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close this bookTaking Population Seriously (FF, 1990, 87 p.)
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View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentThe population puzzle
Open this folder and view contentsThe population debate
Open this folder and view contentsA power-structures perspective
Open this folder and view contentsThe debate about solutions
Open this folder and view contentsReflections and implications for action
View the documentNotes

The population puzzle


Figure 1 Population Growth 1751-2100

What do you see in this picture?

If what you see is a population "explosion," you are not alone. That's precisely what biologist Paul Ehrlich dubbed these trends in his eye-opening 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Population growth rates in the third world are historically unprecedented. The world population has doubled since 1950, with 85 percent of that growth occurring in the third world.

But what set off the population bomb? What problems does it present ? And how can we defuse it to help bring human population into balance with the natural environment? In the past twenty years, this graph of population trends has become almost a “Rorschach test” in which people have seen strikingly different answers to these critical questions.

In this report, we briefly critique several current interpretations of the population puzzle and point beyond them to an emerging alternative framework for understanding - one that incorporates unmistakable historical lessons.

We first consider the perspective of the biological determinists - those who see human population overrunning the carrying capacities of their ecosystems. We suggest why this view has been largely discredited and describe a milder version that dominates public perceptions of the population crisis is that growing numbers of people are overwhelming finite resources; the answer is obvious - reduce births.

Over the last two decades a much more useful analysis has emerged among social scientists, replacing both of these narrow views. It describes the realities of poverty and premature death that keep birth rates high. While we incorporate many of its invaluable insights here, we must dig substantially deeper to seriously confront the population problem.

In this report we seek to probe beneath the descriptive social perspective in order to examine the relationships of social power - economic, political, cultural - that influence fertility. We construct what we call the power-structures perspective, referring to the multilayered arenas of decision-making power that shape people’s reproductive choices or lack of them. We use this framework to show how the powerlessness of the poor often leaves them little option but large families. Indeed, high birth rates among the poor can best be understood, we argue, as a defensive response against structures of power that fail to provide, or actively block, sources of security beyond the family. From this perspective, rapid population growth is a moral crisis because it reflects the widespread denial of essential human rights to survival resources - land, food, jobs - and the means to prevent pregnancy.

It follows from our power-structures perspective that far-reaching economic and political change is necessary to reduce birth to many children. Social arrangements beyond the family - jobs, health care, old-age security, and education (especially for women) - must offer both men and opportunity. Most important, the power of women must be augmented through expanded opportunities for both men and women. At the same time, limiting births must become a viable option by making safe and acceptable birth control devices universally available.

In seeking solutions to the population problem, we examine critical lessons from the handful of third world countries that have been exceptionally successful in reducing fertility. In each, we find our thesis reinforced: far-reaching social changes have empowered people, especially women, and provided alternative sources of income, security, and status to child bearing.

Humanity ignores such lessons at great peril. Unless we are honestly willing to confront the roots of people’s powerlessness, we cannot hope to halt population growth in the future - with dire consequences for human well-being and for the biosphere itself. But the consequences are immediate as well: unwillingness to address the social roots of high fertility leads almost inexorably, we argue, to coercive, even hazardous population control strategies, jeopardizing the goal of enhanced human well-being.

Moreover, lacking an approach that addresses the problem of social power, we can expect no relief to the misery of hunger and the stress of environmental decline, regardless of success in cutting birth rates.

Finally, we challenge everyone alarmed about rapid population growth to be fully concerned not just about its impact on humanity but on nonhuman life as well.

Learning the Population Lingo

Reading the population literature, it's easy to become confused by technical terms. We hope a simple explanation of some of the more commonly used terms can help.

Crude Birth Rates. The crude birth rate, or CBR, literally measures the number of live births for every thousand women. The C1NR refers to a country as a whole or to a particular subgroup within a country. "Crude" refers to the fact that it does not take into account the age structure of a population, which greatly affects the number of births in any given year. For example, if two countries have the same number of people, but one has twice as many women of childbearing age, it will have a much higher crude birth rate. For this reason, the CBR is not directly comparable across countries, or even across time. It is often used by demographers when better measures are lacking.

Total Fertility Rates. This rate, often abbreviated as TFR, can be thought of as the average number of children that a woman will have over her reproductive lifetime. It is hypothetical in the sense that it does nor represent the lifetime experience of any particular woman or group of women, but represents a composite measure. The TFR is calculated as the sum of birth rates specific to each age group of women and assumes that each cohort's fertility will hold during the lifetime of the "hypothetical woman."

Population Growth Rate. The population growth rate is the rate at which a particular population is growing each year. It is calculated relative to a base population size (say, the population size in the preceding year), and reflects the effects of births, deaths, and migration. The current growth rate in the United States is about 1.0 percent per year.

Replacement Level. A population that is at replacement level will exactly replace itself over the course of a generation with no growth and no decline. In the industrialized countries, replacement level usually corresponds to a TFR of 2.1; in other words, each woman would bear two children, one to replace herself and the other to replace her mate. (The additional .1 births is necessary to offset a small number of infant deaths and childless women. ) In the third world, replacement levels are somewhat higher - about 2.5 - because of the higher infant death rates.