Contraceptives as a "tech fix" to the Population Problem?

e-mail: Dan Hammer

This comic strip was taken from There's Treasure Everywhere, a collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. Bill Watterson has been able to adequately describe in full the trials and tribulations of humanity using only the exploits of a six-year-old and his stuffed tiger; a genius beyond his time.

The question of overpopulation's impact on the environment is multi-dimensional and far beyond the scope of a single essay. The issue has to do with considering the environment a normal good while at the same time understanding the impact of industrialization on increased pollution levels. Relationships between industrialization, overpopulation, global pollution, regional pollution, resource depletion, and numerous other environmental and social concerns form a multi-dimensional series of feedback loops, all of which feed back on the original system. Computer models developed by economic research institutions to predict environmental and developmental impacts of population growth (ex. The World Bank, The Economic Research Service) are n-dimensional, only to be accurately evaluated using advanced statistical regressions and matrix analysis. As such, this paper will assume that there is a direct correlation between population and natural resource depletion (environmental degradation by way of pollutants is an entirely different, and more complicated issue), and the most cost-effective way of amelioration would be to restrain population growth. Given that, what is the correct means for policy to approach the population problem? The options include contraceptive distribution, family planning, general economic development, and gender equality among others. Essentially, policy has to address whether population can be restrained with a "tech fix" such as contraceptives or only after a broad socioeconomic shift.

In 1992, Professor Jay Forrester and his team at MIT developed a computer model designed to simulate likely future patterns of the global economy based on a technique known as system dynamics. The system dynamic technique relies on feedback loops to explain human behavior, and this particular model predicted an overshoot and collapse of the natural resource economic base. This Malthusian prediction reinforced Paul Ehrlich's contention articulated in The Population Bomb (1968) that unbridled population growth is the foremost factor in environmental degradation and natural resource depletion. However, these pessimistic models failed to take account of the substitutive and absorptive capacities of humanity and the environment. In fact, these key economic principals temper the adverse effects of overpopulation and may increase general human welfare as a result. But the fact (or widely acknowledged as such) still remains that population growth, particularly in undeveloped nations puts an increased strain on the environment and the population supported by the local ecosystem. The 2003 World Development Report which is published by The World Bank Group indicates that farmers in third world countries are being forced to farm on marginal lands due to the growing scarcity of arable lands. Economic pressures which force farmers to operate on non-arable lands indicate that the population levels in that community/country/region are not socially optimal. The environment and development movements that accompanied Ehrlich's concerns led to international contraceptive distribution programs, mainly based in developed countries with the intent of helping poorer countries. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) undertook a population program in 1965 that focused on contraception and family planning programs. Similar programs were developed at the same time by public interest groups such as Zero Population Growth and the Sierra Club. However, these groups failed to realize that the technical fix of contraceptives may not be adequate for population control. They did not address the extensive effects of socioeconomic and cultural conditions that effect population growth.

After the industrial revolution, countries that have undergone extensive development in a relatively short period of time have also witnessed an associated decline in fertility. The relationship between economic development and a decline in fertility is illustrated in the demographic transition model and explained in microeconomic theory of fertility. The demographic transition (shown below) indicates that there is a high birthrate and death rate in a pre-industrialized society. As industrialization begins, the death rate declines very quickly due to increased life expectancy. The final stage of the demographic transition is the most intriguing because the birthrate falls dramatically, sometimes even below the death rate. At present, Europe is facing fertility rates below the replacement rate of 2.1, which means that their population is steadily decreasing. The microeconomic theory of fertility attempts to explain this marked decrease in birthrates by viewing children as consumer durables. If the price of having a child increases, the demand for children, on the whole, will decrease. When a country undergoes major economic development and there are opportunities for women to work, the value of a woman's time immediately rises. The cost of having a child increases with the amount a mother's time is worth. Also, an industrialized nation will also have a better social security system than that of a pre-industrialized nation. Children in such a society are not needed to provide for their parents in their old age. There are many more reasons embodied in this theory that attempt to explain the decrease in birthrates, but the main idea behind all of them is that the socioeconomic impact of economic development is the foremost cause for decreasing fertility rates. Basis for the microeconomic theory of fertility comes from the analysis and comparison of fertility rates in developed versus undeveloped countries. The National Research Council compiled population percent increase projections by the United Nations, The World Bank, and the U.S. Census Bureau for developing regions and industrial regions from 1995-2050. The average percentage increase in population for developing countries was projected as being nearly +75%, whereas the percentage decrease for industrial nations hovers around -2%. The argument for the microeconomic theory of fertility seems to be well founded based on these projections alone. Contraceptive distribution programs could not possibly have the same influence on population control as socioeconomic shifts.

Culture, along with economic development, also plays a major role in population control. Economic and gender equality along with universal education has been attributed with the decline in fertility rates, mostly by way of individual case studies. One such study was conducted in Kerala, one of India's poorer states. The fertility rate declined from approximately 5.6 children per woman in 1951 to 1.7 in 1993. The decline was a direct result of the state and local governments public policy aimed at providing universal health care and education. Also, Kerala is an exceptional state in that they give a much higher status to women than most other regions in the world. Even though Kerala as a state is still quite poor, the fertility rates declined as a result of shifts in social paradigms that govern fertility.

The population problem cannot be solved with a technical fix such as contraceptives. I am generally an advocate for technical fixes and economic policy that encourages these innovations, but the scale and behavioral aspects of the population problem make a technical fix completely infeasible. As such, concentrated programs aimed at reducing population growth fail to understand the complexity and breadth associated with a decreasing population. Optimal population rates will come as a result of economic development and further pushes toward cultural and economic equality.

Works Cited:

Dobell, R. A. "Environmental Degradation and the Religion of the Market." Published in Coward, H. (Ed.). (1995). Population, Consumption, and the Environment: Religious and Secular Responses. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Firor, J. & Jacobson, J. E. (2002). The Crowded Greenhouse: Population, Climate Change, and Creating a Sustainable World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

National Research Council. (2000). Beyond Six Billion: forecasting the world's population. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

The American Assembly. (1963) The Population Dilemma. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

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last updated 4/08/03