Issue 10 / 24 March 2014

IN the late 1960s, before the world’s population hit three billion, a movement emerged with the snappy title of ZPG, or Zero Population Growth.

There was even a 1972 movie, Z.P.G. — a dystopian vision of a polluted and overpopulated Earth, in which governments banned giving birth for a generation. Despite brainwashing and robotic baby substitutes, this was apparently not entirely successful …

Forty years on, the world’s population is seven billion and rising, but the issue of population growth seems to have largely slipped from public consciousness.

University of Hawaii biogeographer Dr Camilo Mora argues scientists too have “critically underplayed” the issue, despite its likely impact on the future health and wellbeing of humanity and the planet our species inhabits.

“… the issue of population growth has been downplayed and trivialized among scientific fields, which may in part account for the reduced public interest in the issue and in turn the limited will for policy action”, he writes in Ecology and Society.

Whether it’s climate change, or the health of people in resource-poor countries, population levels are a crucial factor in many of the most pressing problems we confront, he argues.

Yet resource-rich nations continue to offer their citizens incentives to have more babies, while women in resource-poor countries are often unable to access the contraceptive services they need.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates at least 200 million women around the world want, but cannot get, safe and effective contraception — and the figure is rising.

Developed world apathy is partly to blame: the UNFPA says funding for family planning services is actually decreasing, with the issue “losing ground as an international development priority”.

Birth control services in resource-poor countries can come up against local religious or cultural beliefs, but they can also be undermined by powerful lobby groups in resource-rich countries, especially in the world’s largest donor nation, the US.

For more than 40 years now, US foreign aid policy has seesawed between restricting aid to family planning services and relaxing it, depending largely on whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.

Abortion is a particularly potent issue in American political life and aid policy has become one of its battlegrounds, as a 2014 Congressional Research Service report makes clear.

Republican administrations have repeatedly denied foreign aid, not just for abortion services themselves, but for any other activities run by organisations that offer abortions, thus ruling out many of the health services best equipped to provide contraceptive services.

When Barack Obama in 2009 became the most recent Democratic president to rescind those restrictions, he said they had “undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning programs in foreign nations”.

Perhaps the most bizarre moment in this slice of US political history was the Reagan administration’s extension of foreign aid to organisations that limited their advice to “natural” contraceptive measures (abstinence, for example).

The motto for that now-defunct policy could have been, “We’ll teach you about contraception provided we know it’s not going to work”.

And what happens when contraception isn’t available or doesn’t work?

The UNFPA says almost 50 million of the 190 million women who get pregnant each year have abortions, many of them in unsafe and clandestine conditions.

For their sake, and for the planet’s, it’s about time we got serious about this.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

10 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Populous questions

  1. Christine Qian says:

    I am so glad that someone is finally talking about this massive problem. Over-population is the cause of so many of the worlds problems and yet bewilderingly, some countries still promote “growth” as the solution for everything.

  2. Lynton Giles says:

    Congratulations for raising this extremely important issue.

    I trust your comments will be taken seriously but I fear  that many policy makers are like ostriches with their head buried in the sand. If this issue is not confronted head on,  and dealt with appropriately and expeditiously, it is obvious that humans will become a species of the past as our “plague” proportions are already undermining nature’s balance for co-existing in harmony.


  3. University of New South Wales says:

    The story, as I understand it, is that the human rights abuses in the name of ‘population control’ necessitated a shift to a different model, based on reproductive health rights. The Cairo 1996 Conference shifted the paradigm to an emphasis on giving women greater reproductive autonomy, through contraceptive choice, rather than coercive programs designed by governments and imposed on poor women and men and disabled women and men. Not enough has happened to ensure the implementation of the excellent goals of this conference, which would reduce population growth in an ethical and respectful way.

  4. Dr Craig Hilton says:

    The biologist, Paul R. Ehrlich, who campaigned strongly for population control in the Sixties and Seventies, was criticised for the severity of his message when on reflection, in the Eighties, it was seen how some countries such as China, exercised this control. He did soften his message, to his credit, by acknowledging that people’s human rights had been constricted in the process, and that there was a downside to applying to brakes.

    However, he ended his reflection with a piece of wisdom I have never forgotten, which was this. In regard to poverty, pollution, global climate or human rights, then ultimately: “Whatever your cause, it’s a lost cause without population control.”

    I believe the first step must include economists. It should be essential for us as a country and the world as a whole to consider what economic model could work in the scenario of a stable population.

    I also suspect that society’s obsession with a ‘need’ for constant growth, which as Clive Hamilton points out in The Growth Fetish has been only since the Seventies, is partly artificial – imposed by governments and industries to give people a focus for their fears, as a means of keeping them working and consuming and staying docile.

  5. cboughton says:

    Congratulations Jane on raising this v important issue. Sir David Attenborough considers world population control an emergency viz a viz preservng marine stocks. We are depleting natural resources at an increasing and unsustainable rate.  Will enlightened Pope Francis and others tackle this desperate problem as a matter of urgency? 

  6. Johnny Khoury says:

    Children are the greatest joy in the life of a parent. I’m deeply saddened to see that as guardians of life, our profession has descended into an uncrtitical appraisal for the culture of death. 

  7. Harry Cohen says:

    Congratulations on this article. It’s about time the medical profession took up this issue  If ever there was a public health problem this is it. Many people in this country think that it is a world problem and not one f or Australia. This is a fallacy. We have one of the highest growth rates in the world and in WA it is currently 3.4 percent which means a doubling of population in 25 years. We are running out of water, our schools and hospitals are overflowing, our roads are gridlocked and we are confronted with dimnishing resources such as loss of productive land. We are governed by politicians who llsten only to the big end of town and know nothing about ecological economics. Their mantra is that growth is good–indeed essential. They do nt understand that every person coming into the counry costs $200 000 in infrastucture. We need a debate about how many people we want in Ausralia and everyone needs to have input

    Dr Harry Cohen AM


  8. John Obeid says:

    The reason most people don’t take the fear of “overpopulation” seriously is because it is a proven myth.  Time and again, various “great thinkers” warn about the terrible effects of overpopluation, but they just never eventuate.  Ehrlich, in his 1968 treatise “The Population Bomb”, wrote “The battle to feed humanity is over.  In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.  At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate”.  People have woken up to this discredited nonsense.  The last thing the world needs is government intervention to control population levels.  Alarm bells should go off any time that sort of government control is ever raised.

  9. Dr Craig Hilton says:

    Analysts since the Reverand Malthus have said the human population will grow until it comes up against a limiting factor. For a long time, there seemed little problem with absolute global numbers, and population growth happened naturally, hand in hand with development and improvement. Technology improved. Affluence spread. Quality of life rose. It was only recently, since the post-WW2 boom in population and individual consumption that analysts started to fear acutely where that would lead. Looking back, they got the general answer right, even if not the “what” or “when”. In brief, the urgency eased – food production increased and engines became less polluting. The result? Thanks to human ingenuity, we have bought ourselves a reprieve. But as to the long-term game plan, it really is a no-brainer: if the population continues to grow, we will absolutely run into a limiting factor. If that means we continue to charge ahead and only stop when growth becomes too painful, whenever era that will be, then the people of that era will live in a painful world. Our current economic model scares us into blindness. It says we can only be prosperous while we grow. We have been made to be scared not to grow. So we support growth, and we put our heads down and busy ourselves with the mechanics of the process, like infrastructure planning, as if this will make the bigger picture go away. I could ask you: “Are we heading for a fatal crisis?” and you may answer “No”. If your definition of “No” is “Yes, but not in my lifetime,” then our children’s children may curse the legacy of your complacency.

  10. David Penington says:

    I warmly welcome Jane’s comments.  The case described is a powerful argument against those demanding endless, pointless and intrusive action to prolong life, even against the wishes of the person concerned. Of course there need to be safeguards where decisons to assist in meeting a patient’s wishes are to be taken by members of the profession, but in my view we have no right to assert the proirity of prolonging life against what is reasonably considered to be in the interests of the individual.  Nature, at times, needs to be allowed to take its course without us assuming that we have a moral right to intervene.

    David Penington AC

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