New Internationalist

Mythconceptions

Issue 176

new internationalist
issue 176 - October 1987

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Mythconceptions
This entire magazine is aimed at undermining the logic that says
'overpopulation is the Third World's worst problem. Therefore the
poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty. Therefore the
solution should always begin with a family planning programme'. Here we
challenge some of the major misconceptions arising from the overpopulation

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Exponential growth

'Birth rates are rising in the Third World -
population growth is getting out of control.'

In fact, population growth rates are slowing down everywhere in the world - even in Africa If you can imagine population growth as a rocket, then it passed the peak of its upward trajectory in 1970 and has begun to fall back down again. And, just like a spent rocket the plummet to earth is happening even faster than the upward rise. According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), the world's population will stabilize at around ten billion in approximately 60 years from now. Of course ten billion is an enormous number of people, but it doesn't seem quite so alarming a figure when you realize that it's only twice the current population of the world. In some countries the numbers are even declining, In West Germany, for instance, there are predicted to be 15 per cent fewer people when the population finally stabilizes. In others the slowdown has only just begun. But even in Kenya - the country with one of the fastest population growth rates in the world - there will only be 120 million people by the time Kenyan population stabilizes. That's only twice the current UK population.

CRUDE BIRTH RATE*

Country

1970/5

1980/5

WORLD

32.7

27.3

AFRICA

47.0

46.6

LATIN AMERICA

35.4

31.8

NORTH AMERICA

16.5

16.0

EUROPE

16.1

14.0

OCEANIA

24.8

21.1

USSR

17.8

18.8

EAST ASIA (excluding China and Japan)

30.5

23.8

* live births per 1,000 population per year

Source: UNFPA 1984


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Lack of control

'Without contraception people have as many children as possible.'

In fact people who have never even heard of contraception and have never stepped inside a family planning clinic still plan their families In Mauritania. For instance, where only one per cent of women uses contraception, the average number of children born to a woman is only 6.25 and the number surviving is even fewer. In Greece, where contraception was not legalized until 1980, women bore an average of only 2.3 children in 1978. Yet each woman could, theoretically, have given birth to as many as 15 children spaced two years apart or 30 spaced a year apart So what are they doing to curtail this potentially crippling sequence of pregnancies? The answer lies in the time-honoured methods of withdrawal, abstinence, non-penetrative sex douches and abortion, plus a whole plethora of folk methods - herbal potions, amulets, spells - of unknown efficacy. There are at least six million abortions every year in India alone, five million of which are illegal In the Philippines, where the Catholic Church makes contraception unacceptable or difficult to obtain, marriage is delayed, on average, until the woman is aged 24.5. And the table shows the large numbers of women currently using what the World Fertility Survey dismissively (and inappropriately) calls 'inefficient' methods of contraception.

CONTRACEPTION

EFFICIENT

INEFFICIENT

PORTUGAL

33

33

TURKEY

25

13

PHILIPPINES

20

16

PERU

20

11

BENIN

19

1

SRI LANKA

13

19

PARAGUAY

13

24

Source: World Fertility Survey

 

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Fewer deaths equals more births.

'If we prevent children dying in infancy they
will just grow up to have children of their own
and population will increase even faster.'

Every day more children die in the poor world than are born in the rich world. To parents whose present and future livelihoods depend on their children, those deaths are more than an emotional tragedy. They are a source of great uncertainty and insecurity that leads them to have more children than they would otherwise. In the Philippines, for example, couples who have lost a child have larger families than those whose babies all survived. In Egypt women who have lost a child want larger families than those who have not yet been bereaved. In fact UNICEF estimates that preventing seven million babies dying each year will lead to the prevention of between 12 and 20 million births by the end of the century. It is true that there is likely to be a time lag while parents gain confidence in their children's improved survival chances. But no country has yet managed to achieve a low birth rate while infant deaths rates remain high.

INFANT MORTALITY RATE*

BIRTH RATE**

RICH COUNTRIES

15

16

MIDDLE-INCOME COUNTRIES

25

31

POOR COUNTRIES

129

41

* Deaths per 1,000 live births
** Births per 1,000 people per year
Source: UNFPA


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Pressure on resources

The world can't support all those extra
hungry mouths. There are simply not
enough resources to go round.

The NI challenges this myth, or a variant of it, almost every month. But for some reason it just refuses to go away. The problem is, as we point out over and over again, is not the resources themselves, but the way they are distributed. With apologies to those of you who've read this before, here we go again.

CONSUMPTION
The average American consumes 300 times as much energy as the average Bangladeshi. In fact, the 16 million babies born each year in the rich world will have four time as great an impact in the world's resources as the 109 million born in the poor world. Each American consumes 26,000,000 tons of water, 21,000 gallons of gasoline, 10,150 pounds of meat and 9,000 pounds of wheat in her or his lifetime. And there is one born every 7.5 seconds.

LAND
The Netherlands (one of the richest countries in the world) is twice as densely populated as India (one of the poorest) and the UK is two and a half times as densely populated as China. In fact, if every Briton decided to go to the seaside on the same day, there would only be 4 inches of sand per person! Land is only a concern when it is a direct source of people's livelihoods. The UK, for instance, imports 36% of it's cereal needs. In the Third World land scarcity among the poor is due to skewed ownership, not an overload of people. In South America, for instance, 47% of the land is owned by just 2% of the population.

RAINFOREST
Yes, the world is losing its precious rainforest: in Central America, for example, the decline has been 38% in just over 30 years. But it is a few rich people who are responsible for this, not the growing numbers of the poor. In the Philippines 34.6 million acres of rainforest was reduced to just 5.4 million acres by logging programmes during the corrupt Marcos regime. In Brazil too, the major culprits are big multinational corporations like Goodyear, Volkswagen, Nestlé and Mitsubishi, who have diversified into lumber and cattle ranching in the Amazon.

DESERTIFICATION
Nearly one-fifth of the world's land is threatened with desertification. The overgrazing of livestock and cutting down of brush and trees for firewood are held responsible. But it was the skewed development priorities that forced people into a continued dependence on livestock in the first place and huge, often foreign owned ranches that pushed those people and their herds onto fragile, marginal land. Some estimates predict that Kenya's fuelwood will be exhausted in less than 20 years if current rates of consumption persist. But women will adjust to any shortage before that time comes. Rather than spend eight hours a day gathering firewood, they will conserve fuel by cooking less frequently or more communally. It takes the same amount of fuel to cook for 20 as it does to cook for 10.

FOOD
The United Nations states that 'food supplies might be adequate if they were evenly distributed in relation to needs.' In fact one (admittedly optimistic) international study of agricultural potential estimated that the world could feed 25 times its present population. With the population due to stabilize at merely twice the current numbers, there would appear to be little cause for concern on a global level. However, per capita food production in Africa has been declining slowly and steadily over the last few decades. Yet this is the continent where the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization envisages the greatest potential increase in production; from 43 million tonnes in 1975/79 to 108 million tonnes in 2000. One of the most important constraints on food production in Africa is lack of person-power in the rural areas.


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Big Families are Poorer

'Poor people would be much better off if
they had fewer children to feed and clothe.'

This depends on whether children are an asset or a liability. In the US, for instance, the cost of supporting a child to the age of 18 - excluding college fees - is over $100,000 and 50% of American women using contraception are doing so because they feel they can't afford another child. But in Bangladesh boys are already producing more than they consume by the age of 10 and have repaid their parent's investment in their upbringing by the time they are 15. In Java, Indonesia children are net income earners by the age of nine. This is one reason why sons are so important in some countries; girls usually leave home when they marry, so no longer contribute to their parents' income. In the Sahel a couple has to bear 10 children to be 95% certain of producing a son who will survive to the age of 38. When there are no pensions , bearing a son is absolutely vital for old-age security.

REASONS FOR HAVING CHILDREN

BIRTH RATE

ECONOMIC SUPPORT (%)

LOVE ETC.
(%)

OTHER (%)

MEXICO

High

72

16

12

SINGAPORE

Medium

19

65

16

US

Low

4

73

23

Source: East-West Population Institute


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Development in reverse

'A poor country's fragile economy just can't
keep up with population growth, so people
will just get poorer and poorer.'

Proponents of this myth argue that countries with increasing per capita incomes, like Japan (21% increase from 1980 to 1986), have low population growth rates (0.7% a year), whereas those with declining incomes, like Nigeria (28% decrease from 1980 to 1986), have much higher population growth rates (3.0%). They therefore conclude that population growth causes poverty. This myth can be countered in it's own terms: first by pointing out that the impressive economic performance of countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, whose per capita incomes have grown by an average of 3.0% a year in the last few decades, took place alongside rapid growth; second by showing that Africa's ten richest countries have similar population growth rates to the continent's ten poorest countries. But the myth is also based on the assumption that people are consumers rather than producers of wealth. For instance: Japan fears that providing for its growing proportion of dependent old people (an increase in the over 65s from 9% in 1985 to 21.3% in 2025) will destroy the economic miracle of the last 40 years. But the real problem is employment opportunities, not absolute numbers. The retirement age in Japan is often as low as 50 years, so Japanese old people are turned from producers into consumers long before their time. Meanwhile France and Belgium are trying to encourage people to have more children in an effort to revitalize their flagging countries.

AFRICA:

10 RICHEST COUNTRIES

PER CAPITA GNP ($)

POPULATION GROWTH (%)

PER CAPITA GNP (%)

10 POOREST COUNTRIES

SOUTH AFRICA

2,490

2.4

 

2.7

120

ETHIOPIA

ALGERIA

2,320,

3.1

2.5

160

MALI

ANGOLA

1,610

2.6

2.5

170

ZAIRE

TUNISIA

1,290

2.5

1.9

180

BURKINA FASO

CONGO

1,230

3.1

3.0

210

MALAWI

CAMEROON

820

3.1

2.8

220

UGANDA

NIGERIA

770

2.7

2.2

240

BURGUNDI

MOROCCO

760

2.6

3.0

240

NIGER

ZIMBABWE

740

3.2

3.3

240

TANZANIA

IVORY COAST

710

4.6

2.8

250

SOMALIA

Source: World Bank Development Report, 1986

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