Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism

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The Issue of Population Growth

Thesis Statement

"A merica and other rich nations have a clear choice today. They can continue to ignore the population problem and their own massive contributions to it. Then they will be trapped in a downward spiral that may well lead to the end of civilization in a few de cades. More frequent droughts, more damaged crops and famines, more dying forests, more smog, more international conflicts, more epidemics, more gridlock, more drugs, more crime, more sewage swimming, and other extreme unpleasantness will mark our course. It is a route already traveled by too many of our less fortunate fellow human beings." Paul and Ann Ehrlich


The above statement from The Population Expl osion Paul and Ann Ehrlich provides the basis for our discussion about population. Based on your research in your country, is population growth threatening economic, social, and/or political well-being. But first some backgound on the issue of populat ion growth.

Modern research on the genetic structure of human populations suggests that we are all descended from a relatively small number of individuals, and no more than a few families, who lived in Central Africa as recently as 100,000 to 200, 000 years ago. By 15,000 years ago their progeny numbered some 15 million (the present population of Mexico City). The population of the world at the time of Christ increased to about 250,000,000 (a little less than the present population of the U.S.), an d tripled to about 700,000,000 (a little less than the population of India) on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. In the next two centuries the population increased at an annual growth rate of 6 per 1000, reaching some two and a half billion by 1950, a nd more than doubling in the last four decades at a growth rate of 18 per 1000 as it approaches six billion. In spite of signs that the growth rate is slowing down, the world's population will reach, barring some demographic catastrophe, eight to ten bill ion sometimes within the next three decades, if not before.


Table 1 Population, Annual Growth, and Doubling Time (10,000 BC to-1990)

Demographic index 10,000 BC 0 1750 1950 1990 2000 (pr ojected)
Population (Millions) 16 252 771 2530 5292 6200
Annual growth (%) 0.008 0.037 0.064 0.596 1.845 ?
Doubling time (years) 8369 1854 1083 116 38 ?

Adapted from Massimo Livi-Bacci, A Concise History of Population

Here are some interesting facts and projections about world population growth:

  • The rate of pop ulation increase, now approximately 1.7 percent a year will decline to a little less than 1 percent sometimes between the years 2020-2025.


  • But since this applies to a larger population, the rate of actual increas e will go from 88 million people a year to 97 million in 1995-2000, before falling to 81 million a year in 2025.


  • Developing countries will account for 95 percent of the world's population increase in the period betwee n 1990 to 2025.


  • Between 1950 and 2025 the developed countries share of world population will decrease from 33.1 percent to 15.9 percent; Europe will go from 15.6 percent to 6.1 percent.


  • In that same period of time, Latin America will have increased from 6.6 to 8.9% of the world's population, Asia from 54.7 to 57.8, and Africa from 8.9 to 18.8.

The rapid rise in the rate of population growth has prompted concern that the world is poised on the brink of disaster, that not only are we running out of enough food to sustain the growing population, but that the growth in population is also responsible for poverty, environmental destruction and social unrest. Moreover, so the a rgument goes, as long as populations continue to rise, economic development in poor countries is impossible, because any increase in economic output must go to sustain the increased population instead of being invested to create new jobs and wealth. These concerns have led to concerted efforts by international agencies and governments to control population growth, especially in Third World countries where it is highest.

Except for the religious objections to promoting decreased fertility, there ar e few people who question that there is a population problem, that it is a problem primarily of the poor nations, and that the solution requires women to limit their fertility. Yet few , if any, of the assumptions underlying the issue of population growth and control have been seriously questioned or examined. Some of these are:

  • The assumption that population growth contributes to economic decline and stagnation in the periphery.


  • The assumption that the population increase in the periphery is due to decreased mortality rates, especially of infants, realized because of the availability of modern medical advancements, better nutrition, and improved sanitation.


  • The a ssumption that population stability before the rapid rise of population began in the eighteenth century was the result of a high fertility rate that served to balance a consistently high death rate.


  • Finally, the as sumption that the only way of slowing the birth rate is through the application of birth control techniques and programs developed in Western countries and applied universally in poor countries.

We'll examine each of these assumptions, and try to show how, from an anthropological perspective, they may be seriously flawed,ethnocentric, and self-serving for Core nations, and then examine what anthropology can contribute to the debate over population growth.


Book chapters


The discussion on population should focus on the extent to which you agree or disagree with Paul and Ann Erlich's estimation of the threat of population growth, and the relative degree of responsibility of rich and poor nations. Those who represent the poorer countries of the world need to consider the rate of population growth in that country and whether or not it is affecting economic growth, development, and/or well-being. Those who represent some of the richer countries need to consider the relative contribution of their countries to the problem. Overall, of course, we need to consider whether or not there really is a population problem as so many claim.


Whether you represent a developed, developing, or underdeveloped country, try to consider how population growth in your country was influenced by the global expansion of capitalism. It will require, at a minimum, an understanding of the connection between various economic factors (e.g. agricultural vs factory labor, dependence on land vs wage labor, forms of labor organization, etc.) and various factors that influence population growth and decline (e.g. fertility rates, marriage patterns, family ec onomic organization, etc.). These factors are outlined and discussed in your readings. Based on this discussion, then examine the extent to which you agree or disagree with the Erlich's statement.



The following are not mandatory readings, but are readings (books) which discuss the topic that you will be researching. Contact your library to determine if they are available to you. These are by all means not all inclusive and there are many other sources available.

Caldwell, John C. (1982) Theory of Fertility Decline. New York: Academic Press


Cassen, Robert and contributors (1994) Population and Development: Old Debats, New Conclu sions. U.S.--Third World Policy Perspectives: No. 19. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers


Cohen, Mark (1994) Demographic Expansion: Causes and Consequeces. In Companion Encyclopedia of Anthropology: Humanity, Culture, and Social L ife. New York and London: Routledge


Handwerker, W. Penn (1989 ) Women's Power and Social Revolution: Fertility Transition in the West Indies. Frontiers of Anthropology, Volume 2. Newbury Park: Sage Publications


Livi-Bacci, Massimi (1992 ) A Concise History of World Population. Cambridge: Blackwell


Mamdani, Mahmood (1972 ) The Myth of Population Control: Family, Caste, and Class in an Indian Village. New York and London: Monthly Review Pr ess


Omran, Abdel R. (1971) The Epidemiological Transition: A Theory of Epidemiolgy of Population Change. Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 49: 509-538


Polgar, Steven(1972 ) Population History and Polulation Poli cies from an Anthropological Perspective. Current Anthropology 13:203-2


Polgar, Steven (1975) Birth Planning: Between Neglect and Coersion. In Population and Social Organization, edited by Moni Nag. The Hague: Mouton Publishers


White, Benjamin (1975) The Economic Importance of Children in a Javanese Village. In Population and Social Organization, edited by Moni Nag. The Hague: Mouton Publishers



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