The Diseconomics of Growth

H.V. Hodson

Chapter X.

The Population Problem

It must be abundantly clear that population questions are close to the heart of the whole problem of growth. This is as true of any one country as it is of the whole world. The Doomsday prophecies about population growth are even more alarming than those about pressure on resources, and as counter-productive in psychological effect. Pictures of men and women packed shoulder to shoulder on every square yard of the Earth’s land surface are unacceptable to the imagination, and ineffectual as guides and spurs to practicable action now. They could not possibly come true, people think; nor could some of the predictions about global famine or plague. Therefore something is bound to happen to prevent them. People stop believing in statistics which show them a prospect they cannot conceive. And some of the statistics about future population growth and its effects which are offered to alarm us are indeed open to argument.

For example, it is said that upwards of 20 million people die of starvation every year, most of them children. If this is true, doubling the number of deaths by starvation would take care of about half the population growth problem in the “less developed countries.” But the fact is that few people, comparatively speaking, “die of starvation,” and those mostly in local famines or through the dislocations of war. Many millions die of diseases, ailments or injuries which attack or are fatal only because of their malnutrition, in quantity or quality of diet, and this happens in every country. If the nutritional levels were different, so too would be the vital statistics.

We do not know the future of nutritional standards, nor how changes in them will affect birth rates, as against death rates. We can only make projections which may be wrong. What, then, do we know for sure about future population? We know for sure (assuming census figures to be reliable) the maximum number of men and women of reproductive age, say 18 to 48 years, up to 18 years from now, because they have all been born already. We can have a fair shot at the minimum number, because we can assume that known mortality rates among children and in early middle life will not get substantially worse in that time. What of course we do not know is how fertile (in the statistical sense) these people will be when they come to child-bearing (or siring) age: this depends on social, medical, nutritional and economic factors which will develop meanwhile. Taking a second step into uncertainty, we can make a fair estimate of the upper and lower limits of numbers of births in, say, the next ten years, for we know the numbers of potential parents, and in so short a time their fertility rates will not dramatically vary from those presently operating. But if we compound with that degree of uncertainty the further degree that will apply to both birth rates and childhood-survival rates after ten years or so, and to the fertility rates of generations not yet born, we obviously multiply margins of possible error. Hence although we can be confident of being well within 20 per cent of the actual figure for total populations in, say, AD 2000 we must allow a much wider possible margin of error for calculations of trends in population growth at that time.

The figures which are about to be quoted must therefore be taken primarily as an indication of the scale of the problem, not very much more. They are drawn from projections in World Population Prospects, United Nations Population Studies Number 41 (1966), with a convincing amendment for Mainland East Asia (chiefly China) made by Dr. Frank W. Notestein in a paper for the 34th American Assembly (published 1969), who is also responsible for the average annual growth-rate column. The UN experts gave High and Low forecasts for AD 2000, based on different assumptions, and the difference between these is one index of our uncertainties in this field. [See table at end of chapter]

To summarise: world population will increase between now (1972) and the year 2000 from less than 4 billion to between 6 and 7 and a half billion. Split the difference, and say the increase will be nearly 3 billion souls (roughly equal to the whole world population in 1960). Of that increase, China will have contributed the best part of a billion, the less developed regions (excluding mainland East Asia) a little less than 2 billion, and the more developed regions 0.3 billion. It is best, for present purposes, to leave mainland China aside; for we know little about her vital statistics or their reliability, and still less about her economic growth or the trends in Chinese economic or social factors that will affect population growth and be affected by it.

That is the scale of the issue, seen world-wide. Its connections with economic growth are manifold. Here are some of the more obvious. First, every increase of population uses up some gross economic growth, just to keep the standard of living constant. Half of the nominal 5 per cent rate of increase of GNP in less developed countries as a group over the past decade has been needed merely to take care of their increased population (those averages conceal, of course, wide variations). The position is indeed even worse than that, because of the capital needs of added population: one figure for this, previously quoted, is 4 per cent capital increment needed for 1 per cent increase of population, and if that is correct then even some of the more favoured among the poorer countries are going backwards. Secondly, every person at a given standard of economic life uses a certain quantity of the world’s irreplaceable resources, in fuel, metals and so on, quite apart from food, which may or may not be a replaceable resource according to how food husbandry is managed; and with economic growth the consumption per person goes up steadily. If, to take by way of illustration some crude round figures, population in a less developed country goes up by 2 and a half per cent and economic growth per unit of population goes up by 2 and a half per cent, the use of energy and raw material resources probably goes up by substantially more than 5 per cent, because beyond a certain low threshold of subsistence that use increases faster than gross income. This question of resource-use is vital in relating population growth in advanced countries to that of poor countries, a point that will be elaborated later. Thirdly, the same multiplication applies to pollution and other environmental effects, which in turn have repercussions upon health, fertility and mortality. Fourthly, economic growth changes not only average standards of consumption but also social patterns and attitudes, with various effects upon fertility, upwards and downwards, and upon politics both internal and international, again with unforeseeable demographic and economic repercussions.

The world population problem is therefore to be seen as everybody’s problem, because it is critical to the ecology of the human species, its total means of life. To us of the advanced Western world the problem is commonly presented in terms of the excessive reproduction rates of highly-populated, poor countries, like India, or Indonesia, or certain regions of Latin America, the lesser breeds without the pill: if only, we often think, the Indians or the Egyptians or the Chinese or the Brazilians or somebody else (but not the Americans or British or French) could be stopped from having children faster than they can provide food and jobs for them, the problem would go away. But this will not do. We cannot parcel out the genetic growth of the human race on lines of nationality or rich-poor contrasts. This for a number of reasons, besides the obvious humanitarian one that we men are all brethren, having inherited the Earth together and sharing it as our home.

To begin with, the problem is theoretically almost open-ended. Its present acuteness is due largely, not to increased natural fertility in man, but to prolonged human survival, thanks to better and more peaceable government, to medical advances, and to measures of public health and control of pests and disease-bearing vectors. These measures are capable of continuing to prolong human life, with no certain limit, and may do so in countries at all stages of economic advancement. For example, suppose everyone in our own advanced Western countries lived a year longer; this would very soon increase the population by roughly one-fiftieth. By this single improvement we should have added 2 per cent, or twice the actual annual growth rate, permanently to the population, regardless of birth and fertility rates. The Chief Medical Officer of Health in Britain has said that lives would actually be prolonged by two years, on average, if everyone gave up smoking. The average expectation of life in England and Wales is longer than that in the United States by 1.7 years for males and 0.7 years for females. If the United States expectation were raised to the English level, there would be very soon three million more Americans than there are now, again ignoring any expansive effect which this prolongation of average life would undoubtedly have upon births. So even the richest, most medicated countries in the world have probably not stopped growing in numbers at the top end, however contraception or social custom may staunch the inflow at the bottom end.

In the second place, the total population of Europe (outside Russia), North America, Australia and New Zealand is about the same as the population of China—so far as we know—substantially more than the population of India and Pakistan combined, and more than twice the whole population of Africa. Population trends affecting this affluent group are clearly as important statistically as those affecting any other major racial or continental group.

Moreover, the consumption of food per head by these 750 millions is far higher than that of the teeming poor countries of the world, and their consumption of other natural resources (fuel, minerals, timber and so on) is incomparably higher. If there is a crisis of pressure of population upon resources, who makes it? Those with little demands, or those with high demands? The increase in population of the more developed regions between now and AD 2000 will be one-sixth of the in crease in the less developed regions outside China, but according to the same estimation it will consume six times as much food.

Granted that there is a limit to world food supply, then what the rich eat the poor cannot eat, and what the poor eat the rich cannot eat. The poor are always aware of this: the rich may become increasingly aware of it as the whole human race presses against its natural environment.

When we look at the problem of population in this global way, and dismiss from our minds the idea that it is someone else’s business, we see at once that it is not primarily an economic or a medical problem but a social problem. Wherever a child is born, or a life saved, it does not happen in abstract, generalised circumstances, but always in a particular family and social surrounding. We know this well for ourselves. If asked why our families are as they are—marriage at such and such an age, so many children dispersed over so many years—we can find the answer only in the totality of our lives, in how and where we have lived as well as in our economic circumstances, in the background of our relations with others and with society at large as well as the foreground of our private affections, prudence or improvidence, or attitudes towards birth control. It needs imagination to recognise that the same is true of families in Afghanistan or Argentina or Antigua. We in the West have had at our disposal for two generations widely-dispersed knowledge and means for “family planning,” but their effect in determining long-term population growth in any rational way has been as inconsistent as the effect of the economic knowledge and means at our governments’ disposal in rationally determining our economic progress and stability.

It is therefore only Stage One in the solution of the world population problem to spread knowledge and means of family planning. We have to consider, if we are to accomplish Stage Two, the total life-standards of the people, and this in every major region of the world. We have to see the problem, moreover, not merely in crude Malthusian terms of mouths versus food, but in terms of everything that enters into life-standards—religion, social relations, family structure, everything. Man does not live by bread alone.

Even in terms of bread, we can be misled too easily. Much immediate anxiety about the world population problem has been relieved by the so-called “Green Revolution,” already discussed in Chapter V—the introduction of new plant strains, combined with better agricultural methods, which over the past few years has vastly increased the output of food, especially wheat and rice, in many countries. Thus Clifford M Hardin writes:

Hope that the world’s population of 2000 AD can be fed and fed better than in mankind’s entire history arises from accomplishments recorded in the late 1960s. It is still a hope, not a certainty. But this optimistic goal is attainable with continuing concerted efforts of unprecedented magnitude by the world’s community of nations.

There is a feeling abroad nowadays that since there is or can be (it is claimed) enough food to go round, the population problem is solved, at any rate for a breathing-space while birth-control takes hold. But even if one accepts this view, which is very dubious, how does the food go round? That is the question. One might as well say that if every cultivable acre in the broad, lightly-populated temperate countries like the United States, Canada or Australia were as productively farmed as in, say, the best agricultural areas of England or Denmark, there would be plenty of food for everyone. That is true, in a sense, and a fact not to be forgotten. But how would “everybody” get it? Does “everybody” get it even in our own rich countries? Have we not our own undernourished, even sometimes our starving?

The “Green Revolution” requires better agricultural methods, more investment in the farm, more irrigation and fertiliser. These things cost money. The farmer who spends that money expects to get at least the previous market price per unit for his increased crops. If, say, rice is X rupees a maund in Indian city markets, it does not help the poor city-dweller, who has only a few rupees a week for food, to know that instead of Y thousand maunds for sale there are Y plus 40 per cent. The peasant certainly gets more food for his labour, the villager probably gets more food for his customary work, the farmer’s higher money income spreads more purchasing power round the neighbourhood, and for all this everyone is thankful; but it is almost certain that fewer people work the land to produce more, that a drift to the towns and cities follows, and that the poor man in the city is just as poor, just as unable to buy enough food for his family, as he was before, unless there is some great scheme of subsidy or redistribution of income or urban job promotion. The problem is shifted from production to distribution, both in the literal sense of getting the food from where it is harvested to where the hungry millions need it, and in the economists’ sense of apportionment of income or national product.

Some ten years ago I was talking in Delhi with one of the authors of India’s third Five-Year Plan. What, I asked, was his major problem in drawing up a satisfactory balance-sheet of her economy over that period. He did not hesitate: it was to close the employment gap. So many millions more would want work; the most favourable forecasts of the jobs that would be created by expanded industry, capital investment, foreign aid, taking land into cultivation, and so on, fell some two million short of that figure. What do you think will happen, I asked. “You know India,” he replied, “and you know that there will not be two million identifiable men with no work, no money, no food. People live with their relations, one man with an income may support several families, people scratch a living somehow. It is not that two millions will starve but that many millions will live at an even lower standard than before.” And of course, if that forecast were correct, there would be repercussions on birth and death rates and capacity for economic growth.

One immediate corollary is the fact that if, by enabling everyone in the poor countries to have enough food, they were all to live longer, the statistics of world population would become even worse. The population of the poor countries would grow faster; there would be still more mouths to feed, and a downward cycle might soon begin again. Social scientists tell us that there are countervailing factors; that, at a certain level, rising standards of life bring falling rates of reproduction; that it is the hardest of tasks to promote birth control among the very poor who can only live from day to day. But only time can prove whether the positive or negative forces win in the repercussions of rising food supply upon world population.

When we have digested two basic propositions about the world population problem, namely,

First, that as a global problem, one of the future of the human species, one of inflated consumption versus limited resources, it concerns every country of the world, rich and poor, your country and my country as well as other people’s countries, and therefore you and me as well as them;

Secondly, that it is inherently an individual and family issue, and can be dealt with only at the level of the individual and the family;

we begin to comprehend its nature and the difficulty of solving it. For, to begin with, the case of every family is different, and the case of every national or social group is different, from that of any other.

You who are reading this may have no children, or one child, or two or three or six children; you may be one of a dozen brothers and sisters, or an only child; you may be well-to-do, or scraping to make both ends meet; you may be physically strong or weak; you may belong to any race in the world. Would you take your own example as typical in regard to the human population problem? Would you generalise from it in framing global policy? Few will answer “yes.” There is always something special about our own case.

Whatever, then, the eventual solution of the world population problem may be—if there is one solution, and not many—it will have to be such as to work upon an immense variety of personal cases: rich lands and poor lands, rich parents and poor parents, people in cities and people in villages, people of all colours and climes, Asians and Americans, Russians and Chinese, English and Egyptians—in different ways, no doubt, and to different effect, but in some way or other.

In late 1967, some thirty nations agreed to the following pronouncement:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice or decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

Unexceptional, one would think, almost platitudinous.

But the population prophets are outraged. Garrett Hardin, for instance, writes (in Science, 13th December 1968):—

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience... The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort... The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.

This is impressive in logic, so long as it is stated in a general way. But who are “we” who are to control the breeding of mankind, and who are “we” who must relinquish the freedom to breed? Is that freedom to be relinquished by every person, or every family, and by every nation? The “coercion” must be applied by somebody: in the present organisation of the world, it could only be by the governments of nation states. How can it be agreed that they all do so? And how do they administer such coercion?

Suppose a government were to say “It is punishable for any couple or family to have more than three children.” Imagine the complexity of a law defining a couple or a family in this context, taking care of death and divorces and separations, and in some countries polygamy. Another population prophet, John Fischer, adopting the appeal to conscience which Garrett Hardin rejects, writes (in Harper’s Magazine, September 1969) that in his Survival University “the biology department, for example, will point out that it is sinful to have more than two children.” Sinful for whom? For the father or the mother? That may not be the same thing. This is a peculiar sin, for though two people are needed to commit it one of them may be innocent of intent: indeed both may be, for unlike, say, adultery it may be committed by mistake, or out of ignorance or incompetence. If it is sinful to have more than two children, is it meritorious to have two, meritorious or sinful to have fewer than two? When Bishop Montefiore makes the Eighth Commandment in his modern Decalogue “You shall not commit sexual sin by producing more children than is your right” [see note 1] he begs several questions. Who are you—father or mother—and how can you know “your right” when right and wrong must differ according to many circumstances? Sin is personal: it requires a sinner, and he (or she) must know without uncertainty when he sins. To keep population stable—allowing for some sterility and infantile mortality—fertile couples need to beget on average about 2.4 children. Is that, then, their moral “right?” How can it be sinless to beget, after two children, another half-child, but sinful to beget a whole child? In all this, governmental compulsion faces the same dilemmas as Christian morals. If, furthermore, it were pronounced sinful to create life, it might soon be found virtuous to take life. Indeed, compulsory euthanasia, as the sanction behind voluntary suicide, would be, logically, no less sound a way of controlling population than compulsory birth control, as the sanction behind voluntary contraception.

Let us, however, look a little closer at the possibilities of compulsion. We can, I suppose, eliminate enforced infanticide, or enforced abortion. Such measures are not only repugnant to human conscience but incapable of being worked. Compulsory sterilisation seems to escape some of the objections. Suppose every father of three (or four) children were obliged by penal law to undergo vasectomy, so that he could sire no more. It sounds simple enough. But one has only to imagine a few cases to see how inadmissible it would be if it were uniformly applied; how unjust, and in the end ineffective, if applied with discrimination. A man travels, removes to another place; who knows how many children, in or out of wedlock, he leaves behind? Another has had three children and a vasectomy when his wife dies: if he marries again his new wife is doomed to sterility. In another family, disease or disaster strikes the children, so that only one or none is left: the sterilisation of the father is irrevocable. The rich man says: “Why should I not have as many children as my wife and I choose? I can support them; they are no burden to anyone. They will be nurtured, educated, endowed not only with financial means but also with hereditary ability. Vasectomy is for the poor, the improvident, the parasitical.” The poor man says: “My children are all that I have. They work from early days. Because we are poor they take little out. Vasectomy is for the idle rich or the greedy bourgeois.”

If this kind of compulsion admits discrimination between persons, or if the level at which it operates is so high as to minimise resentment (if, say, five children are allowed before sterilisation), it will in any case be quite ineffective in cutting population growth by any significant fraction.

No, if we cannot find some better form of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” then we must come back to the individual, to the father and mother and the family, and recognise that only they in their millions will decide the issue, subject to whatever persuasions, penalties and inducements may be offered them by governments, moralists or social taboos—unless it is decided by Malthusian disasters of pestilence and famine.

The first conclusion to be drawn is that means of family regulation must be readily available to all. It is futile to throw the responsibility on the individual unless he has the means to discharge it. Of course this embraces all sorts of measures besides contraceptive devices: abstinence, late marriage, rhythm and other “natural” methods of contraception. These are certainly ways of life, and may have every bit as much to contribute to the global evolution as IUCDs and the rest of the familiar apparatus of birth control. But they are not for everybody, and if we really mean to make ordinary men and women responsible for the destiny of mankind, as indeed we must, we are bound to offer them the tools for the job.

So far, this does not seem to me to be a moral issue. Morality depends upon free will, upon the possibility of choice between right and wrong. If the means for some action are not present, to abstain from it is neither moral nor immoral. Abstinence from alcohol may be a virtue, but there is no virtue in it when all alcoholic drink is prohibited. Prohibition in the United States was a social measure, not a moral one. Likewise, prohibition of contraceptive clinics or literature is not a moral measure but a social one, to be justified on social grounds. For those who believe—and their belief is to be respected—that the use of contraceptives is a moral issue, it is an issue that arises only when contraceptives are available, and the individual can choose, according to his conscience, whether or not to use them. Inserting an IUCD or taking the pill, if it is a sin, is not a sin that can be committed, as Our Lord said of adultery, in the mind. The task of the morally opposed is not to ban the capacity to choose but to inform and train the conscience.

In this, as in other spheres of daily life—drink, for instance, or personal vanity—there are other competitors for the conscience. Some may be evil—those who promote contraceptives merely as a way to sexual irresponsibility and indulgence: others may be good, based on moral principles of their own. Such would be propagation of the principle that every man or woman is responsible not only for his own behaviour but also for his contribution to the behaviour of mankind, beginning with his group or nation. If the behaviour of mankind is self-destructive, it is right that men and women should be taught to take this fact into account. This is the modern teaching, it would seem, of the Roman Catholic Church. In a booklet entitled Population Explosion—a Christian Concern, published in October 1971 by the Vatican’s Commission for International Justice and Peace, Father Arthur McCormack writes that if the Church were to ignore this problem, regarded outside the Church as involving the very existence of the human race and the quality of human life, it would not be without blame were governments in ten or twenty years’ time to adopt immoral and inhuman methods of solving it. In many circumstances, he says, the large family is no longer the Christian ideal, but rather the smaller family, which takes into account both the modern difficulties of family life and the population situation.

That implies the second general conclusion. Not only should there be freedom to teach human macrobiology and its meaning for each of us as potential fathers or mothers, but governments and international organisations, especially the United Nations and its subsidiary organs, should positively promote such teaching. It is an aspect of truth which is vitally important for all mankind.

The third conclusion is that fiscal and other measures which encourage large families should be abolished, and preferably even reversed. This could be a powerful tool in population control. It is no good preaching responsible behaviour to the individual if the State is always ready to step in and take over his responsibilities, in this case by subsidising the cost of his children. In wealthy countries it is right for the State to provide that no child or family should starve, but it is wrong to make it as easy economically for a low-income family to have five children as to have one. And it is positively absurd that students should be given grants which enable them to marry while dependent on public support for their education and even subsistence; to encourage irresponsibility in matrimony is to encourage irresponsibility in parenthood.

All those three points are necessities which any country, rich or poor, can observe. In this field, indeed, the richer countries have a special obligation, if only because their peoples consume so much more of the resources of our planet. The world has to live within its means, and in this the better off should show the way to the worse off. Thrift is not convincingly preached by the extravagant, nor prudence by the improvident. The poor Pakistani or Colombian has a life-style which causes him to beget more children than we think his personal and national means can support;—so we bid him change his life-style, forsake his religious taboos, adopt our attitudes towards child-bearing and children, and when he asks why, what business it is of ours, is this not a plot to keep his people weak while we grow stronger, we can only answer that his problem is everyone’s problem, a world problem, that the limited resources of the world will just not go round. Can we say this without hypocrisy? Providence, like charity, begins at home. We can at least give up our obsession with economic growth, which aggravates the population expansion problem as much as birth control is likely to alleviate it.

Indeed, of the two, economic growth is contributing more to the world’s impending troubles with resources and pollution than is population growth. The annual percentage rate is higher, and to reverse the trend is even more difficult. “There is no doubt that slower population growth would make it easier to improve our environment, but not much easier” (Ansley J. Coale, in Science, 9th October 1970). We cannot shift the guilt of unmitigated growth by blaming unmitigated fertility.

Note 1. Rutherford Lecture 1971 by the Right Rev, the Bishop of Kingston: Manchester University Press.

World Population Projection

(In Millions)

@@@@ @@@@ @@@@ @@@@ @@@@
Average annual
growth rate
Projected1960-2000 on
World 2998 4554 6056 7496 2.0
Less Developed
Regions 2022 3360 4762 5922 2.4
More Developed
Regions 976 1194 1293 1574 1.0
East Asia (ex
Japan) 701 1154 1610 1986 2.3
South Asia 865 1420 1984 2444 2.3
Africa 273 449 684 864 2.6
Americas 179 332 477 619 2.9
Pacific Islands 3 5 6 9 2.3
Europe 425 479 491 563 0.5
USSR 214 278 316 403 1.3
North America 199 262 294 376 1.4
Japan 93 111 115 139 0.7
Temperate South
America 33 46 55 67 1.7
Australia and NZ 13 18 22 26 1.6

Created from a nineteenth or early twentieth century text by Athelstane E-Texts