The Magazine

Population Sense and Nonsense

Everything the experts think they know about overpopulation is wrong.

Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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THE SPECTACLE of some 100 heads of state and 50,000 conferees gathering these past two weeks in Johannesburg for a fractious and even raucous U.N. summit on sustainable development may have left the impression of healthy intellectual ferment in the world of development economics. Alas, on the big issues, an unwholesome orthodoxy still prevails. Indeed, on the crucial issue of understanding world population trends, the U.S. government, the United Nations, European bureaucrats, and Third World elites agree more than they disagree. This is not a consensus to be cheered, but a shared impediment to understanding and relieving the problems that animated the Johannesburg proceedings.

"Sustainable development," as envisioned by its devotees, cannot be achieved without first "stabilizing world population," as the phrase now goes. The objective of "population stabilization" was solemnly endorsed 15 years ago in the sustainable development movement's first canonical document -- the Brundtland Commission's report, "Our Common Future." Since then, the quest to stabilize world population has been enthusiastically applauded by a wide array of international institutions and eminent personages: Kofi Annan and Warren Buffet; the World Bank and the U.S. State Department; the Ford Foundation and Al Gore.

What, exactly, does "stabilizing world population" mean? Despite its broad usage today, the banner itself is somewhat misleading, for those who carry it are not in fact concerned with stabilizing human numbers. If they were, one would expect to see them focusing more attention on Europe and Japan, where populations are currently projected to drop significantly over the next half-century. More immediately, human numbers are tumbling in the Russian Federation: Just last year the country suffered nearly a million more deaths than births. Yet supporters of population stabilization have not agitated for coordinated measures to lower Russia's death rate, raise its birth rate, and stanch its ongoing loss of population.

The reason for such insouciance about demographic decline by self-avowed population "stabilizers" is that their chosen standard does not quite describe their true mission. The actual aim, as the former executive director of the U.N. Population Fund has forthrightly declared, is "stabilization of world population at the lowest possible level, within the shortest period of time."

"Stabilizing" population, in fact, is code for the old project of anti-natal population control. The envisioned means of achieving stabilization is exactly the same: i.e., limiting the prevalence and reducing the level of childbearing around the world, especially in the Third World, and implementing measures to reduce births, particularly where fertility levels are deemed to be "unacceptably" high. This new version of the old anti-natalist crusade couches its arguments in the language of the social sciences and invokes the findings of the natural sciences to bolster its authority -- but it cannot withstand the process of empirical review that lies at the heart of the scientific method. Whether they realize it or not, advocates of "world population stabilization" are devotees of doctrine, not followers of fact.

The case for action to "stabilize world population" rests upon four premises. The first holds that we are self-evidently in the midst of a world population crisis -- a crisis defined by rapid population growth, which is exacerbating "overpopulation." Typical is the assertion by Al Gore in his bestselling book Earth In The Balance that "the absolute numbers [of the world's population] are staggering"; and that "we can't acquiesce in the continuation of a situation that adds another...China's worth of people every decade."

The second premise is that current rates of world population growth are not only unsustainable over the long term, but are having direct and immediate adverse repercussions on living standards, resource availability, and political stability. The third premise implicit in the agenda of "stabilizing human population" is that reduced birth rates constitute the solution to the population problems adduced by premises one and two. The fourth premise bolstering this agenda is the presumption that well-placed decision-makers can effectively and expeditiously engineer the desired changes in worldwide population patterns through deliberate policy interventions. (Again, Al Gore: "Population specialists now know with a high degree of confidence what factors dramatically reduce birth rates.")

All of these premises are highly problematic. None of them is self-evidently true. Indeed, to the extent that any of these are testable, it would appear that they are demonstrably false.