Durango Herald Hope Population

Don’t Lose Hope

“What a terrible mess we are in!” I hear people say. “The only way overpopulation will be controlled is by the horror of war, famine, or a terrible epidemic.” Do you feel despair about the world’s population? Believe it or not, there is reason to be optimistic.

“The size of the family is shrinking all over the world because women in most countries want fewer children….” reports the Alan Guttmacher Institute. This desire for smaller families is because people have realized their advantages.

Let’s look at the facts. Thirty-five years ago only one in seven women worldwide used contraception. The number of children borne by the average woman (the total fertility rate or TFR) then was 6.1 in developing countries.

The good news is that growth has slowed. The TFR has dropped to 3.0 in developing countries, and worldwide the average is just 2.7. More than half of women in developing countries use contraception now. Many developed countries, especially in Europe, are actually shrinking in population.

Remember that a TFR of about 2.1 leads to a stable population. This is one child to replace each parent, and a fraction more to make up for kids who die in childhood. Unfortunately, a small difference in TFR can make a huge difference in population over a number of years. For instance, if we establish an average TFR of 1.96 now, in 50 years the world’s population will decrease to 5 billion. If the TFR is only slightly higher, at 2.18, the earth will have to support over 20 billion people by the year 2050.

Why are people choosing to have smaller families? The reasons vary from culture to culture. Three essential factors are the availability of contraception, reduction of child mortality and empowerment of women.

More and more people have access to family planning. A third of a century ago in many countries birth control clinics were found only in large cities. Modern contraception was unavailable in most parts of the world. Now, thanks to the media as well as to extensive family planning programs, most people have access to basic information on child spacing.

It is paradoxical that improving child survival can decrease the population growth rate. Historically, the population explosion was caused by decreased mortality. When the child mortality rate is high, parents have more children to assure that some will survive. Studies show that if more than 11% of children die before age five, parents choose to have large families. Not only does lowering child mortality result in a lower TFR and lower growth rate—it is the compassionate thing to do.

The status of women has improved thanks to the work of many. This improvement has been most impressive in developing countries. Overall, school enrollment of girls has more than doubled over the last three decades, as has female literacy. Education and literacy are important in part because they raise women’s aspirations and their ability to find employment outside the home. Education also helps mothers learn about contraception and mothering healthy children.
There are other reasons the population growth rate is slowing. Because they don’t need to have many kids to work the fields, people choose to have fewer children as they shift from rural to urban economies.

Older age at marriage is another important factor in slowing growth. Even though teens reach puberty earlier than in the past, people are starting their families later. Moreover, better-educated and more mature mothers are likely to have healthier and smaller families.

More and more couples are relying on surgical contraception when they have completed their families. Surgical contraception is permanent, so there is little chance for an unplanned pregnancy. One in four couples in developing countries have chosen surgery.

A TFR of 2.1 or less is the goal to stop the runaway increase in our population. Just thirty-five years ago that number averaged 6.1 in the developing world, and it has dropped to 3.0. This means that we are more than half way to the objective! It is unlikely that we will reach that goal soon, however. Even if we did, many millions of people would result from the momentum of the huge number of children growing up and having their own children.

Although we have not solved the problem of population, we have made great strides. There is good reason to be optimistic that excess population growth can be restrained if we make it a top priority and devote sufficient resources to the problem.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2006

Durango Herald Population

Delight in Children

It is easy to become antinatalist if you are concerned about overpopulation. I think this is shortsighted.
Let’s face it—the best reason to care about our growing population is concern for future generations. People a generation or two from now will experience increasing effects of crowding and resource depletion. We should be concerned for our children and grandchildren, who will know a world very different from ours.
Most of us will be part of the problem by having our own children. We need to raise our kids to be conscious of population and environmental issues. The most important step we can take is to minimize our impact by having small families, or by not reproducing at all.
You might think that there is not much difference between a family of two children and one with three. There is a large disparity, however, after a few generations. If each of your three children has three kids, and so on, you will have 27 great grandchildren. In five generations there will be 243 progeny. If there had only been two per couple, there would only be 8 great grandchildren, and 32 great, great, great grandchildren. So at the end of five generations we compare 243 with 32; the difference is over seven fold!
People used to believe that a single child would be spoiled and would not prosper, but recent studies have shown that this is not true. In fact, an only child is likely to be a high achiever and to be well adjusted. Some recent information about only kids can be found in Bill McKibben’s book Maybe One.
If you are concerned that an only child would suffer from the lack of siblings, there are ways to ensure the advantages of socializing with other kids. If you parent a single child, try not to focus all of your attention on her. Have her spend time with cousins. Choose a neighborhood that has children of compatible ages. Find activities for your child to do with other children; a good preschool is an excellent way to get children together. You might trade cooperative “sitting”, or be a day-care provider.
For those of us who choose not to bear children, congratulations! There is a support group for you: Childfree By Choice. You can find them on the web at If you are unsure about having kids, they have material for people who are still trying to make up their minds about being parents, and even a bunch of jokes about childlessness. More and more people are choosing the option to forego children. Now about one in five women will not bear any child, while a few years ago it was only one in six.
Happily, there are alternatives to giving birth. For those who want to participate in child rearing but not bear their own, and for those who enjoy a big family but don’t want to contribute to overpopulation, there are several possibilities.
Adoption is one way to go. Those who are able to make a long-term commitment deserve congratulations. So many kids need love and stability, and many demand special care. They have physical or mental problems, and require mature or experienced parents with many resources.
Not ready to make the commitment for adoption? Consider being a foster parent. There are kids of all ages who need a short-term home. Some are newborns who need a cradle for a few days while awaiting permanent adoption. Others are teenagers who are in trouble, and are farmed out to people who can provide nurture and discipline. Foster parenting can be especially challenging.
There are other, less extensive ways of being involved. For instance, Big Brothers/Big Sisters is a nationwide agency that involves adults in the short-term care of kids. If you volunteer, you only need to spend a few hours a week with your child. Coaching, helping in a classroom, working with Scouts or a church group all allow you to help kids grow.
Here is a paradox. The reason we have children is for the sake of the future. But if we have too many progeny, the future will be ruined. The solution is for people to have the right number of children—fewer than in the past. It also means that some people will forgo passing on their genes. Instead, they have the opportunity to pass on their wisdom and culture to future generations.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2006