22 July

The March of the Malthusians

Last week we saw the return of the London Family Planning Summit, with senior government officials, NGO representatives and business leaders committing billions in additional funding with a view to getting 120 million more women and girls using ‘modern’ methods of family planning by 2020. The British Government alone pledged to increase its International Development department’s spending on abortion and contraceptive services by 25% – a bill totalling over £1.1 billion across the course of this parliament. Despite campaigners decrying the effect of uniform 28% cuts to the USAID budget, the summit’s proposed commitments still represent an unprecedented redirection of global development spending.

Supporters justify the increase with neo-Malthusian arguments about overpopulation, as demonstrated by the Guardian’s coverage. One piece, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which co-chaired the recent summit), after highlighting ‘concerns over the growth in the world’s population’, concluded that ‘rampant population growth in Africa’ will ‘aggravate the current migration crisis’ and drive new recruits into the ‘hands of terrorist groups across the Sahel’. Supplementing this were environmental articles making the case that ‘the greatest impact individuals can have in fighting climate change is to have one fewer child’ and that ‘the more people there are, the more habitats we destroy’.

Given that each human consumes resources it might appear only reasonable that curtailing population growth via ‘reproductive services’ would relieve resource scarcity and unsustainable consumption, even if many (including Malthus himself) would be morally appalled by the suggested means. But embedded in the verbiage are premises that cannot be reconciled with available empirical data.

One such premise is that fertility rates are globally too high, when actually current ‘global fertility is barely higher than the global replacement fertility’. The reason the UN and others expect global population to grow ‘to 9.6 billion in 2050 and to 10.9 billion in 2100’ (when many demographers expect it to peak), is due to dramatic reductions in mortality rates thanks to recent economic development and medical advances. Therefore, when Bill Gates argues that fighting climate change requires new ‘reproductive health services’ to keep the 2050 population below 8.1 billion, he is asking for the impossible given that the UN’s population projections already presume a sub-replacement global fertility rate of ‘2.2 children per woman by 2050’.

Even if unsustainably low fertility rates were desirable, however, it does not follow that artificial birth control is a scarce resource that needs to be dramatically increased if such a goal is to be reached. In the past, reduced birth rates occurred in the ‘demographic transition’ of societies prior to the advent of modern contraception, meaning that contraceptives in fact ‘contributed little to the decline’. Likewise, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s survey of today’s literature concluded that increased family-planning provision is doing ‘little to reduce fertility’ because market solutions already address supply sufficiently and poor parents often do not want fewer children since, in the developing world, a child is not economically just another mouth to feed but the poor’s only affordable ‘insurance policy’ for old age and illness.

The last point explains why poverty so closely correlates with higher birth rates and, in turn, it explains why family planning paternalism appeals so much to the decadent West. Given ‘that the poorest half of the global population – around 3.5 billion people – are responsible for only around 10% of total global [CO2] emissions’, such neo-Malthusianism serves to deflect attention away from inequalities of income and consumption and towards academic disparities in fertility rates.

In Malthus’s day, we saw such a deflection when the British establishment ‘used [his theories] as a crude barometer of poverty that deemed Ireland to be over-populated’. Consequently, despite ‘political, rather than demographic, factors being a key cause’ of the Irish famine, Malthus’s ideas were employed to dismiss the Irish as ‘a promiscuous bunch that … paid for their sins via the starvation and disease that the famine wrought’. Similarly, today the ‘charitable-industrial complex’, as Laura Bramon notes, has ‘limited desire for economic transformation in the poorest of the poor, whose class is a cog in the machine of Western productivity and ease’. Therefore, rather than fundamentally addressing unsustainable patterns of Western consumption and the global south’s chronic lack of development, it is of no surprise that those who today wield power over the politically and economically dispossessed instead devote their energies to critiquing and controlling the fertility of the poor. In the end, however, enticing others into our ‘low-fertility trap’ is a solution to nothing other than Western guilt.

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