Population alarmists disregard human feelings

Population alarmists disregard human feelings

The most famous voice of the global population control movement is the American academic Professor Paul Ehrlich, who is the keynote speaker at the Fenner anti-population conference in Canberra this week.

His 1968 book, The Population Bomb, warned that, by the end of the 20th century, it was ''game over'' for the human race. Forty-five years have passed since Ehrlich's book opened with the words: ''The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date, nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.''

Complex issue: Mothers and their mothers-in-law wait at a sterilisation clinic in India. Photo: BEN DOHERTY

Complex issue: Mothers and their mothers-in-law wait at a sterilisation clinic in India. Photo: BEN DOHERTY

He predicted four billion deaths. While the world's population has doubled since the 1960s, according to the United Nations, the percentage of the population that is ''undernourished'' has fallen from 33 per cent to 16 per cent since 1968. Population growth has been slowing since the 1960s, and has fallen below replacement levels in the developed world. How did he get it so wrong?

The first reason is that humans are not like bacteria growing exponentially in a petri dish. Humans create schools, plant crops on terraces, make their own fertiliser and grow food to ensure survival. Humans have memory, techniques and planning skills to maximise crop productivity. Ehrlich underestimated human ingenuity.


In Europe and the United States, fertility rates have dropped to 1.53 and 1.88 births per female respectively. Biology and the scriptures urged us to be fruitful and to multiply. Now, quite suddenly in relative terms, half the people of the world have decided not to multiply. Ehrlich did not foresee the radical drop in fertility in the West.

Much of the doom and gloom produced by the media is about population momentum in countries such as those in Africa. Even though fertility levels are falling, population is still growing relative to the size of the adult population. Half the world is still reproducing at more than replacement rate, and there is a lag of about 30 years, or one generation, between the time that fertility falls and the time population does.

From the end of World War II, there was a concerted effort to raise educational standards in Asia. Australian universities played a part in this. Smarter people have fewer children because their options are greater.

Even so, the demand for food is increasing and most especially for a rising middle class in India and who wants protein. In Australia, Melbourne and Sydney are feeling the pinch of rising infrastructure spending. These are directly due to population growth and poor urban planning.

The population control movement has confused individual consumption with industrial rapaciousness and pollution. It is attacking people rather than corporations.

The population control movement has much to answer for. Between 1960 and 1980, 20 million people in developing nations were cajoled or forced into having intra-uterine-device implants, hysterectomies or vasectomies. It convinced governments in Africa and Asia with the line: ''We will give you fewer mouths to feed while making the next generation stronger and smarter.''

What Third World leader could resist?

The critical flaw was a lack of post-procedural care. Infection was rife. Women post-partum were vulnerable and easy targets for those pushing sterilisation. But the real problem was the objectification of the people they were trying to help. They were treated as statistics rather than living, feeling humans.

Population control is far more complex than implanting contraceptives or offering people cash to be sterilised. It requires a holistic approach, which is what we see in Africa today. There are no quick fixes.

The population control movement invokes the concept of Lebensraum. Nations must accommodate biological processes of growth. They are fixated on boundaries, systems and limits to growth rather than on human potential. The movement aims to fulfil its ''no growth'' mantra by winding back capitalism and personal liberty to achieve its core demand: zero population growth.

The population control movement wraps the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative. This conjures nostalgia for nature while prophesying worse disasters. The greatest sin against human nature is creating a form of totalitarianism based on nature worship over individual rights.

Malcolm King is the director of public relations firm Republic and works in the area of generational workforce change and population dynamics.

Most Viewed in National