World Population—Is It a Problem?
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
AT ONE time, there was a lot of publicity about the population bomb and the population explosion. Now scientists are telling us that the earth is far from overcrowded and could support many times its present population. What is the true situation?
Recently, in the Philippine capital of Manila, the fourth International Population Conference was sponsored by the World Population Society and the Philippines’ Population Center Foundation. We heard specialists from Asia, Africa and America discuss this problem. We believe that you will find what they said to be interesting.
Is There a Problem?
Someone once calculated that if all the available land and water were evenly distributed among today’s population, each person would have five acres (2.02 hectares) of land and 17 acres (6.9 hectares) of water half a mile (0.8 km) deep! That does not sound like a problem of accommodations space, does it? However, this same person calculated that, by the year 2600 C.E., at a growth rate of 2 percent per year, this would diminish to one square yard (.8 sq. m) of living space for each person. That would be a problem.
Of course, what might happen 700 years in the future is not going to cause us many sleepless nights right now. But even today many millions of people are experiencing the problems of overpopulation in their individual areas. Some exist in a precarious balance between subsistence and starvation; and not a few persons believe that their experience today could be the experience of all mankind in the future.
We heard that 70 percent of the world’s population belongs to the so-called Third World, or the developing countries. The population of these countries is being increased each minute by the birth of between two and three and a half babies. The Third World reportedly consumes 8.4 billion pounds (3.81 billion kg) of food, 16.8 billion pounds (7.6 billion kg) of water and inhales 168 billion pounds (76 billion kg) of air daily. While the air is still plentiful (if somewhat polluted in some areas), this population growth has resulted in a shortage of food and water in many lands.
Imagine coming home from a hard day’s work in the fields and finding that there was no water to wash in or even to drink. This is what some are experiencing even now, because too many people are drawing on too little water. The Food and Agriculture Organization was quoted as saying that “the availability of fresh water for all mankind is in doubt at the turn of the century. Global demand for fresh water will increase by 240% by that time.”
Regarding the availability of food, the statement was made that, following the current growth trends, mankind would double in number in the next 25 years. Since millions even now do not get enough to eat, this means that food production would have to more than double. One speaker stated that an increase of 3 to 4 percent annually would be needed over the next 25 years, in order to combat hunger.
Will this be possible? It is true that under ideal conditions this earth could support many times its present population. But conditions are far from ideal. Less developed lands are even now having to struggle to increase their food production. And the economic situation makes it difficult for them to buy from richer nations when they have a need.
Additionally, as poorer countries expand their agricultural lands, they tend to spread toward the forests and mountains. This results in deforestation. Often floods of devastating proportions result. And what if they look to the sea for their needed additional food? Apparently even the resources of the seemingly boundless ocean are limited. Twenty-one million tons of fish were taken from the oceans in 1950. In 1970, this reached 70 million tons. Then the catch declined, and in 1973 only 65 million tons were harvested.
It is obvious that if food and population are not brought into balance, serious problems will continue to haunt mankind.
Why Is There a Problem?
In 1660, it is estimated, there were only 500 million people on earth. The growth rate then was reportedly one tenth of one percent. At that rate, the first billion should have been reached some time in the 24th century. In fact, the first billion came in 1830. The second billion arrived in 1930, the third in 1960 and the fourth in 1975. By the year 2000, a population of between six and eight billion is expected at present increase rates. The year 2000 is not so far away, is it?
Why the increased growth rate? For one thing, the infant mortality rate has been cut, and more babies are growing up and having their own babies. The havoc wreaked by certain epidemics has also been checked. In addition, early marriage and childbearing and, sadly, pregnancies among unmarried teen-agers were mentioned as causes contributing to the continuing acceleration in population increase. Additionally, Mrs. Seria Grewal of the Ministry of Health and Welfare in India was reported as saying that low literacy and low economic status were barriers to government programs of family planning to combat the problem.
There is also a clash between the implementers of family planning programs and their religious opponents. Religious beliefs have encouraged many to have large families. Additionally, in many lands children are viewed as wealth and security. This has resulted in high population growth rates.
Can the Problem Be Solved?
So there is a problem, and we know some of the reasons for it. Now, what is being done about it? It was felt that all countries should respect the right of persons to determine the number and spacing of their children. However, Philander P. Claxton, president and chairman of the World Population Society, felt that countries should keep aiming for the goals set at a previous conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1975: that, on an average, within two or three decades, each member nation should achieve a two-child family. Even if this goal were reached, the world population would reach 5.9 billion by the end of the century. Seemingly, however, a four- to six-child family is still common in most developing countries.
The serious way in which some view this problem was seen recently in the Philippines. A bill was introduced in the Interim Batasang Pambansa (the current Philippine parliament) with the stated purpose of balancing food and shelter availability with the number of the country’s future inhabitants by penalizing families having more than two children. The bill proposed that a mother having two surviving children would pay a fine of 100 pesos (about $15, U.S.) at the birth of her third child, 200 pesos ($30, U.S.) at the birth of her fourth, and so forth. This is in line with the comments of some sources that someday parenthood may be a privilege, not a right.
The bill met much opposition, naturally. Foremost opposers were leaders of the Catholic Church. The 80-member Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines rejected the proposal by stating: “The right of parents to determine the number of their children is an inalienable human right that cannot be removed by legislative fiat. The teachings of the Church on this matter are unequivocal. . . . In view of the inalienable right to marry and beget children, the question of how many children should be born belongs to the honest judgment of the parents. The question can in no way be committed to the decision of the government.”
Progress So Far
In early conferences on population, the stress was laid on centralized population programs for curbing growth. Claims have been made of substantial reductions in birthrates in China, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, Costa Rica, Colombia, Tunisia, Hong Kong and the Philippines, among others. Sixty-three developing countries have their own family-planning programs.
Fertility rates were said to have dropped in China from an average of 4.2 to 3.2 children per woman of childbearing age. In Indonesia it had dropped from 6.5 to 4.6. The World Health Organization has for 10 years been administering a program of research, development and training in human reproduction. The program is supported by voluntary contributions, and scientists from 62 countries are involved. By 1976, according to reports, almost $1,000,000,000 (U.S.) was being spent to help with family planning.
The Philippine conference did not stress the need for knowledge of family-planning devices and techniques, although these were viewed as important. The emphasis was, rather, on involvement of the community in population problems, and the use of local resources to combat the problems. Health, nutrition and community development were seen as linked with population control. The World Population Plan of Action (adopted by the United Nations World Population Conference in 1974) was quoted as stating: “Population goals are recognized as ‘integral parts’ of social, economic and cultural development.”
Education, employment and general economic development were also seen as tied in with the population problem. Youths make up about 1.3 billion of the earth’s population, hence the experts want sex education and premarital counseling to be available to this large group of people. Mechai Viravaidya of Thailand wanted children to be taught about sex and family planning, not to be embarrassed. He reportedly claimed a pregnancy reduction of 40 percent in a third of the villages in Thailand as a result of the “desensitization” and publicity about family planning. Zahia Marzouk of Egypt is reported as saying: “We were able to raise the economic standards of women by teaching them income-generating skills and as a result there was increased interest in limiting family size.”
There Is a Population Problem
From what was said at the conference, it was very clear to us that there is a population problem. While the earth is far from full now, if the population keeps increasing, one day the earth will be more than full. And although it is true that, if the wealth of the earth were evenly distributed, there would be more than enough for everyone, that ideal situation does not exist. Actually, millions of people are living in overpopulated areas. And while many of the richer countries are not rapidly increasing their populations, poorer countries are. Hence, their problems are likely to become more severe.
Everyone at the conference in Manila was in agreement that population is a big problem. Nations were urged to abandon considerations of national interests and work in this regard for the good of the international community. Rich countries were urged to limit their excessive consumption of the world’s riches, and poorer lands were encouraged to limit their numbers. Cooperation was seen as a means to curb growth. But will it happen?
If it will take international cooperation to solve the population problem, then—judging from this world’s record up until now—this is likely to remain another one of those problems that cannot be solved under the present system of things.