I was about to get a fast food hamburger (ok, no discussing food choices here;), then changed my mind when I considered all the unnecessary packaging that went into it. Typical fast food chain food has a wrapper, box, then a bag, just for one sandwich. Perhaps we should encourage these corporations (most of whom are image conscious) to reduce this waste.

    Maybe by examining one microcosm at a time, we can save the macro.


  4. Ross,

    You raise some important issues. Yeah, I agree that for solutions to be implemented and to work, they generally need to be realistic and doable within the current framework of society. Banning all cars just isn’t going to happen (at least not anytime soon), as good for the ecosystem as the results would be. OTOH, it’s realistic to expect some success implementing programs to reduce car usage, increase the development of greener cars, increase mass transit, etc. So yes, the solutions most likely to be successful at reducing population growth are going to be those that can most realistically be implemented. And that would vary somewhat by country.

    The other things you mention involve consumption levels. I’ve seen some incredible statistics regarding what an individual can do. As one example, if every home in the U.S. replaced just one regular light bulb with an Energy Star labeled flourescent, “we would save more than 8 billion kWh of energy and the equivalent in air pollution of removing 1.2 million cars from the road.”

    Yes, definitely, every little action adds up. And if you can prompt others to take similar actions, then you multiply the effect many times over. (It can be exponential growth, actually 🙂 )


  5. How about the idea of paying people a fixed amount (x months average income?) to voluntarily get sterilized? The amount would vary depending on the country, but I’d be very willing to donate to the fund that implemented this plan.

    By the way, I have no children myself and I got sterilized 14 years ago when I was 26.

  6. Brad — Off the top of my head, I suspect people will reflexively react to the word “sterilize.” But you’re talking voluntary, so maybe it could be one option. What do others think?

    One of these days I’ll have to put together an updated version of this post, with a more comprehensive list of viable population solutions.

  7. Brad’s point brings up something that is lurking here that isn’t being said. There’s a very large class/race issue. Pay someone to be sterilized? Which means poor people are being paid. Which given world conditions has racial components.

    I am not saying brad’s point was not a good one. It is. Nor do I think its rascist, yet there are racial complications to it. Also, there is a slippery slope issue. Paid today, but what about tomorrow? Tomorrow never comes though, right?

    Most of what is being discussed is a serious social issue. Developed countries vs undeveloped. Not something many want to discuss, however.

    Most “solutions” being discussed here are not doable under the ideals of personal freedom, true democratic principles. While the “free” world has moved away from true freedom lately, I am not willing give it up just yet.

    Quite honestly, if we need too far along this path, I’m out.

    Let Mother Nature sort it out. Rest assured she will anyway.


  8. Ross,

    Well, you raise some of the very concerns that I think cause some to bristle at any sort of population “control.” Yet I think there are reasonable answers that may allay some of your concerns.

    Pay someone to be sterilized? Which means poor people are being paid. Which given world conditions has racial components.

    This one raises difficult questions, I agree. Now, it may vary on a country by country basis, in that in some countries the vast majority of the people are living in poverty. So, assuming population growth must be addressed in some of those countries, the fact that some tiny number of wealthy people would be able to ignore such a sterilization incentive would not seem to be big
    deal when weighed against the benefits of reducing/ending population growth. (Some such countries, however, may lack the wealth to be *able* to provide monetary incentives. I’m not sure.) In other countries, though, yeah, it’s going to be an issue. But I would guess we might be able to come up with some ingenious solutions to that problem. It seems eliminating the racist/rich-poor implications would necessitate finding some incentive, or some voluntary tweak of some sort, which would make the rich and poor choose the option with equal frequency. Or, then again, maybe not. After all, if it’s voluntary, maybe that’s the bottom line. I’m not sure. But, yes, this does seem a bit dicey.

    It may come down to the idea that, even among the voluntary, non-severe solutions, some are going to be seen by most as acceptable, while some aren’t. So we’re left, perhaps, with a certain subset of solutions.

    Most “solutions” being discussed here are not doable under the ideals of personal freedom, true democratic principles.

    A key concern. But while some, such as the above, may be problematic in that regard (and I hope Brad will chime in on that if he has any additional thoughts), others are not. None of the solutions proposed by Sachs or the idea Karen Gaia Pitts added have any coercion issues associated with them. Nor, as far as I can see, do they carry any baggage involving differing effects on rich and poor. Now, when you add in things like tax incentives, yes, you might come back a bit to the concern of its different influences on those at different levels of wealth. Again, though, might that be fixable with well thought out adjustments? And it seems that if nothing is forced, the benefits should greatly outweigh the social concerns here as the impacts of population ultimately put at risk the lives of huge numbers of people. But yes, there are social questions that need to be considered very carefully.

    There are also solutions to which I’ve only linked to here, but haven’t mentioned. They include things like this group’s approach:


    They produce soap operas and other media formats which convey information about womens’ issues, family planning, reproductive health, etc. So it’s one way of addressing some of the issues I listed in the post above.

    Let Mother Nature sort it out. Rest assured she will anyway.

    But Ross, your concern about racial/social implications is one of the key reasons we *shouldn’t* just let nature sort it out. If we simply continue growing to the point where famine, war, disease, etc. kick in, so that nature does fully sort it out, who will be the primary victims? And there will potentially be hundreds of millions of victims, maybe more. (In fact, it seems some of this is already happening.) Ya know?

    Do not hesitate to keep pushing these issues, though. They are some of the very objections raised by those who oppose any kind of intervention to reduce population growth, and so need to be fully addressed here over time. The area of solutions is also one aspect of the population issue on which I’m less well read at this point. I should be more up to speed before long, and hope to be able to offer less off-the-top-of-my-head responses.

    There’s a passage on Karen’s site which sort of sums up my point of view on this:

    Of course there will always be the few radical elements that will suggest more severe methods, some as bad as the methods Hitler used in Germany. WOA!! asks that you do not let these bad examples deter you from wanting to do something worthwhile about human overpopulation. We cannot afford to let more and more of the world, humans and animals, suffer a degraded existence or early loss of life altogether due to too many people.


  9. Regarding incentives in poor countries.

    Think of the example of India, where in the 1970’s men were given free radios to undergo sterilization. There was a tremendous backlash to this. I have visited women’s groups in India – in the late 1990s, and there is this big paranoia about contraception. Well, it may be true that the first world foists low quality contraception on the third world. Or sometimes we push inappropriate methods, such as the under-the-skin capsules that have to be removed by a doctor when a child is desired. There is also a big alarm over quinicrine, a chemical that seals a woman’s fallopian tubes, and can be done even when a woman doesn’t suspect it.

    All of these have set back family planning in India. Women in India generally choose sterilization, but that doesn’t usually happen until after a third child, or until a son is born.

    As most of you know, 4 to 7 living children is terrible, as far as sustainibility is concerned, but even an average of three is going to impose a terrible burden on everyone’s future. The average is now under 3, but we need to get down to 2, and sooner rather than later.

  10. Thanks Karen. It goes to show these things have to be well thought out. And it seems there are so many important options that don’t involve the kinds of incentives that would raise (often understandable) objections, that we should just focus on the great deal of progress we need to make in getting those more widely implemented.

    This brings to mind the “global gag rule.” It looks like this is one of the major obstacles right now. I’d be interested in what you’ve heard about its effects.

    For anyone wanting more info on that, here’s one site:


  11. Dear John,

    Yes, definitely, the commnication problems issuing from the conscious installation of a “global gag rule” by the masters of the universe in our predominant culture present humanity with a major obstacle to making the kinds of forward movement Jeff Sachs, Karen Gaia Pitts and many others are rightly calling for.

    I would also like to know what you, Karen Gaia Pitts and Jeff Sachs think about this “global gag rule” (often referred to these days as “dynamic silence”) as it applies to the apparently unforeseen and unfortunately unwelcome scientific evidence regarding human population dynamics from Drs. Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel.

    The thing that the scientific evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel could do is inject a certain sense of urgency into the necessary work of sensibly addressing and intentionally overcoming ominously looming global challenges that are soon to be posed to humanity by the continuous, unbridled increase of absolute global human population numbers.

    Dr. Sachs presided at the 2006 State of the Planet Conference one year ago last month. The problems posed by identifiable overgrowth activities of the human species were barely mentioned. One speaker after another, with the exception of these great men — Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri of IPCC , Editor John Rennie of Scientific American, Dr. Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University, Dr. Tim Palmer of the European Centre of Medium Range Weather Forecasts, Joseph J. Romm of Capital E — did not so much as acknowledge challenges already visible to humanity on the far horizon…. challenges resulting directly from per capita overconsumption of limited resources, skyrocketing global human population numbers and the seemingly endless expansion of large-scale production capabilities of economic globalization now overspreading the small, finite planet we inhabit.



  12. Steve,

    I’ve added a link in the sidebar to the site, “Access Denied,” which concerns the “global gag rule.” Based on their information — and it sounds more than plausible — the rule has reduced access, in general, to family planning information and health care. Clearly it’s a setback and an obstacle to providing the services necessary to address population growth, not to mention basic human services.

    I’m not surprised that only a few of the speakers at the State of the Planet Conference mentioned population. That remains the norm. It rarely is mentioned in articles on climate change or other environmental topics. The patient has cancer and we ponder how to style his hair.

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  14. Dear Friends,

    Are the leaders in my not-so-great generation of elders unexpectedly diminished by an unanticipated “SHARED IMPAIRMENT of PERCEPTION DISORDER” (SIPD)? The diagnostic criteria for this unforeseen malady are now being developed.



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