Were the Population Alarmists Right or Wrong?

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, Population Reference Bureau

Articles proposing that past alarm over world population growth is now completely wrong have appeared quite frequently over the past 10 years or so and seem to be gathering momentum. Such writings express the view that low birth rates, not high ones, are the world’s problem, voiding the long-held fears of overpopulation. Paul Ehrlich, author of the (in)famous 1968 book  The Population Bomb, is a common target of this criticism, although concern about rapid growth predated his book by many years. The concern over rapid population growth decades ago had a very sound basis. Birth rates in developing countries—where the concern was by far the greatest—were quite high and the use of family planning unknown. There really did seem to be no end in sight.

Without a doubt, there is a great deal of truth that in many wealthy countries, and in a few not-so-wealthy ones, birth rates are low, and in several countries, incredibly low. But that is only part of the story. Population growth remains an issue in many poor countries. Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, is the one with the most rapid growth, not much different today than it was in the 1970s. The region is approaching 1 billion and will reach at least 2 billion by 2050, and most likely higher. India has seen considerable success in lowering the birth rate in many of its states, but, in the poorest states with very large populations (there’s a pattern here!), success has come slowly. Birth rates in other poor countries are something of a mixed bag. In short, the story is quite varied and hardly monolithic as some writers might lead one to believe.

When concern was expressed decades ago, many developing countries recognized their rapidly rising populations and moved to do something about it. In short, they heeded the warnings. If they had not, many populations could have gone on to double every 20 years or so. There is an irony here in that, following World War II, the concern was that famines would cause mass mortality and rapid growth was not considered. It was those worries that proved wrong, partly due to the Green Revolution.

The lesson here, I suppose, is that only telling a part of the story as if it were the whole story perpetuates public misconceptions and benefits no one. Demographically, the world has become a much more complex place and the facts no longer fit into a single headline.

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