Population Ethics: I. Elements of Population Ethics: B. is There A Population Problem?

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Policy analysts, the popular press, and scholars often speak of "the population problem." This phrase usually means that the existence of too many people on the planet will cause difficulties or even catastrophes for individuals, couples, countries, or the world. It can also mean that a country or region has too few people for its economic, social, or political welfare.

The first definition argues that rapid population growth, large population size, or high population density can bring widespread poverty, famine, air pollution, poor public health, drought, more children than can be educated in national school systems, overcrowded cities, or other serious harms. Under the second definition, too few people can reduce a country's population below the number that the government wants, decrease the size of the labor force, change the size and mix of ethnic groups in ways that can cause conflict, or create a population with few young and many old people. In either case the location of the problem can be the world, geographic regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, single countries, cities, or other regions within a country.

Those stating that there is a population problem base their assertions on three elements: perceived threats to social, moral, or political values; factual evidence; and theories explaining how population creates the conditions that threaten values. Much of the confusion in discussion of population problems arises from ambiguity or disagreement about these three elements.

Every statement of a population problem explicitly or implicitly expresses concern about values such as preventing famine, having an adequate number of workers and jobs, and giving couples the opportunity to determine their family size. Whether the concern is with too many or too few people, those stating that there is a problem always mention or allude to some moral, social, or political value. They also directly cite factual evidence to support their case or imply that this evidence exists. The evidence may be quantitative, such as figures on the relationship between population size and the number of teachers and schools in a country, or qualitative, such as the judgments of political scientists on a country's strength in foreign affairs, or a combination of the two. And every claim that there is a population problem involves a theory or conceptual scheme showing the links between too many or too few people and indicators of the values at stake in the discussion. Economic theories, for example, may try to show how, specifically, rapid population growth has created or will create unemployment.

Confusion about whether there is a population problem arises when analysts are vague about the values advanced or threatened by population size; omit relevant factual evidence; or use theories that have little validity. Advocates are vague about values advanced or threatened when they state that there is a population problem without indicating the social, moral, or political goods affected by population size. Some writers simply take it for granted that the world is now too crowded and go on to say what should be done about it. Omitting relevant factual evidence leads to charges of bias in statements about population problems. So does the use of theories that aim more at making the case for a problem than at objectively weighing the influence of population conditions.

Whether or not there is a population problem is critical to the ethics of population control. If rapid or limited population growth, population size, and population density do indeed cause serious damage, societies and governments will have some ethical justification for trying to change those conditions. If, on the other hand, pronouncements about population problems fail to state the values affected, are selective in their choice of factual evidence, or rely on dubious theories, the ethical justification for policies to deal with those problems will be tenuous.

The following discussion illustrates the complexity of making statements about population problems by comparing four approaches: those of Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the World Bank, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Julian Simon. It reviews the values at stake in each approach, the completeness of the factual evidence cited, and the theories invoked to link population conditions to outcomes reflecting the values of concern.

Approaches to the Population Problem

In The Population Bomb Paul Ehrlich made this statement about population growth:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s millions of people will starve to death.… Although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to "stretch" the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production and providing for more equitable distribution of whatever food is available … these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control. (p. xi)

During the 1970s and 1980s, high birthrates did not produce the levels of starvation Ehrlich predicted, in part because of the Green Revolution, which led to much higher food production than in the 1960s. Nonetheless, in their 1990 book The Population Explosion Paul and Anne Ehrlich continued to argue that the human race would face starvation and widespread disease unless societies immediately controlled their birthrates.

Human inaction has already condemned hundreds of millions more people to premature deaths from hunger and disease. The population connection must be made in the public mind. Action to end the population explosion humanely and start a gradual population decline must become a top item on the human agenda: the human birthrate must be lowered to slightly below the human deathrate as soon as possible. (pp. 22–23)

The authors blame overpopulation for starvation in Africa, homelessness and drug abuse in the United States, global warming, holes in the atmosphere's ozone layer, fires in tropical forests, sewage-blighted beaches, and drought-stricken farm fields.

The World Bank has taken a different approach to the population problem. The World Development Report 1984 (World Bank) acknowledges that the evidence on this subject is complex but concludes that "population growth at the rapid rates common in most of the developing world slows development" (p. 105). This statement echoes the remarks of the Bank's president in the foreword: "What governments and their peoples do today to influence our demographic future will set the terms for development strategy well into the next century" (p. iii). In the World Bank's view, high fertility and rapid population growth bring on a problem by creating conditions, such as lower-quality education, that block economic development.

In 1971 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) claimed that rapid population growth causes serious harm to economic development in sixteen ways. It holds down growth in per capita income; leads to unemployment and underemployment; creates mass poverty; distorts international trade; aggravates political, religious, linguistic, and ethnic conflicts; retards the mental and physical development of children; and has other negative consequences.

Fifteen years later the NAS (National Research Council, 1986) issued a report that backs away from the earlier conclusions. According to that report, slower population growth may benefit developing countries, but there is little evidence for judging whether its impact will be large or small. Furthermore, the results of population growth will depend not only on numbers of people but also on the effectiveness of government administration, social institutions, and the resources of specific countries. Thus, over a decade and a half the NAS shifted from a negative to a more neutral assessment of the impact of demographic growth.

Julian Simon (1990) gives a much more optimistic view of population growth than do the Ehrlichs, the World Bank, and the NAS. He first questions what he calls myths about population and resources. For example, while some say that the food situation in developing countries is worsening, Simon holds that per capita food production has been increasing about 1 percent each year. Responding to arguments that higher population growth means lower per capita economic growth, Simon states: "Empirical studies find no statistical correlation between countries' population growth and their per capita economic growth, either over the long run or in recent decades" (p. 45). Simon also offers evidence challenging statements that the world is running out of natural resources and raw materials and that energy is becoming more scarce.

Simon argues that having additional children improves productivity in the more developed countries and raises the standard of living in less developed countries. Over a period of thirty to seventy years in the more developed countries, each additional person contributes to increased knowledge and technical progress by "inventing, adapting, and diffusing new productive knowledge" (p. 48). Over the same time period in the less developed countries, more children lead to more work done by parents, stimulate agricultural and industrial investment, and bring other benefits. Simon calls people "the ultimate resource" and holds that population growth increases that resource.

The four approaches have different notions of how population growth affects economies and societies. The Ehrlichs are consistently gloomy about the impact of population growth on human societies. The World Bank is seriously concerned about its effects, and generally negative in its conclusions, but willing to consider different points of view and some evidence challenging its position. Like the World Bank, the NAS focuses on population growth and economic development, but comes to very different conclusions in its 1971 and 1986 reports. Simon plays down the harms and underscores the advantages of population growth for economic development and social welfare.

Values, Evidence, and Theories

The statements just reviewed show the difficulty of having a coherent discussion about "the population problem." The main reason is that the authors are concerned about different values, do not use all available factual evidence, and base their conclusions on different conceptual schemes and theories.

For Paul and Anne Ehrlich, central values include avoiding starvation, protecting the environment, preserving the world's resources, and maintaining public health: "The Population Explosion is being written as ominous changes in the life support systems of civilization become more evident daily. It is being written in a world where hunger is rife and the prospects of famine and plague ever more imminent" (p.10). The World Bank shows greater concern with promoting economic growth, providing the world with adequate food supplies, having public services such as health and education, and protecting the environment. Both reports of the NAS address similar values. The values guiding Julian Simon's work include showing the benefits of population growth for human welfare and economic development; removing or reducing popular fears about population growth and the availability of resources; and convincing the public that "life on earth is getting better, not worse" (p. 21).

What evidence do these writers use, and how representative is that evidence of all that was available? In The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich does not try to be objective. He opens his first chapter with these words:

I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a few years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming.… People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. (p. 5)

Ehrlich goes on to specify the nature of the problem, summarize what is being done to deal with it, state what needs to be done, and tell readers what they can do to help. The book makes its case more by an appeal to the moral and political concerns of its readers than by presenting factual evidence.

The Population Explosion has a more scholarly tone, but still limits the findings presented to those that would be widely interpreted as supporting the authors' claims about overpopulation. It has chapters on shortages of food in developing countries; the difficulties facing agriculture; greenhouse warming, acid rain, and other damages to Earth's ecosystems; and urban air pollution, crowding, and hazards to public health. The Ehrlichs adduce no evidence challenging or qualifying their conclusions. They conclude with a chapter showing what readers can do to stop the population explosion.

Like the Ehrlichs, Simon gives a one-sided presentation of his findings. He contrasts popular views of bad news about population with the "unpublicized, good-news truth"(p. 42) deriving from his own analysis. He summarizes commonly cited statements, such as that the food situation in developing countries is growing worse, and then offers his own view under the heading of fact. Instead of presenting a balanced summary of research findings, he tries to attack the popular belief with as many findings as he can assemble that will be widely interpreted as contrary.

The World Bank (1984) admits that judging the evidence about the consequences of population growth is not easy and summarizes some conflicting views on that subject. But it does not mention dozens of cross-national studies that contradict its main conclusion, including work by Simon Kuznets (1974) and Ester Boserup (1965, 1981). This research shows no relationship between the rates of growth of population size and the growth rates of per capita income. Nor does the Bank's report explore the possibility, put forth by Boserup and Simon, that population size, population growth rate, and population density contribute to technological progress. According to one reviewer, "the Report can be evaluated from two different perspectives: as a position paper making the best case for a point of view; or as a summary of current knowledge. It is clearly much more successful as the first than as the second" (Lee, p. 129).

The two reports by the NAS are also mainly concerned with economic growth, but they differ in their approach to the studies they cite. The 1971 report selects evidence that supports its conclusions about the negative consequences of population growth and neglects research whose findings challenge or contradict those conclusions. The 1986 study is much better balanced in its coverage of the evidence and more cautious in arriving at conclusions. The authors draw a clear distinction, for example, between conditions caused by population growth and those only associated with such growth.

The four approaches also differ in their use of theories and conceptual schemes. In The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich has no social-scientific theory; he argues almost entirely by assertion. He assumes that the connections between population growth and conditions such as starvation are evident and therefore need no conceptual or theoretical justification. As is the case with their choice of evidence, in The Population Explosion Paul and Anne Ehrlich select only those conceptual frameworks showing the negative consequences of population growth. The World Bank recognizes the diversity of theories about the impact of population growth, but chooses a model that eliminates the possibility of any positive effects, such as those mentioned by Julian Simon. The 1971 NAS report also relies heavily on conceptual models showing the harms done by population growth. The 1986 NAS report applies concepts and theories allowing for a fairer evaluation of the relationships between population growth and economic development.

Much of the debate about whether there is a population problem and what it means stems from the different values and concerns behind statements of problems; selective use of evidence; and choosing theories to support preestablished conclusions rather than to arrive at impartial conclusions. Until analysts remove the ideology and biases commonly found in discussions about population problems, the confusion will continue.

The Population Problem: Where and When?

Most discussions of the population problem focus on the world at large or regions such as developing countries. It is also possible to examine the impact of population growth, size, and density on single countries. This is the focus of the work done by the Population Division of the Department of International Economic and Social Affairs (DIESA) of the United Nations (Chamie). The Population Division assumes that, whatever the impact of population size, density, and growth across the world, single countries will have different views on what those concepts mean to them. Since the mid-1970s DIESA has maintained the Population Policy Data Bank to assess the perceptions and policies of governments regarding fertility.

At the end of the 1980s, 44 percent of U.N. member countries reported that their fertility levels were too high and 12 percent that they were too low (Chamie). If one defines a population problem as a government's perception that its fertility is either too high or too low, then 56 percent of U.N. member countries had a problem. The response to that problem depended on whether the governments thought that their fertility was too high or too low.

The first group, usually in countries with low per capita incomes, often set up programs of birth control. Countries reporting that their fertility is too low, such as France, Greece, Hungary, and Switzerland, adopt financial incentives and other policies to encourage more births (McIntosh). Singapore has been unusual in shifting from the perception that it would have too many people to its current view that it requires higher fertility. These differing perspectives show the importance of asking where and why population is a problem. While many studies focus on the world or on developing countries, the research done by DIESA underscores the importance of opinions and policies in single nations.

The single countries mentioned show agreement on the definition of a population problem. The value of most concern is the government's perception of whether it has too many, too few, or the right number of people. This may be a limited way of defining a population problem, but it does have a consistent point of reference: the views of the government. The evidence used is also the same: the information collected for the Population Policy Data Bank. Conceptual frameworks and theories differ about the reasons for governments' perceptions of a population problem and about why they do or do not take action on population issues. But consistency in the value behind the data and in the evidence used makes it much easier to compare definitions of population problems than in the four approaches outlined earlier.

Another critical question about population growth, size, and density is how they will affect the future. Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb and William and Paul Paddock's Famine 1975 (1967) show that confident predictions of disasters are often wrong. But that experience does not mean students of population problems should stop looking to the future. Instead, they should make their predictions but be modest enough to indicate that, because they do not know everything that will happen between the time of writing and the time of the predicted event, they may be mistaken about the predicted events.

A related question concerns the obligations of the present generation to future ones. Do people living now have a duty to preserve the world so that future societies and individuals will have the resources and health conditions currently available? There is no simple answer. Over time, serious problems, such as the pollution of London a century ago, have been resolved and new problems, such as the depletion of water supplies in some regions, have arisen.

Two principles can help reflection on this topic. First, U.N. organizations and governments should pay explicit attention to the long-term consequences of population policies. Rather than taking a passive stance in debates on this topic, they should encourage and, if necessary, subsidize research on how population growth, population size, and population density affect the future. Second, the present generation has no right to adopt or accept population policies likely to damage the health and welfare of future generations. These might include actions leading to widespread environmental pollution, deforestation, and poor conditions of public health.


How can students of population policy reduce the bias now seen in many discussions of population problems and provide a solid basis for comparing different statements of those problems?

First, commentators should explicitly state the geographic focus of their analysis. Is it the universe? All the countries in the world? Some region of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa or South America? A single country? Regions within a single country, such as cities or rural areas? Or some combination of those options, such as a country as a whole and its urban and rural areas? Given the great differences in population, economic, social, and political conditions across nations, specifying the geographic focus would immediately help observers to see similarities and differences across the territory covered. Tables such as those in the World Bank's annual World Development Report would be helpful for that purpose.

Second, those discussing population problems should indicate the moral, social, or political values of concern in their analysis. This recommendation should apply whether the observer claims that the region being analyzed has too many, too few, or an adequate number of people. Values often found, explicitly or implicitly, in such analyses include promoting economic growth; preserving the environment; preventing a decline in the region's population; increasing the size of the dominant ethnic group or changing the sizes of ethnic minorities; and maintaining the availability of schools and other social services for the region's inhabitants.

Third, scholarly analyses of population problems should use all relevant evidence rather than just studies that support the author's point of view. Discussions of population growth and economic development should make full use of the numerous cross-national comparisons on that subject. When, as often happens, the sources of evidence lead to different conclusions, that situation should be mentioned.

Fourth, those discussing population problems should specify the theories or conceptual frameworks guiding their analysis. It is particularly important to indicate how population conditions, such as growth rates and size, influence conditions such as economic growth or the availability of schools. Many publications have used conceptual models that attribute more influence to population than it deserves, partly because other relevant influences are not considered. Such is the case with the 1971 NAS study on the consequences of rapid population growth. By using a more thorough conceptual framework and considering a broader range of evidence, the 1986 NAS study in effect retracts many of the conclusions in the 1971 report.

Fifth, conclusions should be based on the results of careful conceptual or theoretical analysis and the weight of the evidence rather than on a priori judgments by the authors. Following this recommendation will often mean reporting contradictory or inconsistent evidence and arriving at qualified judgments. The greatest single source of confusion in present statements on population problems is a strong ideological bias in writing. This bias has led to vagueness about the values at stake, use of incomplete theories and conceptual schemes, citation only of those parts of the evidence consistent with the authors' preconceptions, and conclusions based more on ideology than on a fair assessment of the evidence.

Sixth, policy recommendations in statements about population problems should be based on the evidence presented rather than on the personal preferences of the authors or the donors who have supported them. For example, after a lengthy discussion of the links between population growth and economic development, the 1986 NAS report suggests that governments should establish family-planning programs. This recommendation has little to do with the main lines of the report, which says nothing about family planning. This practice is intellectually misleading, for it suggests that the policy suggestions flow directly from the scholarly analysis, which in this case they do not.


Is there a population problem? When the focus is on single countries, when the source of information is the Population Policy Data Bank maintained by the United Nations, and when the definition of the population problem is the government's opinion on whether it has too many, too few, or the right number of people, it is possible to answer that question. But when the focus is on the world as a whole, and authors are concerned with different values, use different theories and sources of evidence, and become advocates for a particular point of view, there is and can be no answer.

To have more comparable notions of population problems, authors must clearly identify the geographical region they are discussing; indicate the values of concern to them; use all available evidence; apply theories or conceptual schemes that consider all relevant influences; weigh the evidence objectively; and draw only those conclusions supported by their analysis. The ideological discourse seen in current discussions of population problems must give way to scholarly analysis. When these criteria are met, more accurate, less biased, and more comparable discussions of population problems will be available.

donald p. warwick (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Aging and the Aged: Life Expectancy and Life Span; Children; Climate Change; Endangered Species and Biodiversity; Environmental Ethics; Epidemics; Fertility Control; Genetics and Environment in Human Health; Hazardous Wastes and Toxic Substances; International Health;Life, Quality of; and other Population Ethics subentries


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Ehrlich, Paul R., and Ehrlich, Anne H. 1990. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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