Optimism and Overpopulation

“Without the motivation to limit family size, access to modern contraception is nearly irrelevant.” Virginia Abernethy, The Atlantic Monthly December 1994.

The above quote is from an article that was written almost 20 years ago. The author argues that the key driver of population growth is the desired number of children, rather than the lack of contraception. The desired number of children is linked to local environmental factors, therefore, if resources and opportunities are perceived as being abundant then the desired number of children and consequent fertility rate will be greater than if resources and opportunities are scarce. One example she gives is that of the low fertility rates during the great depression in the early 20th century, the baby boom after the second world war and then the lowering of fertility rates during the oil crisis of the late 1970s and continuing economic uncertainty into the 1980s and 90s.

Here are some key quotes from the article if you do not have the time to read it all. Do her arguments have validity? Could it be contended that her argument has greater validity now than it did 20 years ago?.

“Overpopulation afflicts most countries but remains primarily a local problem — an idea that this article will seek to explain. Reproductive restraint, the solution, is also primarily local; it grows out of a sense that resources are shrinking. Under these circumstances individuals and couples often see limitation of family size as the most likely path to success.”

“Cross-cultural and historical data suggest that people have usually limited their families to a size consistent with living comfortably in stable communities. If left undisturbed, traditional societies survive over long periods in balance with local resources. A society lasts in part because it maintains itself within the carrying capacity of its environment.”

“In sum, it is true, if awkward, that efforts to alleviate poverty often spur population growth, as does leaving open the door to immigration. Subsidies, windfalls, and the prospect of economic opportunity remove the immediacy of needing to conserve. The mantras of democracy, redistribution, and economic development raise expectations and fertility rates, fostering population growth and thereby steepening a downward environmental and economic spiral.”

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