Overpopulation and War

Aerial view of a residential section of the Gaza Strip

When I was in high school, I read an advertisement in Scientific American magazine. It said, in part: “…unless a favorable balance of population and resources is achieved with a minimum of delay, there is in prospect a Dark Age of human misery, famine and unrest;”

This statement, which was signed by 34 Nobel Laureates (among other dignitaries) went on to say: “We believe that widespread, effective and voluntary use of medically sound and individually acceptable birth control is an essential factor in any humane design to raise world living standards and achieve world peace.”
To me, this is as true now as it was in 1960.
I give thanks that so many people recognize the importance of family planning, and that we have so many options for medically sound, voluntary family planning..
Thank you for reading.

            Can high population density lead to war? Recent events suggest that it can.

            You are probably aware that, on October 7th, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (also called “Hamas”) launched a surprise attack on its neighbor, Israel. Israel has retaliated with most of the terrible devices of modern warfare and thousands of deaths.

Although Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, Gaza is not an independent entity. It is surrounded on 3 sides by Israel. Israel has surrounded Gaza with an almost impenetrable wall to control the passage of people and goods. Israelis guard the handful of gates through the wall, and have watch towers and other means of controlling Palestinians’ passage.

Israel also controls access to Gaza from the Mediterranean Sea on the west. Much of Gaza’s potable water comes from Israel, as does their electric power. Both of these necessities are now severely restricted, causing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Because Israel controls Gaza Strip’s airspace, territorial waters and also controls the movement of people and goods in or out of Gaza by air or sea, Human Rights Watch has advised the UN Human Rights Council that it considers Israel to be occupying the Gaza Strip.

            From what I can discern, there are several reasons for high levels of aggression in the Palestinian Territories. The population density in the Strip is one of the highest in the world. Because of this, homes are crowded together with little room for parks or even an occasional tree. Living in close proximity, with little access to nature, increases stress. Hot conditions have been shown to increase aggression. Finally, the unemployment rate in Gaza is the highest in the world, at 45%. For young people, it is even higher, at 70%! Unemployed young men are the most likely group to be belligerent. 

            Despite its crowded conditions, people in the Palestinian Territories have high fertility. It is commonly thought that this is a consequence of their embattled position—that more people will give the Palestinians more strength. Although slightly lower, the Israeli fertility is also high, especially for a relatively rich country.

            The Palestinians in Gaza are in a terrible situation, and Hamas made it worse by their aggression against their neighbor. Then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu escalated the aggression by quoting 1 Samuel 15:2, 3 from the Bible, likening Hamas to the ancient Amalekites:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.

            Despite the fact that Palestinians occupied the land before Israel was created, they have had a terrible deal. There are similarities with the American Natives, with several differences: we European settlers killed off a huge percentage of the indigenous people; North America is larger and less crowded than the Levant, and our land is more productive; and Israel has had significant international financial support.

I have two personal conclusions about this conflict. Amongst other issues, the high population density in Gaza may be a contributing factor to the war with Israel. This factor is not mentioned in most media reports on the conflict. Furthermore, for all its benefits, religion can be terribly destructive, especially if it fails to reflect current, more peaceful, ethics.

©Richard Grossman MD, 2023

Family Planning

Good News about Family Planning

            There is good news about human population. Access to voluntary family planning and to safe abortion services has not only helped women achieve their goals, but also helped slow our retreat from sustainability.

            Dr. George Denniston wrote that people in Mexico have experienced “…a real miracle! Women going from having 5 kids to just 2 kids in 20 years, thanks to soap operas.” His wife, Martha (now deceased) helped see the value of telenovelas (“soap operas”) to entertain and educate people about the advantages of small families. Thanks to the Population Media Center, millions of people in 50 countries are healthier, have less risk of HIV and have learned the importance of preventing unintended births.

            Mexico has established excellent programs to decrease adolescent pregnancies. Teens would be most hurt by having a child too early in their lives. One program almost halved the teen pregnancy rate in just 4 years!

            There is more good news: last month the Mexican supreme court decriminalized abortion. This decision stated: “… laws prohibiting the procedure are unconstitutional and violate women’s rights….” This is surprising since the majority of Mexicans are Roman Catholic. 

Mexico is following a trend throughout Latin America propelled by the “green wave” of abortion-rights activists. In the past many countries in this area have had strict antiabortion laws, but that is beginning to change. In 2021 Argentina started the trend to allow abortion on request, followed by Columbia and Mexico. Globally, 50 countries have liberalized their abortion laws since 1994, and only 4 have decreased access to safe abortion services—including the USA.

Fertility is decreasing all over the world. The replacement Total Fertility Rate, which will lead to a steady population eventually, is an average of 2.1 children born per woman. That’s one child to replace the woman and the second for the man, plus a fraction for children who don’t live to reproduce. However, due to “population momentum”, the population of a country will continue to grow for a few decades after its TFR has dropped to 2.1.

            50 years ago, the worldwide TFR was 4.4; now the global TFR is an amazingly low 2.3! We are getting closer to the goal of 2.1 replacement fertility. Already there are several countries that have shrinking populations, including Japan and the giant, China. In fact, the TFR is less than 2.1 in 124 countries out of the UN’s list of 240. One factor that has contributed to this fertility decline is that more than 100 million people around the world use long-acting reversible contraception—like intrauterine devices (IUDs). 

            Population growth is slowing down. The annual increase in global population is decreasing from a high of 92 million people in 1990 to 70 million or fewer during the past 3 years. In addition, we have reached “peak child”. We will probably never have as many children on the planet as we have now.

            What is amazing is that this decrease in fertility has been done without coercion. The major factors that have permitted this are: increasing the availability of effective contraception, women’s education, and decreasing patriarchy. There is one other wonderful factor which is seldom touted, but which is worth celebrating. The mortality rate of young children has been halved over the past 30 years. People choose to have smaller families when they know their children are likely to survive.

            Don’t get me wrong—we are still far from having a human population that fits sustainably on Earth! This is a progress report, not a final account of the effect of family planning on protecting the planet.

©Richard Grossman MD, 2023