||There is one thing that people agree on when
they talk about population: it has grown remarkably in the past half-century; in 1950 the
global population stood at just over 2,530,000,000. You can find out what it
is right now by clicking
However, the questions of why it has grown and what affects it has had on the world are
subject to bitter debate.
On the one hand there
are the Malthusians or neo-Malthusians who feel that population growth is the most severe
problem facing the world; for them population growth is the root cause of hunger, poverty,
environmental destruction, disease and social unrest. Furthermore, it is population
growth in the poor nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America that is the greatest threat.
On the other hand, there are those (revisionists is one term
used to describe them, Marxists another) who claim that the Malthusians, by blaming or
scapegoating the victims of global problems, are masking their real causes, among which is
the global expansion of the culture of capitalism.
The position one takes is critical for virtually everything else one thinks about
global problems. If by reducing population growth we can solve the world's problems, then,
obviously we must work at it. However, if population growth is not the major problem, then
we must put our energies to finding out their real sources.
In Global Problems and the
Culture of Capitalism we argue that warnings about the consequences of population
growth often mask the more pertinent causes of global problems. Consequently,
while we include articles that reflect different viewpoints, our biases are reflected in
|A. What are the facts about population
||While there is vehement disagreement about the relationship between
population growth and global problems, we can at least establish some basic facts.
The following selections contain information and data about the rate of population growth
globally and in different countries of the world.
|Reading 1. Human Population Through
||This series of maps from the Demographic, Environmental, and Security
Project details the growth of global population from 1 AD to the year 2020. To
get a present-day graphic of global population density, click here.
|Reading 2. Population Timeline
(No Longer Available)
||This population timeline is part of a special broadcast by
KQED on Paul Erlich's book, The Population Bomb. Good visual of population growth
over the past 10,000 years.
|Exercise 1. U.S. Census World Data
||Excellent source of information for up-to-date world
population information. You can find information on historical trends, present
population figures, as well as population projections. Particularly useful is the International
Data Base, a computerized data bank containing statistical tables of demographic, and
socio-economic data for all countries of the world. Find out, for example, the population
rank of all countries for any year from 1950 to 2050.
|Exercise 2: 6 Billion Human Beings: An Interactive Game about Population
||This interactive exhibit from the Musee de lHomme in
Paris is the place to learn about some basic principles of population growth. You
provide some personal information, and you can find out what the world was like when you
were born and what it may be like as you age. And it explains why. You will find out
how such cultural factors as age at marriage, breastfeeding, and birth control influence
fertility rates. Excellent presentation, but be aware of some biases; for
example, the exhibit attributes the rapid population growth of the past century almost
entirely to declining death rates. However, as we discuss in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, there is evidence that
population began to climb rapidly well before modern health practices intervened and that
the increase was due to changing economic and social patterns associated with
industrialization and colonialism. Thus population began rapidly increasing in
Europe in the eighteenth century and in other areas of the world in the nineteenth
|B. Malthusian Theory and Its Critics
||There is little doubt that the Malthusian position dominates the
debate about global population growth. In his 1798 Essay
on the Principle of Population Reverend Thomas Malthus outlined his now
famous argument that while population "increases in a geometrical ratio," the
resources for survival, primarily food, "increases only in an arithmetical
ratio." Consequently, unless "population checks" (war, famine, etc.)
kept population growth down, he argued, the world would soon run out of food.
Malthus, of course, was wrong; new agricultural techniques have continued to allow us to
produce more food. But, some claim that we are rapidly running out of time and
space, and that the "population explosion," as Paul and Ann Erlich called it,
has already resulted in hunger, poverty, environmental devastation, and violent
conflict. Others, however, claim that Malthusians have still got it wrong; that the
causes of these problems have little to do with population growth and everything to do
with the global expansion of capitalism. The following readings have been selected
to give you some idea about the arguments on both sides.
|Reading 3. Principals of Malthusian and
||The International Society of Malthus provides an excellent
summary of the the major principles and assumptions of Malthusian thought. Just
follow the arrows. They also provide some links to articles that are responses to
critics of Malthusian arguments. You might want to check out Ronald Bleier's
defense of Robert D. Kaplan's essay in the Feb 1994 Atlantic, "The Coming
Anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly
destroying the social fabric of our planet."
|Reading 4. World Overpopulation
||This report from the Population Institute
provides a good summary of a Malthusian position on population growth. The paper
details the present trends in population growth, and concludes that they are alarming, and
that they are particularly serious in the poor regions of the world. It then details
the many social, political, and health problems existing in poor areas, clearly implying
that these are the results of unbridled population growth. You can also find information
Space & Species , Environment
and Natural Resources, and Urbanization .
|Reading 5. Marx and Engels on
the Population Bomb: Forward
||There are many articles challenging the Malthusian position,
but this one provides a good introduction. Steve Weissman begins by
chastising both the Malthusian and the Marxist positions on population growth, but ends up
offering a concise critique of the Malthusian or neo-Malthusian argument. He also
does an excellent job of revealing the dilemma of Malthusians such as Paul Erlich who,
while abandoning their earlier demonizing of the poor and recognizing the role of the
wealthy in destroying the environment, still seem to cling to Malthusian rhetoric.
A History of
Governmentally Coerced Sterilization: The Plight of Native American Woman
||One of the implications of Malthusian theory is that population should be
controlled by limiting the reproduction of "undesireable" people. This
idea gave rise to the field of eugenics, the "science" of determining who was
worthy of having children. Francis Galton, who founded eugenics in the late
nineteenth century, proposed income as the determining factor, and, throughout the late
nineteenth and through through the first half of the twenthieth century eugenics enjoyed
popular support throughout our society. It ceased to be fashionable when Adolf
Hitler made eugenics state policy and killed 6-8 million "undesireables."
However eugenic policy remained in force in the form of forced sterilization programs (and
is being revived today under the guise of genetic engineering). This article by Michael Sullivan DeFine examines the
history of forced sterilization in the United States and how it was applied to Native
|Reading 7. Consumption: the other
side of population for development
||An excellent piece by Francisco J. Mata and Larry J. Onisto
on the effects of consumption on environmental pressures. Their premise is
that to appreciate the impact of people on the environment, population figures must be
adjusted according to the consumption rate of the population. Thus a country with a
relatively low population, but with high consumption rates, may have a greater negative
impact on the environment than a country with high population, but low consumption
rates. They find, for example, that Canada, with only four percent of the actual
population of India, has the same consumption-adjusted population. And the
consumption-adjusted population of the United States is more than twice that of China.
|C. The Ideology of Malthusian Concerns
||A question that anthropologists and sociologists often ask about
beliefs is what social interest or purpose do they serve? In the case of population
arguments, we can ask whether Malthusian arguments mask other concerns or social
interests? After all, population growth was not for Thomas Malthus the primary
issue; he was concerned with the rising number of poor and destitute in England, assuming
that if people were poor, it was because there were too many of them. It was the
poor who were at fault for their condition, and if the poor stopped reproducing, there
would be fewer of them. Malthus's logic remains at the heart of Malthusian concerns.
But how real are their concerns? Are people really hungry because there is
not enough food, or is it because they simply lack the money to pay for it? Is it
the poor who are destroying the environment, or is it the consumption patterns of the
wealthy? Do people in poor countries lack resources because there are too many of
them, or because the wealth of these countries is so unevenly distributed? Are women
poorly educated because they have too many children, or because of the social and economic
policies that international financial agencies impose on poor countries? Those are
some of the questions asked in the following articles that address the ideology of
|Reading 8. WHAT IS
N.S.S.M. 200...? And why do
Western Leaders care so much about population control?
||Here we get to one of the primary documents of the
population debate, a summary of the infamous 1974 National Security Study
Memorandum - NSSM
200 - the Nixon-Kissinger, NSC, CIA, Pentagon, USAID guidance document on population
control and the U.S. political interests. This reading provides excepts from the
memo; it shows, in brief, that the purpose of pursing a policy of population control was
to serve the U.S. strategic, economic, and military interest at the expense of the
|D. Population Trends
||The following readings represent some of latest thinking about
population growth. The debate seems, to some extent, to be moving away from the
Malthusian perspective, with more attention being given to specific issues, such as how
population growth relates to different segments of the population, and how the global AIDS
epidemic is affecting population. There is even some discussion that there is no
longer any "population explosion," and that fertility rates are rapidly
declining worldwide; there is even some thought that we may be facing another population
problem--too few children.
|Reading 9. State of the World
||The largest generation of
adolescents in history—1.2 billion strong—is preparing to enter
adulthood in a rapidly changing world. The
State of World Population 2003 report
from UNFPA, the United Nations
Population Fund, examines the challenges and risks they face. It finds
that investingin young people will yield generous returns, but that their
needs continue to be shortchanged.
||At the United Nations Population Division site
you can get estimates for current populations for the world, for regions
or for nations for any year from the present to 2050. The site
contains information on the assumptions underlying the estimates.
You can also create a file of the date that you collect.