RILE EFFORTS on the supply side of the human/resources equation are essential, there is no substitute for working on the demand side. Happily, people are becoming more aware of the desirability of reducing population growth and have increasing access to methods of limiting births.
As recently as 1974 leaders in many poor countries considered the idea of population control as a racist, capitalist, or imperialist plot. Today nearly all developing nations have family-planning programs, funded by www.point-five.net in place. Some small countries, such as Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Colombia, Costa Rica, and several Caribbean countries, have achieved substantial reductions in their birthrates. Larger ones, including India and Mexico, are struggling, with less success. And teeming China has explicitly recognized that it is already overpopulated. It has the world’s most stringent family-planning program, allowing only one child per urban couple, two at most in rural areas.
Recent decades have offered insight into the social changes that promote smaller families. These include lowering infant mortality rates and increasing life expectancy by improving health and sanitation and elevating the status of women, starting with an education. Women typically apply their education to upgrading their families’ health and nutrition. Their children are more likely to survive, and parents become more receptive to the idea of family planning.
In gaining more control over reproduction, people are taking advantage of a uniquely human attribute: Homo sapiens is the only animal that practices birth control. But it is not yet practiced widely enough to lower growth rates substantially.
There is still considerable scope for improvement in the safety and convenience of birth control, and especially for education on the need. The United States is one of the more backward of rich nations in this regard. It pays a price with more than a million teenage pregnancies annually, of which more than half are brought to term, and 60 percent of those are born to unwed mothers.
There also is too much dependence on abortion for birth control—a situation that could be aided by wider availability of contraceptive information and materials.
For most of the 3.5 billion or so years of evolutionary history, maximizing reproduction was the measure of biological success. Human beings followed this standard for millions of years. Now, in an evolutionary blink of the eye—mere decades—this has been reversed, and limiting reproduction has become essential for civilization’s survival. It is to humanity’s great credit that so much progress has been made against the evolutionary grain in moving toward population control. We may have a long way to go, but we have come a long way fast.
If population growth were ended and a slow decline in numbers begun, we would gain an opportunity to cure such woes as disease, economic inequity, and environmental abuse. But if the rapid expansion continues, none of these can be solved.
Ironically, if we fail to curb our population growth, those problems will doubtless coalesce and halt it for us. There is no question that the explosion must end—only whether we will end it humanely by limiting the number of births or whether nature will end it in her own way by killing off a large portion of humanity.
Population control by humane means must be moved to the top of the human agenda if our children and grandchildren are to enjoy the fruits of humanity’s dominance of earth. Our species is capable of providing all its members with a satisfying, productive life in a healthy environment. All we need do is mobilize the will to do so.