It seems that the birth of the 7 billionth person has resulted in musings about overpopulation, birth control and womens’ rights. I got an email this morning highlighting Nicholas Kristof‘s NYT column and an article in the Economist.
1) Kristof in today’s NYT on birth control:
What’s the impact of overpopulation? One is that youth bulges in rapidly growing countries like Afghanistan and Yemen makes them more prone to conflict and terrorism. Booming populations also contribute to global poverty and make it impossible to protect virgin forests or fend off climate change. Some studies have suggested that a simple way to reduce carbon emissions in the year 2100 is to curb population growth today.
Moreover, we’ve seen that family planning works. Women in India average 2.6 children, down from 6 in 1950. As recently as 1965, Mexican women averaged more than seven children, but that has now dropped to 2.2.
But some countries have escaped this demographic revolution. Women in Afghanistan, Chad, Congo, Somalia, East Timor and Uganda all have six or more children each, the U.N. says. In rural Africa, I’ve come across women who have never heard of birth control. According to estimates from the Guttmacher Institute, a respected research group, 215 million women want to avoid getting pregnant but have no access to contraception.
What’s needed isn’t just birth-control pills or IUDs. It’s also girls’ education and women’s rights — starting with an end to child marriages — for educated women mostly have fewer children.

“In times past, the biggest barrier to reducing birth rates has been a lack of access to contraceptives,” the Population Institute notes in a new report. “Today, the biggest barrier is gender inequality.”

Read the complete Kristof column here.
2) The Economist on the same topic:
Lower fertility can be good for economic growth and society (see article). When the number of children a woman can expect to bear in her lifetime falls from high levels of three or more to a stable rate of two, a demographic change surges through the country for at least a generation. Children are scarcer, the elderly are not yet numerous, and the country has a bulge of working-age adults: the “demographic dividend”. If a country grabs this one-off chance for productivity gains and investment, economic growth can jump by as much as a third.
Less is more
However, the fall in fertility is already advanced in most of the world. Over 80% of humanity lives in countries where the fertility rate is either below three and falling, or already two or less. This is thanks not to government limits but to modernisation and individuals’ desire for small families.

Whenever the state has pushed fertility down, the result has been a blight. China’s one-child policy is a violation of rights and a demographic disaster, upsetting the balance between the sexes and between generations.

China has a bulge of working adults now, but will bear a heavy burden of retired people after 2050. It is a lurid example of the dangers of coercion.
To me, these columns are a lurid example of the dangers of simplistic thinking that blames global problems on the presence of human beings, i.e., “the problem is us.” The Economist makes a strange argument for increased productivity and prosperity — balance the scarcity of people. Some sort of human crop rotation, I think.
These two articles have caused me to reflect about how much emptier my life would have been if my grandparents didn’t have eight children. My brothers and I probably wouldn’t have been born since our mother was the fifth child born to her parents. Our Dad’s mother lost two children before he was born. She later died in childbirth.
I’m curious to know your thoughts. Are 7 billion people a blessing or a curse?
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