The Great Population Debate

Journal of Social, Political,
and Economic Studies,
 Spring, 2007,

The debate over how many people the
world can accommodate began to surface after WW II when
new life saving drugs such as penicillin cut death rates
and populations grew faster than ever before–from about
1 billion at the end of the 19th Century to about 6
billion by 1999.

The talk of what dangers the
numbers present has become far more diversified (with
the advent of HIV/AIDS) and even somewhat muted (by
optimistic views which counter the doomsayers) since the
1960`s, but a review of some of the widely differing
opinions which are expressed in this article leaves even
the expert uncertain of the correct answer to what must
be seen as a continuing dilemma: Matching resources and
the needs of people in balance well enough to keep the
world from exploding into another perhaps fatal nuclear
worldwide conflict. As always, the verdict remains in
human hands.

Even the most avid
such as the late

Professor Julian Simon
might ultimately admit that
enlarging the world`s human numbers at the expense of
every other living entity might not be a wise course.

The wide spectrum of opinion 
between, say, those who agree with my friend, the

late Garrett Hardin
, and those backing Julian Simon
as to what the optimum level of

human population
in the world should be are wildly
at variance.

In his book, Living Within
Hardin notes, "There is no pure population
problem: the problem is one of population and
resources.  The well being of a population depends on
the ratio of the size of the population to the magnitude
of available resources."
  Indeed, but of course
Simon and his successors claim that humans will adjust
and that resources will be found to endlessly meet their
needs. (1)

The Simon position still seems to
be widely accepted.  Recall the story of his earlier bet
with Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb about the effects of growing population on
the price of strategic raw materials.  When commodity
prices failed to rise as Ehrlich predicted, Simon
collected his bet. (2)

Recently, I heard a speech at the
November 2004 Philanthropy Roundtable`s Annual Meeting
in Florida by

Bjorn Lomborg,
the young Danish economist and author
of a highly touted book, The Skeptical Environmentalist,

quotes Simon
at the book`s beginning:

is my long-run forecast in brief:  The material
conditions of life will continue to get better for most
people, in most countries, most of the time,
indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and
most of humanity will be at or above today`s Western
living standards.  I also speculate, however, that many
people will continue to think and say that the
conditions of life are getting worse."

I first came upon this long
standing debate in the late 1960`s when I, as the
representative of a large charitable entity, was invited
to attend a small, select discussion group at the
Population Council offices in New York City on a

Then Council President, Frank
Notestein, earlier founder of the highly respected
Office of Population Research at

Princeton University,
had called forth this expert
group to discuss what might be the optimum population
size for the world, which at that juncture had about 3.6
billion people versus its 6.4 billion now.  World
population in 2004 added about 75 million net new humans
to the planet, but some predict this growth to decline
to a replacement level (i.e. stability) around 2100 .
Total world population by 2050 is estimated at 9.1
billion. (4)

It is interesting to note that
Notestein, who possessed a wonderful sense of humorous
cynicism about demography, had predicted in 1945 that
the World`s population in the year 2000 would be 3
billion. (5) Garrett Hardin was among the roughly 15
discussants at this Population Council gathering and he
was heartily challenged to defend his thesis on the
importance of limits by most of the others there,
including Bernard Barrelson, who succeeded Notestein as
Population Council President.

The final consensus among this
group of discussants (sans Hardin) was not particularly
stunning: Slower growth was deemed better, but the group
refused to agree to limits which Hardin felt were
necessary.  I recall Frank saying something to me
personally later to the effect that "why not 15
billion? We don`t know for sure the impact that would

I do not remember if Hardin then
suggested a desirable world population goal, but he once
told me that he felt the United States had exceeded its
natural limits or carrying capacity—a subject he wrote
much about–when its population surpassed 150 million in
about 1950.  (6)   That the US could now retreat from
its present level of 300 million seems to many a utopian
dream or nightmare (if you are a real estate developer).

The argument about the need for
population control has taken on many faces in the
ensuring 30 plus years since my attendance at that
Population Council meeting in the late 1960`s.  Prior to
the issuance of the Rockefeller Commission

Report on Population Growth and the American Future

(1969) (7) and the Supreme Court decision on Roe vs
(1973) there had been considerable unanimity
politically and among all Americans about the need to
assist in the curtailing of world population.  Popular
writer, Lawrence Lader`s 1971 book,

"Breeding Ourselves To Death"

chronicles that consensus.  His book contained a long
list of distinguished corporate, political, and social
leaders who favored what President Nixon`s letter
reprinted in Lader`s book to Hugh Moore of October 23,
1969 opined, "Your dedication to easing the problems
of world population growth has led to significant public

While large funding for the US
Agency for International Development (USAID) programs
for family planning resulted from this powerful loose
coalition`s political efforts, there was then and there
remains today a substantial antagonism against family
planning and particularly against abortion by many
religious groups, particularly the Vatican and the US
Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have been joined by
many conservative Protestant and other religious groups.
Carefully funded and professional orchestrated
opposition grew much more rapidly

after the Roe vs. Wade decision. 
The most sustained
and onerous restrictions instituted by their pressure
include the so called Helms Amendment added in the early
1970`s to the Foreign Assistance Act which prohibits any
Federal or private money to be given to foreign non
profit organizations who offer women abortion services
or counseling.  There are many accounts of their
activities, but perhaps the most insightful are two
books by Dr. Stephan D. Mumford.(9)

The irony of withholding widespread
support for family planning is well documented in many
places.  While many are against abortion, eliminating
against family planning simply increases the use of
abortion to regulate pregnancies, something few would
find attractive.  A recent case in point is covered in
an article I wrote which published in January, 2004.  In
Vietnam,   a safe, simple, affordable method of female
sterilization known as quinacrine sterilization or QS
which had caused no deaths or life threatening
complications after being used by that time by over
75,000 women (now nearly 200,000 women with the same
excellent results) was attacked as dangerous with no
scientific evidence to back the claim.  However, these
specious charges caused the national program which was
eagerly accepted by the Vietnamese Health Ministry to be
cancelled. This resulted in resort to abortion as the
primary method of birth control and caused an increase
in maternal deaths. (9 A)

The argumentation by both sides on
the abortion issue offers seemingly convincing insights
as to why both are correct.  To lay American readers,
living in the affluence of the USA, their view of the
problem and its urgency becomes a matter of highly
subjective opinion, one that often seems not too urgent.

One aspect that will not be treated
herein is the vast worldwide human migrations underway. 
Historically large  numbers of poor, often unstable
populations located in developing nations feel impelled
to seek better lives in developed nations, which are
perceived as places of opportunity.  There is increasing
animosity among citizens of those developed nations to
what the majority of their citizens consider illegal and
undesirable invasions of their countries. (10)

While widespread poverty, even all
out war as in Iraq, and the killing of millions in
Africa from HIV/AIDS and internecine tribal wars in
failed nations are often presumed by some to be
meaningful curbs on growth, the demographic evidence
suggests otherwise. Even the vast losses in the recent
tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean killed fewer people
than the number currently added to the world`s
population every single day.

The question of whether adjustments
can be made to fulfill Simon`s optimistic prediction for
the majority of humankind remains open.  Lomborg`s
response from a questioner at the Philanthropy
Roundtable meeting referred to above about the world
running out of oil was "We did not run out of stone
at the end of the Stone Age"
and of course one can
only think of the apocryphal story of the person who has
just jumped off the Empire State Building.  As he passes
the 68th floor he thinks to himself, "So far, so

My son and his wife have fished
commercially for 20 years out of San Francisco for
Pacific king salmon from May through September and for
Dungeness crab from mid-November through January.  For a
hundred years, these resources have been used to make SF
a tourist Mecca and a resident`s delight.  The idea
historically has been to take just enough live, legal
sized crab to provide the local market with fresh catch
for the months of that season. Starting this last season
many large, out of the Bay Area boats appeared,
equipped  with 1000-2000 crab pots and fished out the
resource in a week.(10A)

Point: The free market doesn`t have
all the answers nor and the equitable balance that can
be provided by the Rule of Law.  Wise government
policies can often make the difference between chaos and
survival.  I would argue that the same applies to human
population management.  Hardin again to the rescue with
his classic essay, 

"Tragedy of the Commons"
implores us all to see
the wisdom of restraint as providing the ultimate
benefits for everyone – except the short term gain for
the greedy. (11)

A major factor in whether we can
get to the population transition nirvana envisioned by
Julian Simon must include management of resources under
enlightened governments, of which, judging by our own
aberrant behavior at times, are few in number.  In the
struggle for resources,  nuclear war is not out of the
realm of possibility.  And environmental poisonings
which are widely described by many writers including
Lester Brown bode ill or fatal for the health and safety
of the world`s population.

Brown is particularly persuasive in
his recent book,

Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a
Civilization in Trouble
when he

talks about
pending water shortages due to the over
pumping of the world`s aquifers, "a practice that
virtually guarantees a future drop in production when
aquifers are depleted."
   His alternative is
"Plan B"
, "a worldwide mobilization to stabilize
population and climate before these issues spiral out of
control.  The goal is to stabilize population close to
the UN`s low projection of 7.4 billion, to reduce carbon
emissions by half by 2015, and to raise water
productivity by half."
  Despite many endorsing
voices from respected environmental and family planning
leaders, it is highly doubtful that the actions he has
outlined will be taken in any serious coordinated
international way. (12)

In November 2003, my wife and I
spent several days on Easter Island, a tiny dot in mid
Pacific, only 6.9 miles long and perhaps 2 plus miles
wide.  Could

its history
be a microcosm of what could happen to
the larger world? This volcanic rocky triangle was by
the late 17th Century overcrowded with an estimated
20,000 people.  Resources shrank, so the numerous family
tribes, collectively called Rapanuians, vied for food,
ending up by killing each other in large numbers. When
the shortages got acute on Easter Island, the dying pace
increased rapidly.  By then, no trees were left to build
fires, often earlier used by victors for fuel to cook
captured tribesmen. Finally, only 110 Rapanuians were
left by the mid 19th Century, when a Catholic missionary
came to minister to the few remaining men and women.

Albert Einstein was quite
optimistic when he opined, "I do not believe that
civilization will be wiped out in a war fought with the
atomic bomb.  Perhaps two thirds (2/3rds) of the people
of the earth might be killed, but enough men capable of
thinking and enough books, would be left to start again,
and civilization could be restored."
  So Dr.
Einstein`s estimate bodes better for us than what
happened to the Rapanuians, since by Einstein`s estimate
there would be somewhere between 2  to 4 billion of us
left, hopefully without an enduring nuclear winter and a
prolonged scarcity of food.

The idea of a  population "bomb"
is now often dismissed by some as one NY Times reporter
did recently.   Donald G. McNeil Jr.`s

"Demographic `Bomb` May Only Go `Pop!`"
the August 29, 2004 New York Times discusses how the
slow down in the birth rate has reached almost
replacement or even below-replacement rates in the most
developed nations and is declining in most developed
countries.  Demographically, he is of course correct;
declines are occurring, but 90% of the growth still
comes from women having babies in the so-called

However, I assume that McNeil
thinks that anything short of all-out world war is just
a "pop." How many "pops" make a bomb?   It
is empirically the fact that these "pops" are
going off in profusion world wide and are likely to
continue generating the terrorism we read about daily in
the papers. Soon, many experts, predict, terrorism will
begin happening regularly in the US. The promotion of
family planning measures for the over-populated regions
of the earth is the most effective long term solution to
the conflict and rising tide of terrorism that seems to
be inherently linked to the struggle to survive in
regions that are averaging five or six or more live
births per female.

It has long been evident from the
record of the Twentieth Century, when half the births
were unintended, that the growth of sheer numbers of
people from just over 1 billion at its outset to 6
billion at its close was going to create huge problems.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"
perfectly defines what family planning has already done
and what it could do if truly made a first priority. It
can be cogently argued that being anti-family planning
is basically being pro-terrorist and pro-massive
immigration. Both phenomena are increasing on a world
wide basis today.

Massacres in Rwanda, the Congo, and
now the Sudan are partly manifestations of our failure
to provide choices to women and their families about
when and under what circumstances to bear children.
Naturally, other aspects of development are important,
but family planning is critical.

Certainly the failure of Western
governments, and notably that of the U.S., to address
this issue by providing adequate contraceptive resources
is part of the problem.  Well over 90 percent of the
expected additional 3 billion to be added to the planet
in this century, probably before the end of this
century, will come from developing nations already
struggling to feed, cloth, house and educate their

As Population Institute President
and 2003 UN Population Laureate Werner Fornos noted in a

September 5, 2004
letter in reply to the NY
"Pop" article, of the present world
population of 6.4 billion "840 million are
malnourished, 2.8 billion (two in five) struggle to
survive on less than $2 a day, 1.1 billion lack safe
drinking water and 2.4 billion are without basic

We can confidently predict more
Darfurs and more Rwandas, more terrorism, more massive
legal and illegal migration from poor to rich nations.
Reasonable migration is perhaps manageable, but this
increasingly massive, desperate, flight from poor to
rich is culturally and economically disruptive and
particularly injurious to the poorest citizens of any
nation so invaded. And in the US the issue remains
largely unaddressed by the leaders of both major
political parties, with illegal immigrants in the US
very conservatively estimated at over ten million in
2004. and increasing by close to half a million a year. 
Some put the number of illegal aliens here at 20 million
and the annual influx at 3 million. (13A)

Many scholars have long understood
these looming and dangerous limits, but no state,
region, nation or ethnic group wants to say "Enough."
So now, Western medical technology having cut disease
and the death rate around the world drastically in the
last century, the resulting boom in population has put
the average age of people in developing nations at under

This century will likely be the
most dangerous in world history.

The "Pop" then, is the gap
between the affluent and the afflicted, a gap that is
driving desperate people (many of whom are young and
unsocialized) into acts of violence that are sequential
and not likely to subside for at least two generations.

A very possible outcome of these
widespread instabilities is increasing loss of civility,
civil rights and the Rule of Law in developed countries
and the continued growth of tyranny in the less
developed. And dangerous "pops" everywhere,
including suicide bombers here in the U.S.

If military action is our principal
solution to these terrorist threats, the 21st century
will be bloodier and more dangerous than the 20th. And
don`t think these desperate folks will flinch at using
any means, including supporting tyrants ready to use
nuclear weapons. Only a concerted and effective
expansion of family planning in these less-developed
nations will offer a possible long-term road to peace.
The ultimate concept of population limits is simply a
matter of physical limits.

Again the question, should we worry
at all about human numbers?  My long held view is that
slower population growth means fewer children, and
children who are truly wanted by their parents.  Having
widespread, inexpensive, easy access to family planning
is but an insurance policy for the world, offering
access to those who need it and want it, free from
coercion of any kind.  That would certainly aid the
transition from present horrors to the more halcyon
future Simon predicted, although he implied that the
finite Earth could tolerate unlimited growth of human
numbers, which few see as desirable, or even possible.

Regardless of which side of this
great debate one takes, the ultimate answer lies in
overall human behavior.  Do we gently, safely, but
firmly say, "Let`s try to give everyone the options
they can live with"
or do we continue to ignore
conditions that force women to bear large numbers of
children they neither want nor can care for. If, as some
believe, at least half the births of the 20th Century
were unplanned, the advances in contraception, starting
with the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960,
make the option of birth control for all who need it a
realistic goal, restricted not by the relatively small
financial cost, but by the unrealistic cultural precepts
and the selfishness of male domination and the religions
in certain cultures.

Urbanization has sucked billions of
people into larger and larger cities where perhaps
numbers can be technologically handled more efficiently
with less environmental impact.  Having seen most of the
world`s largest cities firsthand, I am impressed with
how well (but also in many cases how poorly) masses of
people are served, but,  again, successful transition
rests on imponderables such as stability of governance
and resource allocations.

According to the UN`s Population
Division as of

March, 2004
, "The world`s urban population
continues to grow at an even faster rate than the total
population of the world. As a consequence, about 3
billion or 48% of humankind are now living in urban
  Urban growth is projected to reach 5
billion by 2030, when it is projected to be 61% of the
total world population.  Growth in urban areas for
2000-2030 is projected at 1.8% per year, twice the
expected average annual growth of world population.  So
far the world`s rural areas have fed most populations,
but that may be a massive future problem. (14)

Another potentially unsettling
factor is the disparity in the age of populations. 
While developed countries such as the US and to a
greater extent Europe are growing greyer (higher average
age of populations–over 30 for example – due not just to
improved longevity but more so to a declining
birthrate), the developing nations often have
populations where the average age is 20 or even lower.
How this young population contracepts will determine
future world population growth.

Results will unfortunately continue
to be uneven from nation to nation, continent to
continent.  For example, in Africa where HIV/AIDS is
most prevalent, mature people, often the best educated,
die, leaving untended, uneducated youngsters at loose
ends and subject to manipulation by unscrupulous forces.

In a recent provocative book,
unbalanced sex ratios in many Asian and Middle Eastern
nations, including China and India–"which represent
almost 40% of the world`s population–are being skewed in
favor of males on a scale which is unprecedented in
human history.  Through offspring sex selection….these
countries are acquiring a disproportionate number of
low-status young adult males called "Bare Branches" by
the Chinese"
.  The book`s authors "argue that
this surplus male population in Asia`s largest countries
threatens domestic stability and international security"

They postulate unsettling global implications for this
disturbing "rogue male" development in this
century. (15)

Conclusion: While I am not a
complete doomsayer, I think Simon`s optimistic
assessment rests on many future
happenings which no scientist, statistician or economist
can predict. If breakdowns in resources expand rapidly
enough or unevenly enough to precipitate another world
war, some desperate nation will surely employ nuclear

My ardent support for more family
planning is based simply on the subjective supposition,
which Frank Notestein`s group expressed 45 years ago,
that slower population growth gives more time for people
to work into new patterns of life that of necessity will
be vastly different than a time when most of the world`s
population lived in rural settings.  It is also proven
to be much cheaper than military action. The idea that
humans are endlessly going to expand numerically,
cutting down every other living thing in their path will
obviously not prevail if humans on Planet Earth are to
survive. More comity and partnerships must be our goal
and the leadership needed to do that must come from the
most powerful nations, something sadly lacking
throughout human history.

I speak only for restraint and
available inexpensive reproductive choice.  Let the
market decide supply and demand, but not a market
controlled by those who would limit contraceptive
choices. Women worldwide often fail to have the option
of the safe, affordable birth control supplies they
want.  My position is simple.  Let`s quickly get such
help to them.  UC Berkeley Professor of International
Public Health, Dr. Malcolm Potts, puts it best, "What
we need now are big, boring programs"
, which provide
safe, economical, easy to use modern contraceptive
methods, methods which would quickly reduce the need for
abortions, the primary method used in some countries. 
Let the women of the world freely have the capacity to
decide when and under what conditions they will take on
the often dangerous option of childbearing. Annually,
600,000 pregnancy related deaths occur around the
world.  At present only slightly more than half the
fertile women of the world have ready, economical and
open access to safe, modern contraceptive methods.

Estimates indicate that the total
expenditure required to make family planning assistance
available worldwide is extremely modest, a mere $20
billion annually. This would hugely reduce the costs
resulting from war, migration, and the damager to
agricultural resources caused by over-farming in so many
overcrowded countries. If there were international
cooperation, the cost to the United States would be
about $5 billion per year, because of expected
contributions from other developed nations and from the
international aid agencies. The Iraq war alone is
costing much more, and the US government`s defense
budget for the current fiscal year is $450 billion.

Ironically, many forces are
attacking the widespread use of safe family planning,
which if funded could work its magic on the health and
unity of women and their families around the world at
minimal expense. Too many  writers and media sources
continually fail to connect the dots between population
pressure and so many of the economic and political
problems that have bought extreme poverty to the poorer
countries of the world. The ongoing population explosion
not only condemns the Third World to its misery, it 
threaten the security of the developed world and the
future welfare of all those currently being born into
our world.

1. Garrett
Hardin, "Living Within Limits" (Oxford U. Press,
NYC, 1993), page 187

2. Ed Regis,
, (Wired Magazine, Issue 502,
February 1997)

3. Bjorn
Lomborg, "The Skeptical Environmentalist"
(Cambridge U. Press, NYC, 2001) First page of paperback
book`s text

4. US Census
Bureau: Its Note on HIV/AIDS impact: The Census Bureau
application applies assumptions from the WHO/UNAIDS
Epidemiological Reference Group about age/sex
distribution of HIV incidence, sex ratios of new
infections, mother-to-child transmission rate, and
disease progression. The model allows for competing risk
of death and projects HIV incidence implied by the
European People`s Party (EPP) estimates of HIV
prevalence through 2010, assuming a decline in HIV
incidence of 50 percent by 2050. The model can include
the impact of antiretroviral therapy, but the current
projections assume no one will receive treatment.

5. Hardin, Ibid. Page 32

6. Hardin,

"Ethical Implications of Carrying Capacity"

(1977), see web site

7. The Rockefeller Commission
Report on Population Growth and the American Future,
contained the

following forwarding letter from President Richard M.
, "One of the most serious challenges to
human destiny in the last third of this century will be
the growth of the population. Whether man`s response to
that challenge will be a cause for pride or for despair
in the year 2000 will depend very much on what we do
today. If we now begin our work in an appropriate
manner, and if we continue to devote a considerable
amount of attention and energy to this problem, then
mankind will be able to surmount this challenge as it
has surmounted so many during the long march of
  (Signed)  Richard Nixon, July 18,

8. Lawrence Lader, "Breeding
Ourselves To Death"
(Ballantine Books, NYC, 1971)
pages 87 to 91 for the names and in the foreword for the
full Nixon letter to Moore.

9. Stephen D. Mumford, "The Pope and The New Apocalypse:
The Holy
War Against Family Planning"
and "The
Life And Death of NSSM 200
: How the Distruction of
Political Will Doomed A US Population Policy"

(Center for Research on Security and Population,
Research Triangle Park, 1986 and 1996)

9. Donald Collins,

"WHO creates demand for abortions"
Tribune Review
article of January 28, 2004)

10. I have written widely on the
topic of American immigration policy in the print media
and in journals.  My review of a recent book by Frosty
Wooldridge on the American immigration situation
entitled, "Immigration`s Unarmed Invasion: Deadly
can be found in the

Fall, 2004 Issue of The Social Contract

entitled, "Ideas on How to Save America"
pages 81-83.

10A. Mary Ann Ostrom, "Bay Area
Crab War Reaching Boiling Point–Large, small operations
fight over catch sizes"
, San Jose (CA) Mercury News
article, Friday December 17, 2004


"The Tragedy of the Commons,"
Garrett Hardin,
Science, 162(1968):1243-1248.

12. Lester Brown, "Plan B:
Rescuing A Planet under Stress and a Civilization in
(Earth Policy Institute, Washington, DC,

12A.  Easter Island was first
settled by a few natives from the Polynesian Islands
around 400 AD.  The first European to see it arrived
there on Easter Sunday, 1722, hence its name. By the
time the native population reached its nadir, all of its
cultural icons, the famous Moai stone statues had been
toppled by the warring tribesmen. Remember, these were
not ethnic conflicts, since all these islanders were of
the same ethnic origin, all Polynesians from the
Marquise, most anthropologists now agree. 

Ravaged by killings, starvation and
disease, there were only 110 survivors.  Of these only
36 had offspring. So, to do a simple comparison,  if the
world has 6.4 billion inhabitants now and the same
happens at the same ratio, then just over 11 million of
us would be left, mostly Chinese and Indians, but still
plenty to keep the planet going if they can survive a
nuclear winter.  If the world`s population rises to 12
billion, as some predict, then after a similar fall off,
around 23 million people would be left! Will any World
Trade Towers be left if the world follows suit?

13. UN Department of Economic and
Social Affairs/Population Division: World Urbanization
Prospects: The 2003 Revision

13 A. Donald Collins, "Pruning
the roots of terror"
(Pittsburgh Tribune
, article of Monday, September 27, 2004)

13 B The Associated Press,
Washington DC, 3/21/05

14. United Nations. World
Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision Highlights.
February 2001, pp. 47-50.

15. Valerie Hudson and Andrea den
Boer, "Bare Branches: The Security Implications of
Asia`s Surplus Male Population"
(MIT Press,
Cambridge, MA, 2004) Quotes from the dust jacket

Donald A. Collins [email
him], is a freelance writer living in Washington DC and a former long time member of the board of FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. His views are his own.