“Population bomb”: how misdiagnosis misled the world


The world’s human population increased dramatically in the 20th century, from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6.1 billion in 2000. As it grew, the population began to be responsible for some of the most common problems. most urgent and intractable in the world, from poverty to geopolitical instability to climate. cash. But how did the fact of population growth become the problem of overpopulation, and how has portraying the world’s major concerns as “population problems” limited the range of possible solutions?

My new book, Building the demographic bomb (Oxford University Press, 2021), answers these questions by retracing the development of two scientific theories of overpopulation, one environmental and the other economic, during the 20th century. It elucidates the socio-technical networks that have given these theories the power to shape the world’s population by informing and legitimizing government and non-government interventions in the intimate lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The birth of American eugenics

Both theories of overpopulation grew out of competing scientific approaches to population that emerged in the United States in the 1920s, at the height of the eugenics movement and amid intense debates about the value of immigration. Biologists have focused on aggregate growth rates, which they read through a Malthusian lens to predict impending overpopulation. They proposed restricting immigration and a eugenic birth control program. Statisticians and social scientists have focused on age-specific fertility and death rates, which they read through a mercantilist lens to predict a disastrous slowdown in population growth. They opposed restricting immigration but still favored eugenics; Whether America’s population is growing too fast or too slowly, all scientists agree on the importance of promoting large families among the “good” people and small families among the “bad”.

The American eugenics movement also began to divide in the late 1920s. Older eugenics, who aligned themselves with the biological approach to population, continued to consider southern and eastern Europeans – and all. those who were not white – like the “bad” people and continued to favor direct government intervention in reproduction. Young eugenics, who aligned themselves with the statistical and social approach to population, distanced themselves from overt racism, which had become the hallmark of fascist eugenic programs in Europe. These young eugenicists also avoided state intervention in reproduction, favoring instead the creation of financial incentives and a social climate in which the “good” would have large families and the “bad” would have small families. , all under the guise of freedom of reproduction. . They called this program “family planning”.

In the 1930s, the American Eugenics Society became the home of this new brand of eugenics. Its leaders viewed burgeoning population science as a key ally of their agenda and channeled funding to statisticians and social scientists, supporting their mercantilist approach to population. These are the scientists who became known as demographers and who were asked by the New Deal State for help in administering its social and economic programs.

Malthusian biologists were sidelined in establishing demographics, but supporters of the old version of eugenics – including businessmen, diplomats, and natural scientists – maintained Malthusianism alive in the American popular consciousness. After World War II, Malthusians and demographers both turned their attention to the global horizon, where it became clear that the population was poised for rapid growth. North America, Western Europe and Oceania were experiencing a post-war “baby boom”. More worrying for US observers, however, was the fact that death rates were falling rapidly in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, while birth rates remained high. The Malthusians compared the overall world population to the planet’s carrying capacity, warning that population growth anywhere would rapidly deplete Earth’s natural resources, spurring the spread of global communism and ushering in nuclear war.

Demographers focused on the national level, comparing population growth rates to economic growth rates. For them, overpopulation was only a problem in the countries of the South, where they warned that rapid population growth would prevent economic development. Empirical evidence for the demographic theory of overpopulation was scarce; empirical evidence for the Malthusian theory of overpopulation was lacking. Nonetheless, the two theories have supported each other to produce intense anxiety about population growth among the American public, the United States government, and leaders of developing countries around the world.

“Demographic bomb”: wrong diagnosis, wrong solution

Demographers and their sponsors extended the Interwar Family Planning Eugenics Project to developing countries, where they aimed to create a climate in which birth control was so widely available and socially acceptable that it would be. almost harder not to use it. This goal was facilitated by the DIU, the development and manufacture of which was funded by the Population Council, a US-based non-governmental organization that also funded demographic research in southern countries and the training of students. from developing countries in graduate programs in demography in the us

The Malthusians first saw family planning as a solution to their population problem as well. Working through organizations such as the Population Reference Bureau and the Population Crisis Committee, Malthusians called on the American public and American policy makers to support the work of the Population Council and other non-governmental organizations involved in family planning. . As a result, the United States Agency for International Development began allocating funds for this purpose in 1965. By the late 1960s, however, Malthusians complained that family planning was not doing enough to slow population growth. Instead, they recommended that governments impose legal limits on procreation. They received the intellectual support of a young generation of biologists, notably Paul Ehrlich, who published The demographic bomb in 1968, and Garrett Hardin, who coined the term “tragedy of the commons,” also in 1968. Demographers and their supporters have described the Malthusian approach as coercive, so that anything that does not conform to the boundaries legal rights, such as financial incentives to accept IUDs, passed as non-coercive.

The two theories of overpopulation, coming from the United States, clashed on the world stage at the 1974 United Nations World Population Conference, where leaders of the Global South rejected all efforts to limit population growth as imperialists. Intellectuals and heads of state in Asia, Africa and Latin America have blamed poverty and environmental degradation on industrial practices in northern countries. Declaring that “development is the best contraceptive”, they demanded the implementation of the new international economic order which had been established by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 1972. Almost 50 years later, however , US experts continue to attribute poverty in southern countries and global climate change to population growth. Economists recommend that developing countries reduce their birth rates in order to reap the “demographic dividend”, while natural scientists and bioethicists recommend governments limit reproduction to avoid climate change.

As was the case in the mid-20th century, natural scientists and social scientists disagree about what constitutes overpopulation and what to do about it. The tension between these two overpopulation theories, however, fosters the popular belief that the world’s human population is growing too rapidly and that something must be done about it. Together, they present the population as a smokescreen to hide the most immediate causes of the problems they attribute to population growth, namely global socio-economic inequalities and environmental degradation. By focusing the debate on how to slow population growth in the most efficient and equitable way (legal limits to procreation or voluntary family planning), proponents of overpopulation are eliminating more direct regulatory and redistributive solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Framing these problems as “population problems” pulls the United States and its businesses out of business, to the detriment of the most vulnerable members of the world’s population and the planet itself.


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