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Is concern about population growth exaggerated?

Credit: Hans/Pixabay

Arguing for YES is Mohan Rao is Professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. A medical doctor specializing in public health, he has written extensively on the history and politics of health and population.

In the NO camp is Sara Parkin is a Principal Associate with The Sustainability Literacy Project and a new board member of the British-based Population Matters. She has written several books, the latest being The Positive Deviant.

MOHAN: On 15 August, during his Independence Day speech to the nation, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared ‘we need to worry about population explosion’ – arguing that it hindered development. This came 10 days after his government rammed through a bill to remove autonomy from Jammu and Kashmir and a month after BJP parliamentarian Rakesh Sinha introduced the 2019 Population Regulation Bill, outlining a series of punitive measures for couples with more than two children. These include: being barred from contesting elections; welfare such as the public distribution system for food grains; and public schools or health facilities.

Both Modi and Sinha seem to be terribly ignorant about the reality on the ground. The birth rate in India is tumbling. The government’s own Economic Survey 2018-19 shows that the annual population growth rate reduced to around 1.3 per cent in 2011-16, from 2.5 per cent during 1971-81. ‘India is set to witness a sharp slowdown in population growth in the next two decades. Population in the 0-19 age bracket has already peaked due to a sharp decline in total fertility rates (TFR) across the country,’ the survey says. Nine states have already reached the replacement rate of 2.1 or below. All of India will have reached a TFR of 2.1 or below by 2021.

The hidden message in the Hindu nationalist agenda on population control was spelt out in an editorial in the right-wing Saamna paper which asked whether Muslims in India would heed Modi’s message.

So, yes, I think concern about population growth is exaggerated.

SARA: When Limits to Growth was published in 1972 I signed a pledge to have only two children. Since then the world’s human population has doubled to 7.7 billion. We’ve got good at delaying death, less so at giving women the choice to delay or prevent birth. Moreover, the ‘more people consuming more stuff’ principle means demand for resources already hugely outstrips nature’s capacity to supply, contributing to dreadful inequalities in wealth, wellbeing and opportunity.

However we try to halt the destruction of nature and end global injustice, billions more people will inevitably undermine some or all of those efforts. So no, it’s not possible to exaggerate how concerned we should be about humanity – our numbers, and how we live and behave towards each other and nature.

Choice is the watchword. people who can’t yet choose smaller families must be empowered to do so

Mohan is right to deplore coercive policies, but underplays the political fear of (and for) an India (despite progress in normalizing small families) on track to be the most populous in the world. I had choice, but millions of Indian women are among the 200 million worldwide with an unmet need for modern family planning.

Choice is the watchword. People who can’t yet choose smaller families must be empowered to do so. People who can, especially in the Global North, must recognize the value of making that positive choice. Beyond that, we all have choices to make about our global future, personally and collectively – as neighbourhoods, countries and globally. Imagine what the world could be, if our societies organized around a ‘fewer people consuming less stuff’ vision?

MOHAN: Sara is right in showing us that population has grown, especially in poor countries, over the last 70 years. But as Amartya Sen has shown, we are now reaching the proportions of people that existed at the beginning of the 17th century, when populations of non-White people began a massive decline, even as White populations increased and conquered the world.

What she misses is that the total fertility rate is declining in most parts of the world. It is not enough, however, to provide contraceptives to women to enhance demographic transition; what is also needed is food, employment, security for children’s lives and healthcare.

What an obsession with population numbers completely misses out is who is consuming resources. In other words, we must look at what is called effective population. The poorest 20 per cent of the population consumes less than two per cent of global resources, while the top two per cent consume 80 per cent of global resources. If saving resources to prevent the calamitous effects of global warming is indeed a priority, attention should be diverted to the consumption among the rich all over the globe, not the reproduction among the poor.

No amount of ‘reproductive choice’, giving women an array of contraceptives, can bring reproductive justice.

What an obsession with population numbers completely misses out is who is consuming resources

SARA: It is true most total fertility rates are declining worldwide (but not in sub-Saharan Africa) and I’m glad Mohan agrees simple numbers hide much – specifically gross inequalities between (and within) rich and poor countries.

I agree 100 per cent that the richest must cut consumption of resources deepest and quickest, but don’t like the implication behind saying ‘reproduction amongst the poor’ is not a priority. The truth is all women want and should have the freedom to choose when and how many babies to have.

They also want their children to thrive, so I’m a fan of Sen’s notion of equality of autonomy: the ability and means to choose our life course. The famous I=PxAxT equation helps join things up. If our Impact on nature is the product of our Population numbers, times our Affluence/consumption, times the Technologies deployed, how can we optimize PxAxT so its impact is positive? So significant a multiplier is P, it cancels out efficiency gains in energy use and land productivity. This makes thinking about all three together essential.

My ‘fewer people consuming less stuff’ idea of the future is based on Sen’s principles. Some places with falling populations are already trying this, making capacity-building, culture and human welfare their development focus. Meanwhile, 40 per cent of all pregnancies in poor and rich countries are ‘unintended’. How come?

MOHAN: The IPAT equation is deeply problematic; it would make sense only if we lived in a perfectly egalitarian world. It does not tell us who is actually consuming the resources and damaging the environment in the real world. It is a grand abstraction that has been incisively, and extensively, critiqued by Betsy Hartmann.

It is true that there is an unmet need for contraception. I do not argue that this is not to be met. On the contrary, my argument is that the unmet need for contraception must be seen in the context of the unmet need for employment, for just wages, for food, for universal primary healthcare, and above all for equity and justice.

What philanthro-capitalists who fund population-control programmes, and following them policymakers, do with the fact of unmet need for contraception, is use it as an argument for introducing unsafe methods of contraception that women often have no control over. It is justification for the use of long-acting contraceptives such as injectables and implants. Given the fact that countries like India do not offer screening and monitoring, since the programmes are target-driven, these add to the morbidity load borne by poor women. We must also remember that, driven by international financial institutions, public health is grossly neglected, and indeed collapsing.

SARA: My approach is profoundly humanitarian, practical – and positive. Of course, easy access to safe, modern contraceptives shouldn’t be dependent on mega-programmes but should be the norm everywhere – just as food, education, health, equality and justice should be. Mohan’s view understandably reflects aspects of India’s experience, but reaching his ideal (similar to mine) requires a radical rethink of economic priorities and strategies everywhere. The ‘more people consuming more stuff’ economic paradigm is bust.

In The Positive Deviant, I use I=PxHxAxT to frame a ‘Sustainability To Do List’ where success requires contributions to all elements from all countries. H means growing human and social ‘capital’ and I includes growing nature’s capacity, so no shortage of jobs there!

I was a family-planning nurse and have spent time in Bihar. All the women I met wanted to time and space their pregnancies, not for children to labour in the fields, but to lead larger lives. Population Matters campaigns in richer countries for every conception to be intended and family size considered alongside responsibilities to global sustainability. We work with local partners to empower poorer women to do the same, learning from good practice in countries like Indonesia and Thailand – including using existing screening infrastructure (for example, for cancer).

It is about choice. Choosing the well-being of people and planet – together.

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