The Missing Piece in the Population Puzzle

Frances Moore Lappé and Rachel Schurman | 09.01.1988

By Frances Moore Lappé and Rachel Schurman, September 1988, Development Report No. 4

DR04 The Missing Piece in the Population Puzzle-chart


What do you see in this picture? (right)

If what you see is a population “explosion,” you are not alone. That’s precisely what biologist Paul Ehrlich dubbed these trends in his eye-opening 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Population growth rates in the third world are historically unprecedented. The world population has doubled since 1950, with 85 percent of that growth occurring in the third world. But what set off the population bomb? What problems does it present? And how can we defuse it to help bring human population into balance with the natural environment? In the past twenty years, this graph of population trends has become almost a “Rorschach test” in which people have seen strikingly different answers to these critical questions.

In this report, we briefly critique several current interpretations of the population puzzle and point beyond them to an emerging alternative framework for understanding- one that incorporates unmistakable historical lessons.

We first consider the perspective of the biological determinists—those who see human populations overrunning the carrying capacities of their ecosystems. We suggest why this view has been largely discredited and describe a milder version that dominates public perceptions of the population problem today. In the latter view, the crux of the population crisis is that growing numbers of people are overwhelming finite resources; the answer is obvious: reduce births.

Over the last two decades a much more useful analysis has emerged among social scientists, replacing both of these narrow views. It describes the realities of poverty and premature death that keep birth rates high. While we incorporate many of its invaluable insights here, we must dig substantially deeper to seriously confront the population problem.

In this report we seek to probe beneath the descriptive social perspective in order to examine the relationships of social power—economic, political, cultural—that influence fertility. We construct what we call the power-structures perspective, referring to the multilayered arenas of decision-making power that shape people’s reproductive choices or lack of them. We use this framework to show how the powerlessness of the poor often leaves them little option but large families. Indeed, high birth rates among the poor can best be understood, we argue, as a defensive response against structures of power that fail to provide, or actively block, sources of security beyond the family. From this perspective, rapid population growth is a moral crisis because it reflects the widespread denial of essential human rights to survival resources—land, food, jobs—and the means to prevent pregnancy.

It follows from our power structures perspective that far-reaching economic and political change is necessary to reduce birth rates to replacement levels. Such change must enhance the power of the poorest members of society, removing their need to cope with economic insecurity by giving birth to many children. Social arrangements beyond the family—jobs, healthcare, old-age security, and education (especially for women)—must offer both security and opportunity. Most important, the power of women must be augmented through expanded opportunities for both men and women. At the same time, limiting births must become a viable option by making safe and acceptable birth control devices universally available.

Unless we are honestly willing to confront the roots of people’s powerlessness, we cannot hope to halt population growth in the future.

In seeking solutions to the population problem, we examine critical lessons from the handful of third world countries that have been exceptionally successful in reducing fertility. In each, we find our thesis reinforced: far-reaching social changes have empowered people, especially women, and provided alternative sources of income, security, and status to child bearing.

Humanity ignores such lessons at great peril. Unless we are honestly willing to confront the roots of people’s powerlessness, we cannot hope to halt population growth in the future—with dire consequences for human well-being and for the biosphere itself. But the consequences are immediate as well: unwillingness to address the social roots of high fertility leads almost inexorably, we argue, to coercive, even hazardous population control strategies, jeopardizing the goal of enhanced human well-being. Moreover, lacking an approach that addresses the problem of social power, we can expect no relief to the misery of hunger and the stress of environmental decline, regardless of success in cutting birth rates.

Finally, we challenge everyone alarmed about rapid population growth to be fully concerned not just about its impact on humanity but on nonhuman life as well.