Not Just Numbers

(The Nationalist, 21 July 2000)


Doomsday scenarios about population have been unfolding since the 1950’s, reaching a peak with Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, published in 1968 – but so far they haven’t happened.

If everybody in the world moved to Texas, they would have there about 1200 sq. ft. of space each. (Joel L. Swerdlow, “Population: One in Six Billion”, National Geographic, October 1998, p.4)

Has anything been heard recently about the reported drop of some 20% in world-wide male fertility in the last three decades? That information must have fallen into the Bermuda Triangle; it has disappeared without a trace in recent years.

If we say there are too many people in the world, do we mean too many Irish people or too many Africans, Asians, Moslems or poor? If that is what we mean are we saying in effect, ‘Let’s get rid of poverty by getting rid of the poor’? The racism of fear is racism even if it more understandable than the racism of hatred. Fear of over-population is often voiced in the same breath as fear of immigration.

The UN population conference in Cairo in 1994 focussed on the education and empowerment of women as the key to population control because experience has shown that where these are in place women have fewer children and have them later in life. There probably isn’t any place where women with a choice have not chosen to have fewer children. Debate about development and population is often a hen or egg question: which comes first – development or population limitation? The question needs to be treated as part of a package, including general health care, education, the status of women, peace, public spending and fairer distribution of world resources.

Every new mouth to feed has two hands and a brain with it to help. Given normal conditions, most people are productive. And a young population is usually a dynamic, energetic population. In contrast, an ageing population demands a lot in the way of health care and pensions and is generally not as creative.

One estimate is that the developed world uses 25 times as much of the world’s resources per head as the underdeveloped world. Mahatma Gandhi said wisely that there was enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed. Sharing the goods of the world is at the heart of the population question. It is the tricky part where the real challenge lies.