Why are third world families so large? In poor agrarian societies there is a direct incentive to have more children, as it provides more hands to do the work and makes the family farm more productive and profitable. It doesn’t appear to me, however, that there are many poor agrarian societies left, and a quick look at world population trends shows that in most of the less-developed countries the bulk of the population has moved or is moving to the big cities. There must be other reasons for large families in these fast growing countries.
Interviews with people in the third world are illuminating. The most prevalent reason I’ve heard for large families, stated by residents of the less developed countries where population is growing the fastest, is that parents are worried about being cared for in old age, and, given the shorter average life spans and more prevalent causes of premature death in their countries, believe they need larger families to ensure that at least some of their children will be around to help them in their time of need. It is apparent that economic aid and political stability would help to reduce that perceived need.
Authoritarian regimes may not accept aid, and may make it difficult to reach and understand their populations. Rather than automatically seeing this as reason to work for “change of authoritarian regimes”, (an undertaking our government has failed at miserably), I see it as a reason to inform leaders of such countries of the facts, offer educational and family planning aid, and suggest that if they change their policies appropriately there will be economic aid available as well. Beyond that I don’t think there is much we can do (while staying on a positive moral footing) except to wait and watch as their countries are hit hardest by overpopulation.
Here are some basic concepts that relate to the approaches to overpopulation I feel will be most effective: education aid, family planning, and economic aid.
People will do the right thing much more reliably if they understand why. This makes logical sense, and has been proven out many times. People need education and information to understand global issues and act appropriately. Public education is needed to ensure that formal instruction is extended to all regardless of economic standing. Sustainability can’t be reached if majorities of people don’t know enough to make informed, positive choices given the information they receive. That brings up the aspect of relatively free media access and an open flow of information, without which people can’t make appropriate decisions, and which may be restricted in authoritarian countries.
Appropriate individual choices require individual knowledge. Since the individual choices that will move the planet towards sustainability hinge on individual knowledge, education should be freely provided to all, and this is easy to justify given the cost effectiveness and huge benefit to the economy. (It’s certainly orders of magnitude cheaper than controlling people via the state surveillance, police, and prison systems that go with authoritarian control.)
Education and family planning aid are cheap, and even economic aid is relatively inexpensive. The cost of the types of aid I suggest is far less than military aggression or clandestine efforts. The U.S. provided aid totaling $23.53 billion in 2006 (link), with over $18 billion going to Iraq, while the total spent on the so-called Iraq War alone was well over $40 billion in the same year (link). Given that the Iraq war has resulted in the estimated deaths of over a million people and done much to encourage terrorism and corruption in the Iraqi government and U.S. contractors, I have to think we can do better. We need our leaders to think longer term, address the global problems facing us, and spend our tax money in much more effective ways, but they won’t do that unless we tell them what we want. I encourage you to contact your government representatives and let them know what you want done. If they don’t hear from us they will remain focused on a point no farther away than the next election, and will continue to mis-spend our money.
As always, I welcome your comments.
City Planet, Spring 2006, Stewart Brand, Strategy+Business website, Global Perspective
Population Growth, Jan. 2, 2006, Matt Rosenberg, About.com (other related items linked)
Negative Population Growth, Oct. 6, 2007, Matt Rosenberg, About.com
World Population: Major Trends, December 1996, Gerhard K. Heilig, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria
The World’s Growing Population, 2003, World Bank Atlas