Debating population, poverty and development

Last week, Small Farm Future chalked up yet another first – the first vehement critique of one of our posts by a working academic with apparent expertise in the matter at hand. The post was this one about global population and its entailments that I published in June, and the critique came from Dr Jane O’Sullivan of the University of Queensland in Australia (our exchange is linked below).

I’d precis the main substance of Dr O’Sullivan’s critique as follows: my post failed to consider the importance of top-down government or expert-led population control policies (broadly conceived) in reducing global fertility (ie. births per woman) over the last 50 years, and failed to consider the implications of the recent slowdown in the decline of the fertility rate and its causes. If that was all that Dr O’Sullivan had said, it would have been easy for me to concede these points (especially if she’d made them politely). I don’t think the concession greatly alters the main points I was making in that post, though perhaps it does a little. But in the course of our ill-tempered exchange (I’m sure the fault was partly mine…though not, I think, entirely) Dr O’Sullivan also unleashed quite a barrage of assertions that in my opinion varied from the somewhat questionable to the downright misleading, along I’ll admit with the occasional useful nugget. I should probably give myself more time to reflect on the issues, but some of them are highly relevant to the wider themes of this blog, and I think are less clear-cut than Dr O’Sullivan supposes. So I thought I’d write a quick, work-in-progress kind of response now to present the issues as I see them, in the hope that other commenters may bring some wider illumination.

Here, then, are just a handful of the many issues arising out of the exchange, each one wrapped up with a point for discussion. The exchange itself can be found lurking at the bottom of my offending post, but is also linked at the end of this one for convenience.

The relationship between human fertility and poverty.

Dr O’Sullivan wrote that “population growth is the main driver of impoverishment and local environmental damage in high-fertility countries”. Focusing for now just on the impoverishment side of things, I think this claim is empirically wrong and could well be politically disastrous.

Let’s take for illustration the ten countries with the highest fertility rates in the world, all but one of which are African (in fact, all but nine of the fifty highest-fertility countries are African). According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators the top ten are Niger (with a current average fertility rate of 7.2 births per woman), Somalia (6.3), Democratic Republic of Congo (6.1), Mali (6.1), Chad (5.9), Burundi (5.7), Angola (5.7), Uganda (5.6), Nigeria (5.5) and Timor-Leste (5.5).

An elementary knowledge of the recent and longer-term history of these countries and their regions would surely call into question the claim that population growth is the main driver of their impoverishment. I guess I could accept Dr O’Sullivan’s claim if it was rephrased thus:

“Leaving aside the net annual outflow of billions of dollars from sub-Saharan Africa to the rest of the world (see eg. Jason Hickel The Divide), and leaving aside also the fact that large parts of it are comprised not by ‘developing countries’ but by areas largely excluded from the distribution of global surplus to the extent that they’ve become politically dominated by violent non-state or quasi-state actors (see eg. Mark Duffield Global Governance and the New Wars), then there is some evidence to suggest an association between impoverishment and population growth caused by high fertility.”

But after reading through Dr O’Sullivan’s linked paper, I’m not convinced that that evidence is quite as strong as she claims. A lot of the evidence she discusses is based on country-level data suggestive of GDP growth postdating fertility decline. There are some problems with this aggregate-level post hoc ergo propter hoc argument as a justification for reducing individual fertility as an anti-poverty strategy. If one wants to argue that high fertility is the main driver of impoverishment within these countries then it’s necessary to show that, on average, a resident individual who has x children experiences greater poverty over their total lifecourse than another individual starting at an identical socioeconomic level who has <x children. And then it’s necessary to show that this effect is more powerful than other ones, such as the financial and resource drain from these countries and the effect of their political structuring.

Dr O’Sullivan does cite a review paper1 discussing research that may be suggestive at least of the first part of this, though its conclusions are expressed more cautiously than hers. But overall I think there are some problems of causal inference in parts of her paper. A problem I have with much ‘development’ research of this kind is its reification of the country as a unit of analysis, as if the world comprises a level playing field of nation-states each at a better or worse point of possibility on some universal ‘development’ trajectory. There doesn’t seem to be much sense of the uneven geopolitics of a world economic system and the implications of that for the wealth and poverty of nations.

But what troubles me most about Dr O’Sullivan’s assertion that population growth is the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries is how that statement might play out in a world where isolationist and nativist voices are rising to political prominence in the wealthier countries. So let me rephrase her assertion once again, this time as it might be interpreted through the beady gaze of the US president, perhaps the best-known of those voices:

“People who live in shithole countries are poor because they have too many babies – so why should we do anything to help them?”

I appreciate that that’s absolutely not what Dr O’Sullivan is saying, but I think it might well be what a lot of people would choose to hear – and as I tried to suggest, there are a lot of pernicious opinions abroad concerning the responsibility of the poor in general and of poor Africans in particular for their own misfortunes, which would gladly assimilate arguments from intellectually respectable sources that fertility is the main driver of poverty. Dr O’Sullivan rebuffed my attempts to discuss this with her as “ad hominem attacks”. So be it. I acknowledge that unwanted pregnancies are a major issue in high-fertility countries, while for her part Dr O’Sullivan says she never denied there were “other factors at play”, but if one links fertility to poverty with no reference to the geopolitical structuring of global poverty – especially in the present political climate – I’m not sure that caveat cuts it. The consequence of proposing that the best way to tackle poverty is through population control policies might well be a further reduction in population control policies. I don’t like to get involved in arguments with other wealthy westerners about who’s the better champion of the global poor, but I do find it a little hard to swallow the charge of irresponsible writing from someone who draws the links between high fertility and poverty so complacently.

Discussion point: population growth is not the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries.

Population, environmental damage and climate change.

It’s undoubtedly true that, as Dr O’Sullivan suggested, population growth is a driver of local environmental damage wherever it occurs. Well, it’s undoubtedly usually true. But she seems curiously anxious in her writing to emphasize the environmental damage (including greenhouse gas emissions) associated with high-fertility, low-income countries and to de-emphasize the damage caused by the low-fertility, high-income countries – even to the extent of making the spurious argument that lifestyles in the latter countries haven’t got more resource or emissions intensive in recent decades.

The main point I want to make here is not so much about which countries bear most responsibility for global environmental ills. The real problem as I see it is that we only really have one model of development and prosperity – the model that the low-fertility, high-income countries have followed – and if every other country follows it, it’ll be ruinous. Actually, it’s not possible for every country to follow it for economic as well as ecological reasons. But to the extent that that’s what’s on offer, it’s still ruinous. And it does have to be said that the offer has largely been orchestrated out of Washington DC, and to a lesser extent Beijing and Brussels, in service of those jurisdictions’ interests. So while there’s much to be said for population control, I think the notion that population control is the most important precursor to economic development and environmental protection is problematic. Perhaps one issue lurking behind my debate with Dr O’Sullivan is that we have pretty different ideas about what will ultimately count as ‘sustainable development’.

But I do also want to make the point that it is the low-fertility, high-income countries that bear most responsibility for global environmental ills – most especially greenhouse gas emissions, which are important not only in their direct effects but as an index of the wider environmental bads associated with the economies that disproportionately produce them. Dr O’Sullivan writes that “apart from climate change, most of the drastically negative impacts (on deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, fertiliser run-off, plastics in the ocean, overfishing, destruction of wetlands, draining of aquifers etc) is not happening in or in the name of the most industrialised countries.” I guess I’d argue firstly that a lot of all that is happening “in the name of” industrialized countries (my point in the previous paragraph)…besides which, things like plastic, synthetic fertilizer, modern fishing fleets etc. surely are inherently ‘industrialised’. Maybe more importantly, at our present point in what Dr O’Sullivan calls “the human project” her “apart from climate change” is a pretty big exemption – somewhat akin to me saying that apart from drinking a daily bottle of whisky I’m teetotal.

The graph below shows the carbon dioxide emissions produced in Australia over the last fifty-odd years in blue and the emissions produced in aggregate by the nine African countries previously mentioned with the highest fertility in red. I think it’s quite revealing – in 2014, Australia’s 23.5 million people produced almost two-and-a-half times more carbon dioxide emissions in total between them than the 389 million people living in the nine highest fertility African countries (we’re talking total, absolute emissions here, not per capita ones). True, Australia’s emissions have dropped a little recently – possibly only by displacing them elsewhere? But I trust nobody’s going to tell me I haven’t properly attended to this decline…


Last week while Dr O’Sullivan and I were debating, the Australian deputy prime minister Michael McCormack responded to the IPCC’s latest impassioned report on the climate change emergency by saying that the Australian government would not change its policy and reduce coal production “just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do”.

I’d like to suggest that if Australians voted out Mr McCormack and replaced him with a serious politician who paid attention to the IPCC it would be a far more effective form of environmental damage-limitation than pursuing policies to limit population growth in, say, Nigeria. Let me try to quantify that statement. Please forgive me if I’ve got this calculation badly wrong, but by my reckoning in 2016 Australia produced 500 million tonnes of coal, which translates roughly into a billion tonnes of CO2. It’s predicted to increase that production by 1.1% annually over the next few years. A paper cited by Dr O’Sullivan2 suggests, I think, that by the year 2100 Nigeria could reduce its emissions from 2005 levels by 35% if it pursued population policies that put it on the low variant of the UN’s fertility projections. In 2005, Nigeria’s emissions were a little over a hundred million tonnes of CO2, so if it reduced these by 35% that would mean its emissions in 2100 would be about 37 million tonnes less – which is 4% of the emissions from Australia’s current annual coal production, or an amount that would be canceled out in less than three years just by the 1.1% annual increase in production. On current measures of per capita emissions, one extra Australian adds CO2 equivalent to that of about 41 extra people from the high-fertility African countries (probably an underestimate). At those levels, the 5.5 million extra Australians predicted by the UN medium fertility population variant in 2030 over 2012 will be responsible for more emissions than the 230 million extra people predicted for the nine highest-fertility African countries.

Dr O’Sullivan argues in her paper that access to voluntary family planning and birth control in the least-developed countries in order to minimize population growth is ‘low-hanging fruit’ in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation (though the relationship between ‘birth control’ access and fertility seems quite debatable). But what constitutes ‘low-hanging fruit’ is a matter of political choice as well as technical feasibility. Promoting people’s ability to control their fertility needs no wider justification, but it’s not clear to me from what vantage point the extension of this ability into the least developed countries constitutes lower-hanging fruit for climate change mitigation than, say, reducing Australian coal production by a few percent.

Discussion point: Reducing fertility in high-fertility countries is not an especially important priority for tackling climate change.

Family planning programs and the fertility decline slowdown.

Dr O’Sullivan asserts that the slowdown in the global fertility decline is caused by less investment since the 1990s in voluntary family planning programs. She mentions a few countries where lower FP investment was followed by stagnating decline or rising fertility, but I’m not sure that she provides convincing evidence that this is the main reason for the slowdown that shows up in the overall global figures. I suggested that another possible explanation was artefactual – essentially, it’s easier to reduce fertility when people are having a lot of children than it is when fertility approaches two or less children.

I did a bit of analysis on the World Development Indicator dataset that I think is at least broadly suggestive that this may be so. First, taking the nine highest fertility African countries mentioned above, it turns out that their fertility decline hasn’t slowed but increased since the 1990s and in fact this is also true on average for the fifty countries in the world with the highest current fertility rates – albeit more true for the ones at the top of that distribution than the bottom, which further lends prima facie support to the artefactual explanation. The overall average for these countries was a fertility decline of 0.85 births between 1983 and 1999 and 1.06 births between 2000 and 2016. But looking at the fifty countries with the lowest current fertility, the 1983-99 decline was 0.69 births whereas the 2000-16 decline was only 0.06. So it seems that it may be the low rather than the high fertility countries driving the overall decline, as you’d expect from the artefactual explanation. I don’t know how plausible this explanation is, but on the face of it I’m not sure it’s less plausible than the notion that the global slowdown in fertility decline that’s occurred (except, apparently, in the high-fertility countries) stems mostly from less FP funding.

In global absolute terms, I’m guessing China is significant – its fertility rate bottomed at just under 1.5 births per woman in 1999 and has since risen to over 1.6, which in view of its population size is probably a lot of extra people. Presumably this is because of the relaxation of its population control policies, which in a sense might confirm Dr O’Sullivan’s line of argument – though since she emphasizes voluntary population control I’m not sure how far to concede this point… Certainly, before leaping to the conclusion that the slowdown is a FP policy failure it seems to me necessary to address artefactual possibilities, as well as other possible factors (growing inequality and civil conflict maybe?)

More generally, it seems to me difficult to isolate the effects of FP programs on global fertility as completely independent, exogenous effects that can be separated from wider governmental and civil society structures and from the agency of target populations. Writers like Banerjee and Duflo3 emphasize the complexity of family planning interventions, the independent agency of the poor and the complex links to fertility quite cautiously. One of their points – much along the lines of Jan Steinman’s comment – is that children are often a pension plan, and will most likely keep being produced in quantity so long as alternatives relying on more money remain unavailable. So while I’d acknowledge that I should have taken FP programs more seriously than I did in my original post, I think the issues are more complex than Dr O’Sullivan seems prepared to entertain.

Incidentally, the ten countries that have experienced the largest drop in their fertility rates since 2000 are Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Djibouti, Guatemala, Lao and Timor-Leste. And of the ten highest fertility countries mentioned above, six of them come into the top quarter of the global draw in terms of post-2000 fertility decline, and all of them in the top half. I think there’s food there for some alternative theories of fertility decline than a singular emphasis on FP programs. Civil conflict seems to be a missing variable in much of the discussion about fertility.

Discussion point: to what extent is it possible to argue on the basis of available evidence that formal FP programs have been the main cause of the fertility decline?

Population and farm fertility

In her response to me, Dr O’Sullivan wrote “With too many people, low-impact mixed farming is no longer an option. Nitrogen fertilizer becomes essential”. I didn’t pick up on this point in debating with her because it didn’t seem important to the main lines of argument, but it’s important to the overall concerns of this blog and I think her statement is wrong. Presumably she’s referring to synthetic fertilizer, which is not fundamentally a land-sparing input but a labor-sparing (and energy-absorbing…and often a watercourse-polluting) one. Lynn White, for example, whose book I mentioned in my previous post, makes the point that the advent of synthetic fertilizer in quantity in Chinese agriculture from the 1980s scarcely increased crop yields, but it released a lot of agricultural labor for industrial activities. Population density in itself is not a major driver of the shift from ‘low-impact’ farming to synthetic fertilizer farming. My prediction is that with rising population, rising energy costs and stalling economic growth over the coming decades we’ll see a decline in synthetic fertilizer use and an increase in labor-intensive mixed farming.

Discussion point: With ‘too many’ people, rising energy prices and falling economic growth, low-impact mixed farming is likely to become the dominant form of agriculture in the future.

Population and land availability

If population increases, then other things being equal the amount of agricultural land available per capita will decrease. Historically, the main ways people have responded to that dynamic are:

  1. clearing more wildland for agriculture (not a good idea in our present world)
  2. lowering their fertility
  3. intensifying agricultural production (more labor per hectare, less meat etc.)
  4. importing food from elsewhere
  5. migrating

My country, Britain, comes reasonably low down the list of countries ranked by agricultural land area per capita (127th out of 209 countries, at 0.3ha per person). Historically, it’s followed all five of the procedures above. In the past, (5) has been one of its main strategies – one reason why there are now so many white folks in countries like the USA and Australia. Nowadays, (4) is one of its main strategies. Despite the pressure on land, there’s little talk about (2) in UK policy circles (though elsewhere in Europe, where fertility is lower than the UK, there are converse policy worries about demographic decline). Interestingly, many of the highest fertility African countries are quite high up in the top half of the list, with a lot of agricultural land available per capita – though I daresay one shouldn’t infer too much from that. Right up there in third place is Australia, with 15ha of agricultural land per person.

A question that nags at me is why, when it comes to discussing pressure on agricultural land in Africa, does point (2) always figure so insistently in the discussion? Not that (2) is a bad idea at all – but why do we hear so much less about, say, (5) – perhaps by establishing a migration program from Burundi to Australia, for example? I think it would be interesting to discuss why (2) seems to be regarded as ‘lower-hanging fruit’ for a country like Burundi than (5), and why (4) seems to be so favored in the UK.

Discussion point: what is the best way of ordering priorities among the five responses to decreased per capita farmland availability listed above? Does it vary from country to country, and if so on what grounds?

Resource availability per capita

Dr O’Sullivan writes that there is a “mathematical simplicity of population growth reducing natural resources per capita”. However, this point has been explicitly disputed from at least the 19th century down to the 21st by a long line of land economists, anthropologists and rural sociologists. This remains true whatever Dr O’Sullivan’s opinions are on Henry George’s religious views. I’m not saying that all these thinkers are correct in all their analyses. But my contention is this:

Discussion point: the relationship between population growth and available natural resources per capita is not mathematically simple (depending, I suppose, on how you define a ‘natural resource’…and also how you define ‘simplicity’).

Absolute and relative measures

There was quite a lot of toing and froing around absolute versus relative measures of this and that in my debate with Dr O’Sullivan. Some of her presentations of evidence strike me as pretty misleading, whereas others are potentially illuminating. I’m still not sure whether the relative increase in absolute population growth since 2000 is one of the illuminating ones or not. I’d be interested in any other views. As mentioned above, it seems quite likely that events in China are a major driver for this – and if so it may be the per capita environmental impacts rather than population numbers which are the ‘lowest-hanging fruit’ in this instance.

Discussion point: what can we infer from the relative increase in absolute population increase since 2000?

The right and the wrong of it

Dr O’Sullivan wrote of me “You argued that fertility was declining without any interventions to promote it, and that it would soon cause population to peak and decline, and that we could not effectively do more to influence it, and that we didn’t need to. I am arguing that these are demonstrably false positions.” Perhaps this sounds like sophistry, but I’m not sure that claims about the future, about the efficacy of something that we’re not actually doing and about normative priorities can be ‘demonstrably false’. Still, in the light of our exchange I’d certainly accept that I pressed those positions further than is warranted. I suppose eating some humble pie once in a while is a risk I must take in return for tossing my worthless opinions so vaingloriously into cyberspace on a regular basis. What makes it harder to do is Dr O’Sullivan’s charmlessly one-dimensional focus: firstly on only one part of my argument, secondly and more importantly on what seems quite a questionable take on population, development and the environment, and thirdly and more importantly still on some of her own highly problematic statements that lead us into other worlds of trouble.

Discussion point: “Over the last fifty years, fertility has crashed at a historically unprecedented rate, though it’s been a bit less unprecedented at the end of that time period than at the beginning (except in high-fertility countries where the decline has not leveled off) – and I should have addressed that”.


The exchange that Dr O’Sullivan and I had (with a few contributions from others – thank you) can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.


  1. Sinding, S. 2009. Population, poverty and economic development. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364, 3023–3030.
  2. Casey, G. & Galor, O. 2017. Is faster economic growth compatible with reductions in carbon emissions? The role of diminished population growth. Environ.Res.Lett. 12 014003
  3. Banerjee, A. & Duflo, E. 2011. Poor Economics. Penguin.

85 thoughts on “Debating population, poverty and development

  1. An interesting debate. Certainly a debate that would have been quite difficult for today’s participants to have engaged in at an earlier junction in our respective lives given our geographic locations. But even with the convenience of the internet, the hegemony of the English language, and development of modeling technology and statistical protocols we still seem to be having this conversation within a smallish ‘tube’ if you will. [fortunately this is not an echo chamber]

    Wouldn’t it be fascinating if a Nigerian woman of say 16 years could offer us her perspective of the world we share. Naturally such a sharing of perspective might necessitate her having some level of education. It might also help if she were not currently being held hostage.

  2. I think you underestimate the amount weight of CO2 generated by coal combustion. Using an average coal carbon content of about 70%, 500 million tonnes of coal would produce about 1,300 million tonnes of CO2.

    It is also important to account for Australia’s coal exports when discussing Australian emissions of CO2. About 87% of Australia’s coal production is exported and burned in other countries, which should have the resulting CO2 attributed to them.

    Nonetheless, the per capita emissions of CO2 from rich countries is far higher than in poor countries. Australia has per capita emissions 27.1 times higher than Nigeria. In fact, Nigeria’s emissions per capita have declined about 33% since 1983 (mostly due to population increasing faster than total emissions), whereas Australia’s per capita emissions have increased slightly in the same time period.

    As to your discussion point, “Reducing fertility in high-fertility countries is not an especially important priority for tackling climate change”, it is clearly true that the vast majority of CO2 emissions have been and continue to be produced by the lowest fertility countries.

    Since high fertility countries are unlikely to become high per capita emitters of CO2 in the near future, virtually no attention should be given to them in tackling climate change. All our efforts should be focused on reducing the emissions from the countries with high per capita emissions, not only as a matter of environmental justice, but because that is where most of the global emissions come from. By the way, China is now a high per capita emission country, at 7.6 tonnes per capita per year, higher than that of the United Kingdom at 7.1 tonnes.

    • It is also important to account for Australia’s coal exports when discussing Australian emissions of CO2. About 87% of Australia’s coal production is exported and burned in other countries, which should have the resulting CO2 attributed to them.

      By the same token then Nigeria should shoulder the CO2 impacts of the oil they export – to be fair. But there is another angle to consider I think… what is Australia (or Nigeria) or any other Carbon resource entity to do in a global market where an end user who cannot source from – say Australia – merely goes forth and sources from someone else? By extension of this latter logic, as an aerobic organism whose metabolism regularly burns carbon sources such as cereals and meats and emits CO2 after digestion – I’ve been contributing a carbon footprint for more years than I care to divulge… should the farmers and ranchers who raised said food have the CO2 attributed to them?

      I do agree Joe that in the case of the coal from Australia issue there is some culpability on Australia’s part… and the farmers and ranchers (including myself when I produce my own food) are culpable to some limited extent, but I imagine the attribution should be shared – and accounted more heavily on the users end of the transaction.

      And yet another angle to asses this blame game… from the vantage point: all of us. If instead of pointing fingers here and there, attributing this or that unpleasant outcome to this or that ‘other’ population – what if we have a look in a mirror, acknowledge that because we can see ourselves in said mirror we are still breathing and thus are still contributing to the global malaise. Better then if, like you do so wonderfully, more of us would reflect on our own personal circle of influence and get busy with positive endeavors.

  3. Hi Chris,
    Yes, fraught topics here. What if, as is current fashion in my neighborhood, I jump right in and start making assertions?

    Before I do though, I have to say that your plot of total Australian carbon footprint vs. selected African countries cuts right to the heart of the issue.

    So then, what if we accept Dr. Jane O’Sullivan’s assertions on their face? What if population really is the main driver of environmental degradation in poor countries, and education by rich white people from somewhere else really is the solution?

    We are still left with the problem that those rich white people are having a disproportionate effect on the environment due to our much larger energy use per capita. Couldn’t we apply Dr. O’Sullivan’s logic to that problem and invite some sub-Saharan Africans to educate us on how to live a less energy intensive lifestyle? Surely such an effort would amplify the efforts of both sides.

    Also, as you did, I was struck by the arrogance in the assumption that poor people are ignorant and just need to be educated so they can stop harming themselves. Somehow this doesn’t mention the harm visited upon them by the rich people extracting wealth from them. I had a truly nasty thought: what if those poor people are having lots of children as part of a strategy to raise an army to take back some of the unequally distributed wealth?

    You may surmise that I am not very hopeful. Looking only at my own self, I am aware of the environmental impact of my lifestyle. I am aware of a number of ways to reduce or mitigate that impact. I am aware of how dire the global situation is becoming, and I even care about it in some abstract way. Yet even so, I have done the functional equivalent of nothing. I think the reason is because the solution to environmental impact is to become poorer. Which I mean in the best possible way. And while I may think every now and then that it would be interesting to be poorer, none of my friends or neighbors share that thought.

    I know plenty of Prius drivers, but the one or two people I know who have reduced their carbon footprints in a significant way have paid a huge social cost. Not least because they had to be so single-minded and severe that they aren’t much fun to be around. Maybe if we had more Malians and Sudanese on the block…

  4. For those who haven’t seen this relevant article:

    “A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions…”

    “Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to us. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for example, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together. Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.”

    The Population Myth
    George Monbiot
    29th September 2009

  5. I’ve not had time to give all this the attention it deserves, but it strikes me that the omissions you highlight in Dr O’Sullivan’s analysis are crucial. She seems to be writing from a politically liberal point of view that is very wary of any social analysis that touches on power relations. Instead, everything is couched in moralizing individualistic terms, in which people are always free to choose the correct path to take, or not. In this case the moral imperative of family planning tends to correct previously-held erroneous notions and sets people on the right path. The structural inequalities you highlight between global north and south are not considered precisely because there is no sensible argument to be made in which people would simply be free to choose alternatives.

    I have encountered this attitude quite widely, and always find it irritating! Best not to go off on a rant, but in brief it usually it usually involves ideas about culture as a storehouse of qualities based on a specific historical heritage, rather than as a field through which all sorts of social activities, including the creation of power relations, are enabled. Sure enough, I found the following quote from Dr O’Sullivan’s paper revealing:

    ‘The successful [family planning] programmes promoted the benefits of fewer, more widely spaced children, employed culturally appropriate means to change social norms around family size and women’s roles, and addressed the many barriers to achieving fertility regulation.’ (pp 117-8)

    As if changing ‘social norms’ is simply a case of finding the right ‘culturally appropriate’ (read inoffensive) buttons to press. There is an active aversion here to challenging existing power structures, and the whole things reads as if the programmes are actually computer programs, modifying unconsciously-held social norms in other peoples’ societies in ways that nobody will really notice.

    I thoroughly agree with your identification of Dr O’Sullivan’s blind spot, but I think it’s worse than simply a lack of awareness. In refusing to hold the powerful to account for their role in climate change, she actively shields them from criticism, especially as she is involved in promoting certain global policy initiatives. The African societies she targets are ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the sense that they can be affected with the minimum disturbance to existing power relations (in the same way that the president of Shell thinks we should plant another rainforest rather than stop him extracting fossil fuels). Indeed, at its worst this could be viewed as exploiting existing power relations between north and south to target those least able to object. Given the racialized form of those global relations, I’d suggest that she’s on very uncertain ground.

  6. Chris asked, “why do we hear so much less about [migrating] – perhaps by establishing a migration program from Burundi to Australia, for example?”

    Some related quotations from Dr. O’Sullivan:

    “Migration policy should be seen primarily as a component of population policy, and should serve the goal of attaining a stable and sustainable population at a level that ensures high quality of life and environmental health… The lower the peak population in Australia, the more resources per person to sustain our quality of life into the future.”

    Submission to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into Migrant intake into Australia
    Jane O’Sullivan, June 2015

  7. Thanks for the comments – very reassuring after my exchange with Dr O’Sullivan, which left me feeling almost gaslighted. So it’s good to know that others share what she called my ‘baseless scepticism’.

    Above all, thanks to Steve for unearthing her submission to the Productivity Commission on migrant intake to Australia. Absolute gold dust – I salute you, sir, for your sleuthing skills. Beneath Dr O’Sullivan’s facility with global population data, I sensed some highly questionable and tendentious argumentation which I tried to excavate in my response above, but Steve has found the real pay dirt. Dr O’Sullivan wrote to me: “well excuse me for defending the interests of the poor, against those who would keep them poor by neglecting their population growth”. Sensitive soul that I am, I spent a couple of days feeling genuine anxiety about my potential culpability here, so I’m delighted now to be able to hold my head up high as someone who defends the interests of the poor against those who would keep them poor by erecting barriers to their mobility and financial access. Just reading an article by Malcolm Bull today: “Given that the most dramatic inequalities are between rather than within nations, and that migration and the resulting remittances are one of the most effective ways to address it, it is hard to see how any egalitarian can ignore the need for more immigration to the wealthy countries of the global north”.

    Other points to note – the Australian emissions I graphed don’t include their exported coal. If they did it would be much higher. The WDI data I think is based on the country of source for the actual emission, though the case is surely better for imputing them by end use or consumption. But I agree with Steve and perhaps with Clem that really it’s about the systemic global political economy, rather than with pointing the figure at this or that country…the problem being that really it’s a handful of wealthy countries that pretty much organize the global political economy to their own benefit and – as Andrew says – Dr O’Sullivan is on thin ground by implicitly ignoring that in her linked article and comments to me, and IMO has absolutely no ethical ground to stand on whatsoever in the light of her Productivity Commission submission, with such comments as “There is, however, an enormous opportunity to improve the government’s fiscal balance and the economic security of Australians, by reducing immigration numbers substantially”.

    So thanks again for the comments – I’ll go back in due course to some of the more detailed issues Dr O’Sullivan raised beyond my first blush responses above, but now with more solid alertness to the probable tendentiousness of her positions. I did wonder if she was protesting a bit too much… But maybe first I’ll invite a response from her…

    • Dr O’Sullivan is consistent in her belief that increased population is bad, not only in poor countries, but in rich countries too. Since she is not concerned with economic justice, she has no qualms about denying the relevance of any benefit to the poor by their migration to rich countries. For her, the poor are not to be helped by such migration, only by reducing their numbers in place (if indeed that will help them).

      Despite the cruelty of her attitude, it makes sense if one’s main goal is to prevent the environmental damage caused by increased resource consumption. The impact on the environment by a poor person becoming affluent, whether by migration or any other cause, far exceeds that person’s impact if they just acquiesce to remaining poor. This is why be best thing rich people can do for the world is not have any children, but for the really poor, having more children have relatively little impact on the global environment.

      O’Sullivan wants to keep people out of Australia so that its resources can be shared by fewer people, but I don’t get the sense from her submission to the Productivity Commission that environmental concerns have any bearing on her desire to keep migrants out. If the environment were her primary concern, she should indeed advocate for keeping people out, but also advocate for making resident Australians radically less affluent. Instead, she wants to protect and enhance Australian affluence, apparently without any regard for the effect of that affluence on the global environment.

      O’Sullivan asserts that, “Migration policy should be seen primarily as a component of population policy, and should serve the goal of attaining a stable and sustainable population at a level that ensures high quality of life and environmental health.” I certainly agree with this goal, but beg to note that the only way to ensure environmental health is to promote a ‘quality of life’ that is just high enough to be consistent with that result.

      For Australia, the demands of global environmental health mean greatly reducing existing affluence. Subsistence farmers in Africa certainly need not worry about excess affluence and don’t need to worry about their population either from a global environmental perspective, but they might want to control their population growth if (and only if) local environmental decline is affecting their ability to grow enough food to eat. Although O’Sullivan would be aghast at these conclusions, I think that they are consistent with the reality of where the dangers to the global environment actually come from.

      I see her unspoken attitude as, “We rich like our affluence, so everyone else needs to disappear so the damage from our affluence is tolerated by the global environment”. What she fails to realize is that even if all the poor vanished from the face of the earth, the remaining affluent, including those in Australia, would still destroy any chance at keeping our planet habitable for humans.

      In fact, our only chance of keeping the planet habitable is for the world’s affluent to become as poor as possible as quickly as possible. The really poor can do whatever they want (except for becoming affluent), since they pose almost no danger to habitability whatsoever.

    These pictures of “what the world eats” shows the difference in people’s diets around the world. One can see that developed countries eat a diet that places a higher burden on the world’s resources as it depends on industrial agriculture and food manufacturing. If you look at the photo of the Aboubakar family from Darfur, Sudan, in the Breidjing refugee camp in Chad you will see a woman and her five children (three girls and two boys). They are refugees from Sudan living in a camp in Chad.
    According to Wikipedia “By January 2011 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that there are 262,900 Sudanese refugees in Chad. The majority of them left Sudan escaping from the violence of the ongoing Darfur crisis, which began in 2003. In 2003 the conflicts over land and water that had been ongoing in Darfur for decades took the shape of a civil war when the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) announced their existence and started fighting against the Janjaweed, a tribal militia backed by the Sudanese central government that had been attacking and razing villages in Darfur for a number of years. Since 2003, at least 300,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million people have been displaced in Darfur.”

    What is the relationship between birth rates and population in African countries and does it exacerbate the fighting over land and water? What about droughts and water shortages that will result from climate change? Even though the African people did not produce the bulk of carbon dioxide that is causing climate change, they are suffering from the reality.
    Based on the clothes the children are wearing it appears that the oldest son attends school and perhaps the younger son as well. What opportunity will their education afford them as refugees? Might they as easily be forcibly recruited by warlords? The jugs next to the mother are probably used to haul water, which other stories have pointed out is usually done by young girls. Other stories I’ve read tell about how often sexual assault occurs in refugee camps. Of how girls are stolen and sold for sex trafficking. Can we imagine what the future of these three girls might hold? What is the chance that they will grow up and produce five children or more just a few prospects as their mother had? Might access to birth control make a difference in their life?
    I believe Jane’s paper was trying to make the point that access to family planning has been shown to help poor people improve their life even in the absence of economic opportunities. That having fewer children itself will help make life better for women in many poor countries such as Africa. Having fewer children will allow families to educate more of their children, to eat better, and perhaps to find a better life. These poor countries need help to stabilize their population growth and perhaps then will find more economic opportunity. Opportunity may look a lot like subsistence living. But isn’t a farm family that can grow enough food to feed themselves and perhaps sell a bit to a neighbor a better economic opportunity than living in a refugee camp dependent on the charity of others?

    Unfortunately the current conservative pressure on government to eliminate abortion is also leading to de-funding of family planning in countries such as Africa. So we cut funding for family planning, prevent immigration, and sell the countries leaders more weapons. This then is the American solution to population and poverty even in our own country where we build more jails and arm the police with military weapons.

    • But isn’t a farm family that can grow enough food to feed themselves and perhaps sell a bit to a neighbor a better economic opportunity than living in a refugee camp dependent on the charity of others?

      Hard to imagine anything short of a death camp such as Auschwitz being a worse economic opportunity than a refugee camp… so yes. But escaping to a refugee camp in the first place is an improvement over living in a village ravaged by thugs and having no means to survive the horrors of war. One thing at a time. And though I can imagine there are a few births in refugee camps it is unlikely most of the children there were conceived after the mother’s arrival – my point being that even in the difficult economic conditions of the villages abandoned there were some opportunities for life that made parenthood feasible. War, even war over scarce resources, changes outlooks on life pretty severely and rapidly.

      Now it might well be the case that Dr O’Sullivan wants to focus on a single aspect of the population issue. In a scientific sense this makes sense. In reductionist attempts to understand how things work it has generally been the approach to hold all variables constant except the variable one wishes to test. And in the process of gathering data looking at the impact of a single variable one can attribute causation to some degree. If someone wishes to generalize their results beyond the limits of the controlled experiment (by ignoring or discounting the significance of other factors influencing the system) they risk issuing a narrative that may not stand up to closer inspection.

      For me the points Joe makes about Dr O’Sullivan’s writing to limit immigration to Australia are somewhat telling. And to Chris’ invitation for Jane to reply here – I’d welcome that too. I’d like to see how sustainability for humans on this planet might be better achieved by population controls on the poor vs. resource consumption controls on the rich.

      • Clem,
        I agree with you that resource consumption by the rich is really the most important. Global climate change could be significantly changed if the US could pass legislation that taxed carbon emissions. But is this likely? Not remotely.
        So the low hanging fruit I think Jane referred to was the less expensive option of providing more family planning funding for poor countries. When poor countries are destabilized by too many mouths to feed the issue becomes the problem of neighboring countries. So if the US were to continue funding family planning perhaps this could help poorer countries stabilize their population.
        The worst things the US can export is industrial agriculture, food manufacturing, addictive sugar drinks, and infant formula. Clearly the American population is much sicker because we have succumbed to corporate advertising and corporate takeover of our government. Can we prevent the corporate takeover of developing countries remains to be seen.

    • My understanding is that the demographic transition to lower fertility from increasing affluence was almost entirely voluntary, lower fertility being coerced only in China. This means that if access to all measures of reproductive health is available to women to use as they see fit, they will generally control their fertility in a manner appropriate to their economic circumstances.

      The feedback from the advantages of reducing or increasing family size is not immediate, but it is fast enough to change fertility rates within a decade or two. Remember also that even in the absence of medical control of fertility, population can always be controlled by infanticide (as has been practiced by many cultures).

      So your assertion that “having fewer children itself will help make life better for women in many poor countries such as Africa” may very well not be true in every poor country. It will often depend on their assessment of the advantages or disadvantages of fewer children. Sometimes, more children will be a real advantage, sometimes not. Anyway, who better to decide than the mother?

      • Joe,
        I absolutely agree with you ” if access to all measures of reproductive health is available to women to use as they see fit, they will generally control their fertility in a manner appropriate to their economic circumstances.” Sex, marriage, family, population pressure, economic opportunity…such complex issues. I also agree that when a man and woman engage in sex and a pregnancy results the ideal situation is that the two together can talk and decide what to do.
        In an ideal world a man and woman choose to take on the responsibility of parenthood together. But in the messy, non ideal world we live in, we do the best we can. The main difference I see is that for me living in a developed western country I had more opportunity for education, more opportunity for birth control, and more opportunity to afford children.
        Perhaps the best we can do as parents is to teach our children that we will be there if an unplanned pregnancy occurs. I don’t believe government should be involved in this decision.
        In an ideal world a mother who wants the child she carries has the support and love of the father as she bears this child. In an ideal world they become a family that can raise their child(ren) in a stable home, with access to food, security from violence, and opportunity for their children to grow to adulthood. Unfortunately our world is far from ideal.

  9. It’s an absolute joy, Chris, to read you when you’re in full flow on a topic on which you’re passionate and knowledgeable. I don’t have the expertise to add anything useful re population/migration discussions but it’s fascinating to read informed discourse of this nature.

      • Hear hear. Having just finished (in one way or another) discussing a similar topic with a “sustainability expert” it is great to see that you’ve had your share of rather more important sparring to do, too 🙂

        We both seem to be facing tired, abstraction-laden tirades emanating from progressively devoluting institutions. Rich only in abstractions, I’d like to cut and paste them into the appropriate chapter of ‘Decline of the West’.

        And here’s where I’d like to add a little boney bone for someone to chew on:
        Excluding any form of larger-scale migration to their/our countries is about the only clear-sighted decision the expertocracy is making, if not for he reasons they claim – far from being an outstretched hand inviting those wretched creatures to start anew in the paradise we’re welcoming them into, we would be welcoming people who not only would have done very well in their home countries had we not chosen to destabilize them, but are carrying with them the kind of beliefs we lost a long time ago.
        Ages of abstractions have limited durability, yet most people in our countries can’t get rid of them. No wonder they’ll do anything to make those people go away who don’t have to re-learn what it takes to build a Small Farm Future, but have in many cases just left one and could even talk to us about it.

  10. Thanks for the further comments. I think Joe sets out the essential logic of Dr O’Sullivan’s position nicely. I was puzzled by her analysis – it seemed to me that she was under-emphasizing the impact of the rich, over-emphasizing the impact of the poor, over-emphasizing the effects of formal family planning programs, and inappropriately homing in on reduced fertility rather than seeing the bigger political picture. Her Productivity Commission submission joins the dots and helps explain why she’s pushing those positions. I now find it hard to see the way she positioned herself as a friend of the global poor and me as an unwitting enemy as anything other than hypocrisy – some of her analysis in that submission is jaw-dropping in its (often implicit) assumptions.

    So Jody, I think you’re over-indulging Dr O’Sullivan. Your questions about the refugee camp and the Darfur crisis are good ones … but so I think are Clem’s answers. I’d add a couple of points. While it’s no doubt the case that local environmental and resource crises can be exacerbated by high fertility, the reason they’re so often politically explosive in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and not in the rich parts of the world is because ordinary people in the former are widely and systematically excluded from the mitigating effects of political and economic self-determination by linked global and local processes – see for example the Hickel and Duffield references above, or on Darfur . Whereas in the rich countries for the time being we effectively export the worst of our problems onto others (Minqi Li’s book that I mentioned in my last post on the nature of the global periphery and semi-periphery is pretty good on this). Yes, in a given situation, lack of access to family planning services can undoubtedly make things worse. But Dr O’Sullivan was arguing on the basis of little convincing evidence that such lack of access was driving the slowdown in the fertility decline worldwide. I need to look at this in more depth, but I strongly suspect she’s mistaken – a suspicion strengthened by the axe she has to grind on this question that’s now become apparent.

    The relationship between fertility and improved outcomes at the individual and supra-individual level is complex – as Banerjee & Duflo show, it’s not necessarily true that having fewer children means that children get a better education or are better able to escape poverty. You write “These poor countries need help to stabilize their population growth and perhaps then will find more economic opportunity” – but what I’m arguing, and what I think Dr O’Sullivan is evading, is the fact that reduced fertility is a much less effective way (and possibly not effective at all) of doing this than improving systemic economic inequalities between countries – inequalities that she seems determined to preserve.

    I don’t think anyone’s disputing that access to family planning services is a good thing, particularly for women’s health and wellbeing. What is in dispute is the effects of this on global population trends, on poverty and on environmental outcomes – matters on which I don’t think Dr O’Sullivan is a reliable guide.

    • Chris,
      I’m not sure why but I seem to be understanding different intent in Jane’s posts than you and others. I find more agreement in her statements than you. I take less issue with her position. I don’t know but I think perhaps you have misunderstood what she has been writing. But I will read more and think more. I don’t believe that most of our views are really all that different. I think we all want to preserve the earth’s resources, protect the viability of family, and ensure the future of humanity.

  11. Discussion point: the relationship between population growth and available natural resources per capita is not mathematically simple (depending, I suppose, on how you define a ‘natural resource’…and also how you define ‘simplicity’).

    In support from

    “The relationships between human population, economic development, and the natural environment are complex. Examination of local and regional case studies reveals the influence and interaction of many variables. For example, environmental and economic impacts vary with population composition and distribution, and with rural-urban and international migrations.”

    Also from the same source……

    “The magnitude of the threat to the ecosystem is linked to human population size and resource use per person. Resource use, waste production and environmental degradation are accelerated by population growth. They are further exacerbated by consumption habits, certain technological developments, and particular patterns of social organization and resource management.”

    I think the dispute actually centers around the definition of “available natural resources” per capita. If one means “potentially available” from the total potentially available within a sustainable carrying capacity, the relationship is mathematically very simple. If one means “actually available for immediate use” given current global conditions, the relationship becomes much more complicated.

    Since the discussion overall seems to be centered around present-day global environmental ills rather than the sum of all environmental ills, including those that might occur some time in the distant future, I think the discussion is related to resources that people have “actually available for immediate use”. The relationship between resources and increases in population therefore becomes much more complicated.

  12. Joe wrote, “Despite the cruelty of her attitude, it makes sense if one’s main goal is to prevent the environmental damage caused by increased resource consumption.”

    Something seems wrong with this picture, in addition to the cruelty. I’m imagining a simplistic political cartoon that shows a country surrounded by a fence, to keep its population within the borders, where they must ‘make do’ with what resources they have there, while an endless convoy of trucks is shown taking that country’s resources out through a gate in the fence, heading for richer countries. With an occasional limo in the convoy, filled with the kleptocracy’s cash. (With the kleptocracy’s existence made possible by the meddling of richer countries.)

    How does the past (and current) exploitation of countries (and their resources) figure in the logic that “makes sense” here?

    • Yes that is exactly the right image. We in Western countries take what we need, or rather, corporations take what they need to manufacture the products they convince us to buy. We shop on line, or go to stores and don’t think about where the products we buy come from. Our complacency is our indictment. Our ignorance no excuse.

    • It makes sense only because there is a direct link between overall resource consumption by people and damage to the earth’s environment. Considering the current level of resource use, it makes sense to prevent the increase in resource consumption anywhere, including by keeping poor people poor, all toward the goal of total resource consumption remaining below carrying capacity.

      What O’Sullivan and others in the rich world fail to take to heart is that the same logic applies to them. Hence my assertion that O’Sullivan should “advocate for making resident Australians radically less affluent”. Not only should the poor remain poor, wherever they may be, but the rich need to become equally poor as well. Either that or die.

      This is because our overshoot of carrying capacity is so extreme that resource use, especially from fossil fuel resources, needs to be cut back to what the rich world would perceive as virtually nothing and the poor world would see as normal.

      This logic certainly doesn’t justify moving resources from countries with poor populations to use in rich countries, even if the moving were consensual, which it only rarely has been. It may seem cruel and unfortunate, but it also doesn’t justify moving poor people to rich countries so they too can participate in an orgy of resource consumption, nor does it justify ‘development’ of poor countries so they too can become rich.

      It therefore makes perfect sense that economic justice can only be made compatible with environmental preservation if everyone consumes resources at the level of the poor. This precludes allowing the poor to become rich or, far more importantly, allowing the rich to stay rich.

      There will even be some rich people who agree with this argument, but, like me, tend to take what I would call an Augustinian approach to the subject , “Lord make me poor, but not yet”. On the other hand, I am prepared to be made poor (without making anyone else richer, so don’t volunteer to take my assets) and would welcome the circumstances which would force that condition on me and the rest of the rich world. I hope it happens soon.

  13. The phrase “family planning” is annoying to me because it is so anodyne and it elides what is really at stake from my perspective – access to birth control technology. Having access to birth control is a huge help to young women in being able to control their own lives, get an education, develop intellectually, and yes plan for the lives of their children. Helping all women to have access to the best technology available is incredibly important. So I understand some of Jane’s passion on the subject.
    When I was a young woman I felt quite a bit of rage at how difficult access to (or even the existence of) effective, safe, easy-to-live with birth control for young women in even the richest country on earth. Our current admin in the US (and elsewhere) certainly shows that we cannot be taking these issues of access for granted.

    • I agree, although I never had a problem accessing birth control. But this is no longer the case for many young women in America. The pressure of the Ultraconservative Right to close or de-fund family planning clinics is having its affect. The cost of prescription drugs including birth control has become exorbitant.
      I had a conversation with a young woman who occasionally works for me weeding gardens. She is 29. She is a college graduate without a full time job. She told me of her women friends, poor, working full time for Walmart that can’t afford birth control. They don’t have the security of engaging in sex and protecting themselves from pregnancy other than condoms.
      Hard to relate because life was much different for me at her age. But if she is right, then the ultraconservative movement in America is forcing young women to risk pregnancy. At the same time they oppose welfare benefits of women forced to bear children because they have difficulty obtaining abortion. In my opinion this is the absolute wrong direction we should be going.

  14. Family planning (birth control), female empowerment, girls going to school, are all good things. But their effect on population growth and economic growth is not very clearly established. The fact that they are more present in high income, low fertility countries, than in low income countries proves little. Cars are also more present in high income, low fertility countries, and nuclear power reactors as well.

    From what I have experienced in the handful African countries with high birth rates I have worked in, it seems to me that people when their is economic growth kids are sent to school and loads are even going to university despite that there are no jobs for them. Parents “invest” in them, even if they are many.

    Economic growth seems to preceed population decline rather the other way round. However, there is an additional boost of growth from the demographic effect caused by the transition to lower birth rates, not because parents have to support fewer children per se, but because the proportion of people who are in their most productive age peak.

    Because of Chinas size any changes in China, will also affect global statistics. So if fertility in Chine increased just by 0.1 it means that this minor increase can counterbalance decresed birth rates in many other countries. The same goes for growth. China has soon passed its demographic transition and becuase of their very “successful” population policy, the effect on its economy will be savage.

    Poplulation size is an issue and we can’t gloss over it, but (without having read o’Connors pieces) I think I agree with most of your arguments Chris.

    As for the argument on nitrogen fertilizer as mainly labour saving….not sure I buy this one. Sure synthetic fertilzer use is often coupled to large scale mechanical farming. But as far as I can see also very labour intensive operations are using loads of nitrogen fertilizers. One can of course argue as less land is needed to produce the same, you also need less labour. But that seems to me to be more a secondary effect of the use of synthetic fertilizers. Admittedly, I have not read the work on China which you refer to, but I remain very skeptical to that suggestion (which has little bearing on the main topics of discussion).

    Liked very much your five points of dealing with resource constraints. There is unfortunely a sixth: taking others’ land. There are some arguments that this was at play in Rwanda, as well as the Japanese expansion (and Nazi-Germany?).

  15. Thanks again for the additional comments. Little time to respond, but I’d echo Michelle’s praise for Steve’s image – but Michelle, by that very token I can’t share your view about Jane’s ‘passion’ for this, since under the entirely benign and laudable cover of promoting women’s ability to control their fertility she articulates some very non-benign ideas about the perpetuation of wealth and poverty, as Steve revealed, backed up with some idiosyncratic readings of the evidence. She eschews any kind of political-economic theory about environmental damage, leaving population reduction as her only gambit – and then focuses on the wrong populations.

    Interesting points from Joe on natural resources and Gunnar on synthetic N – I think these break down into various (not simple!) subsidiary points. I’ll try to address this at some point if I can, maybe in future posts.

    • Chris,
      I think there is a difference between men and women that ultimately comes down to where the responsibility for pregnancy resides. If a woman has sex she risks pregnancy. If she becomes pregnant her body, her life is totally changed. The man has a choice. He can take responsibility or he can walk away.
      Men can force themselves on a woman or even worse a girl. The female of our species is physically weaker, she has less power then men, she is paid less for the same job, she has less opportunity for freedom then a men. A girl in a poor country can be given away in marriage, sold, or abducted. She can be raped or sexually abused by father, uncle, brother, or any man that chooses to force himself upon her.
      The life of a female is very different from the life of a male. Being fortunate enough to be born female in a liberal western country is still no guarantee of a life that gives us the opportunity to reach our potential.
      Based on what I read in your posts and comments I am fairly sure that you are a good husband and father. My own husband is a good man, father, and mate. But until women are afforded equal power in our world, men will never really understand how difficult it is living as woman or what the male privilege affords them in our society. Just as I, as a white woman, don’t really understand what white privilege affords me. Or as an educated person what my education affords me. We never can really walk in another’s shoes.

      • Jody, I think you’re right about male privilege and therefore the relatively greater importance of birth control for women than for men. But since I don’t think anybody participating in this discussion is disputing that it would be a good thing for every woman in the world to have access to the birth control she wants, I’m not sure how relevant your observation is to the matters in dispute – particularly the matters in dispute with Dr O’Sullivan. I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said above about all this, but I’d try to summarize it thus:

        Are patterns of population change in the contemporary world explicable mainly by the declining availability of birth control/family planning, broadly conceived?

        Is extending birth control/family planning – especially in low-income, high-fertility countries – the best way of reducing global environment impact?

        Is extending birth control/family planning the best way of tackling poverty in low-income, high-fertility countries?

        Dr O’Sullivan’s answers to these questions incline towards the yes, whereas mine incline towards the no.

        Reading her linked paper and some of her comments to me in our exchange, I think she musters some very modest support for her positions on these questions, but it left me wondering why she was arguing so strongly for them because they so obviously miss the bigger picture. But when you read her submission to the Productivity Commission it becomes clear – few of us rich westerners are quite as brazen as she is there in arguing about the need to “sustain our quality of life” by excluding others, especially if like Dr O’Sullivan we claim to be “defending the interests of the poor”. To make that position more palatable it obviously helps to de-emphasize the negative impacts of ‘our’ rich way of life, emphasize the negative impacts of ‘their’ poor way of life, de-emphasize the political structuring of wealth and poverty and emphasize the blank numerical forces of population. And that’s exactly what she does.

        I’m not swayed by the argument that since rich countries like the US aren’t going to do anything about climate change then the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ is population control in poor countries – partly because in terms of climate impacts it’s almost an irrelevance, but mostly because I see no ethical basis for the argument that “I’m not going to change my ways therefore the easiest option must be for you to change yours”.

        • No argument with you on any point of the above. The idea of population control as “low-hanging fruit” is questionable, to put it politely; I completely agree that it’s the rich countries’ extravagance that needs curbing; and I’m no fan of cleverly engineered one-way immigration valves such as Steve describes.
          So “the best” way to tackle climate change would be a rapid transition to carbon neutrality/voluntary poverty in the rich countries (probably requiring morally-questionable mass hypnosis), accompanied by heavy investment in “family planning.” Also predatory capitalism needs to put down like it has a case of rabies.

  16. I’m just trying to think about how to analyze the data to get a better sense of the direction of population change and its impacts. If anyone has any thoughts, please do let me know. A few lead-ins:

    Population change in a country is births less deaths plus net international migration. With the data I have to hand I can’t easily get at migration, but I don’t think it’s all that important anyway in most countries in relation to these issues. So absenting migration, population change is basically birth rate less death rate (age structure is obviously important to both). I don’t like the idea of increased death rate as a way of keeping population down, so attention inevitably focuses on birth rate. Incidentally, most of the high-fertility African countries have steeply falling death rates, and also birth-rates that are falling more steeply than other countries, but not as steeply as their death rates – suggesting to me that Dr O’Sullivan may be a bit too hasty in dismissing the demographic transition.

    Anyway, let’s assume that a country with a current birth rate in the 40s per 1000 isn’t going to reduce it overnight down to the 10s – but a direction of travel in that direction is a good thing. Meanwhile some of the low birth rate countries are fairly stagnant or increasing in their birth rates. And the environmental impact of these births as measured by things like GHG emissions per capita varies is generally much higher in the low fertility countries. So my question is how to get some sort of handle on this?

    One final fact blitz: Looking country by country at the ones that have contributed most to the world’s population increase since 2000, the clear winner is India which accounts for 20% of the total increase. It’s followed by China (9%), Nigeria (5%), Pakistan (4%), Indonesia (4%), USA (3%), Ethiopia (3%), Brazil (2%), DR Congo (2%), Bangladesh (2%). Obviously that selection is biased towards larger countries. Between them these 10 countries account for 50% of the increase in population (actually, more…but it gets complicated). All the countries of sub-Saharan Africa added together account for 27% of the increase.

    Any answers?

    • Any answers? None from this keyboard.

      Though not an answer to the population impact question directly, I imagine there is some value in fleshing out a more complete description of the problem. I think most of us here agree the impact of one more birth in the Global North will have more ecological impact than one more birth in the Global South. Life expectancy can also be tacked into any eventual formula. If my individual impact is calculated over the course of say 80 years whereas an Ethiopian citizen of comparable age might have an expectation of 60 years (and I picked Ethiopia as they sit next to the US in your dataset) then obviously my individual impact is not just higher from a Global North metric… but is compounded by the additional twenty years of life expectancy. Gender can be added into an equation as well. As Jody notes – men and women, boys and girls – are not the same.

      Cost of living metrics should be accessible – but herein there are difficulties in applying them too broadly. I’d suggest it costs far more to have a child and raise her to maturity in the Global North – just as the cost varies quite widely from one place in the US to another.

      A sticky wicket as cricket fans might say.

      Migration may be another very difficult metric to roll into the equation, but I’m not inclined to dismiss it out of hand. There might be a sociological/political experiment in progress at the moment in Germany. France and Japan might also serve as examples of political entities wrestling with shrinking native populations and looking to immigration or guest worker policies to remedy the same.

      Another sticky wicket – but no reason to cancel the game. Just a good reason to carefully reflect on any and all the arguments put forward.

      • One major difference between the North and the South seems clear at least:
        Absent any strong integration into global market speculation (i.e. as yet unexploitd raw naterials sources for export) the South will be able to rapidly dismantle its elites and return to small farm landscapes comparably easily, no matter its current population density.
        On average, it’ll be a mess in the North just attempting to get one’s head around where to start.
        We should always remember that we’re not in a historical vacuum here. And we’re not the ones who’ll steer the next round of post-fossil fuel geopolitics, we’ll habe too many transformations to get through ourselves to effectively create new empires.

        • Yes, yes, yes!

          The poor in the global South will be able to negotiate the impacts of population overshoot far more easily than the north since they are far closer to our ultimate destination, the small farm. We in the North need not spend a minute worrying about them. What we need to worry about is keeping the North from destroying the climate for everyone.

          Since there are very few of the North’s elites worrying about the climate (and other horrific environmental damage) enough to actually do anything effective, our climate future will be determined by chance. Will the economic activities of the North fail from resource depletion or some other structural weakness before destroying our climate, or not? We have only a decade or so to find out.

      • A complicating factor is the extent to which large swathes of lower latitude countries will become more or less uninhabitable, prompting large scale migration to the high latitude, industrialized and unprepared countries of the global north…where they’re likely to have the misfortune of being met at the border by “defenders of the poor” like the Australian academic identified above by Steve. Though maybe Australia itself will become unihabitable, in which case her migration narrative will get interesting…

        I guess there are also some question marks for me about quite how ready the multitudes of the global south really are for this kind of eventuality, since just as in the north relatively few live what could be called a self-reliant life.

        But I agree that the shock may be greater in the north. And that it’s a good idea to try to put one’s own house in order rather than setting oneself up as a righter of global wrongs – which is one reason why I contrasted Australia with sub-Saharan Africa in the analysis above…

        • We do indeed live in an age of ecological forgetfulness, but in the South (as in parts of the European East, too) that forgetfulness has taken hold in the big cities, but not completed its task in the poor countryside. And I think that that is all it may take to make that fundamental difference between these areas and us, who are tasked with having to re-learn most of it, having virtually noone left to ask.

    • Any answers? There might be some good clues, at least, in that Satterthwaite study mentioned earlier.

      “Table 3 compares the different world regions with regard to their share of world population growth and CO2 emissions growth between 1980 and 2005 and between 1950 and 1980. This highlights how sub-Saharan Africa accounted for very little of the growth in CO2 emissions for both these periods (less than 3 per cent) but for 18.5 per cent of population growth between 1980 and 2005 and 10.7 per cent of population growth between 1950 and 1980. Meanwhile, Northern America accounted for around 4 per cent of population growth for both periods but for 20 per cent of the growth in CO2 emissions for 1950–1980 and 14 per cent of the growth in emissions for 1980–2005. This is despite the fact that in 1950, CO2 emissions per person in Northern America were already very high (much higher than in many high-income nations today). Table 3 also includes figures for the five nations with the largest increases in CO2 emissions. Note how China accounted for a much larger share of the increase in CO2 emissions than India, but with a smaller contribution to increases in population. USA, Japan and South Korea contributed far more to increases in CO2 emissions than they contributed to increases in population (Figure 1). Note too that China and sub-Saharan Africa accounted for similar proportions of the increase in the world’s population 1980–2005 (15.3 and 18.5 percent), but China’s contribution to increased CO2 emissions was nearly 20 times that of sub-Saharan Africa. At risk of unnecessary repetition, it is the number of consumers (and their consumption levels) that drives GHG emissions increases, not the number of people (while from a production perspective, it is more the nature and location of production).”
      [from page 555]

      So population growth can only be a significant contributor to GHG emissions if the people that make up this population growth enjoy levels of consumption that cause significant levels of GHG emissions per person (or from the production perspective live in nations with a rapid increase in GHG-generating production). Of course, this has relevance not only today but also in the future, in the lifetime contribution to GHG emissions of people born now. If most of the growth in the world’s population is among low-income households in low income nations who never “get out of poverty”, then there is and will be little connection between population growth and GHG emissions growth.
      [from page 557]

      The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change   
      David Satterthwaite
      Environment and Urbanization
      Vol 21, Issue 2, pp. 545 – 567
      First Published September 29, 2009

      • “It is not correct to suggest that it is the increase in population that drives the growth in GHG emissions, when the lifetime contribution to GHG emissions of a person added to the world’s population varies by a factor of more than 1,000 depending on the circumstances into which they are born and their life possibilities and choices…”

        “From the consumption perspective, globally, the 20 per cent of the population with the highest consumption levels is likely to account for more than 80 per cent of all human-induced GHG emissions and an even higher proportion of historical contributions.”

        [from Satterthwaite, page 564]

    • Death rate is not really much of an issue apart from when it changes rapidly. We are all going to die eventually and it only death before reproductive age that affects population growth in the longer term. One can see other causes of short-term changes in population growth. It appears that we were slightly mislead by statistics in Sweden with dramatic falling fertility rates. 1999 we were down to 1.50 but in 2011 it was 1.98. It appears that the time women get their first child has been greatly postponed. So we need to be careful in drawing conclusions regarding shorter term changes in a country.

  17. Thanks for the additional comments.

    Incidentally, I just read this article on fertility decline in Botswana:

    It argues for the importance of family planning services – but quite anecdotally – and it emphasizes other factors as well.

    The claim that Botswana has ‘one of the fastest falling fertility rates anywhere in the world’ is weird though – make that the 37th biggest fall since 1966, and the 74th biggest since 2000. Of the 69 countries – including Botswana – that had a fertility >6.5 in 1966, 23 now have lower fertility than Botswana. But none of them (with the arguable exception of Cabo Verde) are in sub-Saharan Africa. So I suspect the implicit story here is that Botswana is a recent success story relative to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Though actually there are 36 other sub-Saharan African countries with bigger fertility declines since 2000…

    By the way, the correlation coefficient by country between present fertility and fertility decline since 2000 is -0.55. Interesting, huh?

    Thanks Steve for the Satterthwaite quotes. Funnily enough I quoted from that exact article in my book draft, but didn’t really think about it in relation to the debate with Dr O’Sulllivan. I once spoke at a conference alongside Satterthwaite, where we disagreed fairly vehemently about whether urbanization was a good idea (I think he reckoned I’d misrepresented his position … an occupational hazard in this business…)

  18. I finally had time to read Jane’s Submission to the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry into “Migrant intake into Australia”. I took away a very different perspective than the one other readers here did. I think it clearly shows the impact on Australia from immigration policies and makes sound recommendations for what good policies should be. She strongly points the problem of development at the special interests of the wealthy elites who want growth simply to make more profits for themselves and don’t care what impact this has on the greater society including the immigrants as an exploited labor force. I agree with her case against encouraging greater municipal debt to create more infrastructure. I see the financial industries hand in this issue and Jane is right to be concerned. The financial industry, the elites who profit from such development projects are exploiting all workers. This is also very clearly discussed in the link Chris provided regarding Darfur . Development needs to stop.

    I don’t read anything into Jane’s position other than a rational argument against growth, both fiscal as well as population. I have given testimony before a commission before and the one thing I recall was that I had be very careful to make my arguments narrowly apply to the issue at hand in language that the commission would understand, which was mainly about money. Perhaps we should keep this in mind as we castigate her for her lack of compassion for the poor! To be honest, I thought her paper was excellent! I thought her reasons sound and her recommendations logical.
    I have written before in other comments that we must begin to take serious the impact of migration caused by failed states and climate change. I don’t see finger pointing or shaming as a productive way of addressing the actual mechanisms we must put in place to deal with the problems of immigration. I found the points Jane made clearly articulated the problems for Australia, and which apply to most other developed countries.
    The sad truth is that affluent Americans could do more than any other body of people in the world to reduce carbon emissions through lifestyle changes yet few if any are doing anyting. Our government is a being co-opted by fossil fuel companies who got Trump elected and voters who disagree with his policies have little chance of overturning the situation in the 18 months that the UN panel predicts is all the time we have left to stop increasing carbon emissions.

    What I read in Jane’s paper applies to the US as easily as to Australia. The labor force in our country that has been disenfranchised because they are have lost the ability to earn a living that keeps up with the costs. The economic inequality that Jane refers to in her paper is happening in the US. The exploitation of immigrant labor. The exploitation of financial elites who convince government to expand infrastructure “running just to stay in place” are all things I see happening in my country. Many of the economically disenfranchised population in failing industrial centers or abandoned rural communities are the very people that support Trump.

    What is very clear to me is that ultraconservatives want to eliminate abortion by cutting healthcare services for women. They seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. They seek to cut funding for family planning in other countries. So yes, I believe this is a critical issue that affects women all over the world.

    We can debate the statistics. We can debate the solutions. We can offer reasons why we see the world’s problems differently or think a different approach is necessary. But we should not attack other people for differences in their position or opinion.
    don’t see perceive anything in Jane’s writings that suggest she is unconcerned with poor people or that she doesn’t understand which countries and people are consuming the most resources and producing the most carbon. It seems to me that she focuses on our world’s present population growth as an issue because she sees how population growth exacerbates resource depletion, land degradation, competition that leads to civil disruption, and climate change. Her recommendation is to fund comprehensive family planning because it is far less expensive a solution than what is currently proposed; expand economic activity in developing countries, something that largely benefits shareholders of corporations not the population of the country itself.

    I agree with Chris’ position that the future of food production, the creation of small farms and farming communities is the best way for society to transition from current industrial food production towards a more just and sustainable life. The question is how do we get there. An excellent question! I don’t see Jane’s arguments as justification for nationalism, blaming the poor for having too many children, or an effort to maintain the wealth and consumption of the world’s elites. I see her attempting to deal with the impact of immigration at a time when failing states are creating an increasing number of refugees and immigrants.

    I see Jane’s position and thinking as pragmatic, not cruel. Several posts back I asked the question “How many refugees can you support on your farmstead or in your home?” This is no longer a theoretical questions. Our country is already seeing the victims of disasters migrate to other cities, often overwhelming their infrastructure. I see residents of North Carolina being taxed to pay for rebuilding along the coast, and this was before Hurricane Florence. I hear daily new reports of people in Florida hard hit by Hurricane Michael wondering when help will come. I continue to warn people that it will not be easy to watch other suffer and die, but that we are already facing situations where we do not have the resources to help them.
    Academic-style debates take time. Collecting data and analyzing statistics takes time. We don’t have any more time.

    • I don’t see Jane’s arguments as justification for nationalism, blaming the poor for having too many children, or an effort to maintain the wealth and consumption of the world’s elites.

      I read her presentation and came up with the opposite impression. She is certainly concerned with Australia’s national interest, especially its effort to maintain its “wealth and consumption”, which she sees as being undermined by the addition of people from in-migration.

      She may not explicitly “blame” the poor for having too many children, but clearly believes the poor are making a mistake by doing so and offering ‘helpful’ suggestions as to how they can correct that mistake.

      From the standpoint of rich countries like the US and Australia, if one’s main goal is protecting the lifestyles of the native residents, limiting population increase from migration seems to be common sense . But there are also those who disagree that this common sense view is actually true. From Wikipedia, “A survey of economists shows a consensus behind the view that high-skilled immigration makes the average American better off.[1] A survey of the same economists also shows strong support behind the notion that low-skilled immigration makes the average American better off.[2] According to David Card, Christian Dustmann, and Ian Preston, “most existing studies of the economic impacts of immigration suggest these impacts are small, and on average benefit the native population”[3].

      In my view, O’Sullivan’s prescriptions do make sense from the standpoint of reducing overall worldwide resource consumption. They will do that a little, but only to ensure that the majority of the world’s resources are reserved for the use of those who already rich, the very same people whose prior and continuing use of resources is responsible for the environmental predicament we now face.

      This is the same attitude we see from wealthy elites in the US regarding the poor in their own country. “We must reduce the burden of expenditures for the poor so that those resources can be devoted to sustaining the activities of the wealthy. We must do this because the wealthy have already proven themselves to be experts at the important task of wealth creation”.

      O’Sullivan simply wants to globalize the priorities the wealthy apply to their own countries. One can make a roundabout case for why that can reduce the adverse impact of increasing resource consumption, but its unadulterated selfishness is very distasteful, at least to me. And in addition to being distasteful, those priorities do nothing to mitigate the ongoing damage being done to the global environment by those same wealthy elites.

      The low-hanging fruit in any program to save the environment is reducing resource consumption by the rich, the very thing that O’Sullivan wants to protect from encroachments by the poor. Where is the pragmatism in that?

      • Joe,
        I will reread Jane’s paper taking into account your viewpoint and see if I can see where you are coming from. We may just have to agree to disagree on this topic but I’ll give it another shot.
        This weekend we are splitting firewood and I’m trying to finish canning the last of the tomatoes. So it may take me awhile. Lot’s of interesting papers people are suggesting that take time to read and digest.

    • “Many of the economically disenfranchised population in failing industrial centers or abandoned rural communities are the very people that support Trump.”

      I want to push back ever so gently against your implicit suggestion here, Jody, because I think it’s important not to misinterpret why Trump appeals to certain voters. There’s no doubt that he draws a lot of support from the places that you mention, but *why* these voters support Trump has less to do with economics and more to do with attitudes toward race and immigration. See, for example, this recent investigation of 2016 vote-switching:

      This study isn’t an outlier, either. It’s very much in line with previous findings. See Zack Beauchamp’s recent article at Vox for more:

      • Ernie,
        I started reading the Reny et. al paper. Very interesting. I’ve really not read much in political science so this will be a new area of science for me.
        Thank you for the recommendation. It may take awhile to get through all this and digest it. But from what I’ve read so far I can appreciate your point that it may be less about economics and more about race than I assumed.
        I do believe that racism is dividing Americans more strongly than ever, but I’m not sure if its gotten worse or if the issue has been there all along and just broke the surface because of rhetoric and button pushing. I believe it is an issue that Trump and others use to divide us. I also suspect that social media is being used to make these wedge issues appear stronger than they really are. But lots to think about here.

    • Jody, it’s clear that we’re not on the same page with this one and I’m not sure there’s anything I can add to what I and others have said above that’s likely to sway you towards my view that in many (though not all) respects Dr O’Sullivan’s assertions are empirically and ethically dubious.

      Possibly I’ll write another post at some point with some further analysis of the data and of Dr O’Sullivan’s own analyses. If, as you say, we don’t have time to do such things then we surely don’t have time to give any concern to fertility as an environmental issue, least of all in low-income countries. Fertility as a human or women’s rights issue is different. If there’s no time for any more data analysis, then I’d say the data we have in hand already is strongly suggestive that Dr O’Sullivan’s focus is mistaken.

      I guess right now I’d just want to ask a question of your question “How many refugees can you support on your farmstead or in your home?” which is: for whom is this question relevant? Not, I suspect, for refugees themselves, who would surely be entitled to say “Not my problem – but definitely me, for one”. Not for conservative nationalists, whose answer would be zero, ideally. Not for anyone fully motivated by an egalitarianism of opportunity or desert, who would first ensure that everyone seeking refuge could do so, and then worry about your question later. The only kind of person for whom this is really an ethical dilemma are conflicted liberals who care at some level about the plight of the poor but would really like to continue enjoying the privileges of their way of life. Call it finger-pointing if you wish, but I don’t think Dr O’Sullivan fits even that category of modest concern, so her claim to be a defender of the poor against the likes of me I find…unpersuasive. There are lots of ways to be conservative in addition to opposing birth control…

      • Chris,
        It’s easy to say you are egalitarian, a defender of the poor, much harder to demonstrate. Perhaps you would lay out the details of how you propose to help the poor who are searching for a home. My question was aimed to stimulate some reflection on how many people we could accommodate in our home. Perhaps I should have been more precise. How many migrants are currently accepted into the UK? What is the impact on the UK? If you were invited by your government to help them design immigration policy what detailed policies would you recommend for accepting refugees and immigrants, and their path to citizenship?
        Jane laid out the details quite clearly. If you should decide to pursue another post perhaps you could spend less time attacking Jane for her views and more time detailing what you would do differently as if you were actually in a position to deal with immigration policies.

        As a Civil and Environmental Engineer trained to deal with civic infrastructure and environmental impact I found Jane’s recommendations sensible and realistic, based on fairly practical considerations, i.e. pragmatic. But it’s obvious you and others think differently. I quite agree with you on one thing “it’s clear that we’re not on the same page with this one.”

        • “It’s easy to say you are egalitarian, a defender of the poor, much harder to demonstrate.”

          Agreed – but in Dr O’Sullivan’s case she tells me that, unlike me, she’s a defender of the poor, but demonstrates in her submission to her government that she isn’t. I’ve “attacked her views” mostly in relation to the data that I don’t think are very supportive of her positions, but the main issue on the defense of the poor point isn’t her views themselves but the contradictions between them.

          If I were invited by my government to help it design immigration policy my starting point would be to recommend the free flow of people globally until the free flow of global capital is staunched. Stopping the free flow of capital would be much the easiest way of reducing global migration, climate change and global inequality – but it would mean we in the rich countries would be poorer.

          Your implication that it becomes difficult to support a population locally at some level of net in-migration is of course right. But I think governments ultimately will have limited capacity to stop large-scale climate and inequality-induced migrations. The current militarization of immigration in the US, Europe and Australia will no doubt continue for some time, but I think the power of present western governments to control the script and indeed to control anything will ultimately wane. I have no interest other than personal self-interest in helping them control it, and self-interest isn’t a good basis for political participation unless you seek political inspiration from a figure like Carl Schmitt. That, increasingly, is what we’re seeing in the richer countries – but we find endless ways of ducking its moral implications in talking of pragmatism, ‘development’ and suchlike. Maybe I will write a more detailed post on immigration, but I’m not going to get sucked into a Schmittian framing with reference to ‘pragmatic’ or ‘detailed’ immigration recommendations.

          Meanwhile, the UK’s Migration Advisory Committee just produced this report on EEA-area migration to Britain which may be of interest in addressing some of your questions. It’s not too supportive of the alarmist political mobilizations around immigration that invested the Brexit campaign:

        • Jane laid out the details quite clearly. If you should decide to pursue another post perhaps you could spend less time attacking Jane for her views and more time detailing what you would do differently as if you were actually in a position to deal with immigration policies.

          Obviously this is something Chris may or may not wish to take on… so anything I offer at this point is not meant to put words in his mouth. For me there are several issues up in the air here – and from my perch it all began with Jane’s rather brusque attack on the population piece Chris wrote weeks ago… which in my mind makes Chris’ reply more of a response than an attack – but semantics.

          On the last many days of this discussion it has occurred to me there might be something of a gender issue running below the surface. Jane and Jody (with a bit from Michelle) vs all the guys. I hope this is merely the coincidence of a small sample size – but given the real matter of gender being so significant in the biology of human fertility it must have some influence.

          Sustainability, resource allocation, environmental impact(s)… all respond to population. And here I would offer that “population” can be considered in the larger sense of all creatures great and small. So population matters – Jane has something of a point. To me the issue then becomes how significant a point relative to all other concerns. Impact per person, rates of change, environmental resilience, energy production (and impacts of the same)… these issues also come to the fore and matter. Which matter most?

          If I might step in to answer your query for myself (not to take anything from an answer Chris can offer on his own account)… I would like to think I could present a path toward accepting immigrants into the community where I live and work such that their situations might improve and the community at large not suffer (indeed might well benefit) their incorporation. Here in the US the vast majority of us are either immigrants or rather recent descendants of immigrants. And the country thrives. Granted, we don’t have the population density of the UK (but Australia doesn’t either). The whole of the planet is finally a finite space… but putting up walls is the beginning of putting up barriers. Barriers lead to difficulties. Difficulties are for me something to alleviate, not encourage.

  19. From a recent blog post at Our World in Data (linked below):

    “When aggregated in terms of income…the richest half (high and upper-middle income countries) emit 86 percent of global CO2 emissions. The bottom half (low and lower-middle income) only 14%. The very poorest countries (home to 9 percent of the global population) are responsible for just 0.5 percent. This provides a strong indication of the relative sensitivity of global emissions to income versus population. Even several billion additional people in low-income countries — where fertility rates and population growth is already highest — would leave global emissions almost unchanged….At the other end of the distribution however, adding only one billion high income individuals would increase global emissions by almost one-third.”

    The post includes a cleverly designed graph that makes it very, very clear who is (and isn’t) responsible for rising global CO2 levels.

  20. This smacks of old fashioned colonialism , the west will come and interfere with your fertility for your own good .
    The British empire re invented by the UN .

  21. Chris, I’m unfamiliar with Carl Schmitt so I can’t speak to your comment about “Schmittian framing with reference to ‘pragmatic’ or ‘detailed’ immigration recommendations.”
    The report you referenced
    appears to be mainly dealing with future post-Brexit changes to the current agreement of the European Economic Area (EEA). The EEA provides for the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital within the European Single Market, including the freedom to choose residence in any country within this area.
    I have not read the entire 140 pages but based on the Executive summary I can see that policy makers in Brittan recognize the value from the migration of highly skilled workers, but less so from inflows of low-skilled. So I’m not sure this report is really a good comparison to Jane’s. I don’t know how many highly skilled EU people seek to immigrate to Australia.

    But I did notice the similarity Jane’s discussion about the impact on housing, development. The British report concludes that housing prices are affected. (page 10 #17) “Our analysis suggests that migration has increased house prices. The impacts of migration on house prices cannot, however, be seen in isolation from other government policies. The evidence points towards a higher impact of migration in areas with more restrictive planning policies in which it is harder for the housing stock to increase in line with demand.”

    Reading between the lines what they are saying is that migration to areas with laws restricting development, causes an increase in housing prices. So as long as the government removes this impediment prices should not be affected. That probably goes against what local residents and councils decide when they pass laws that limit expansion of housing development. Yes, one could conclude that such locals want to preserve their way of living over making changes that would include others less well off. One can also look at development from an environmental perspective which tends to recognize the environmental damage of unrestricted development. Most environmentalists would probably support a local ability to limit, reduce and control development because of the potential for damage to local environment and the increased consumption of resources. The capitalist view would remove barriers in order to allow developers unfettered access, thus building to supply increased demand. And along with housing comes roads, water treatment, utilities, schools, healthcare services etc. needed to serve the expanded development.

    If you truly mean the free movement of all people you must then take into account low-skilled non-English speaking refugees and asylum seekers (assuming they can even get to your borders). We can see from other countries the tent cities that form when poor rural people move to urbanized areas. Tent cities tend to be over-crowed with few amenities and rarely are the inhabitants incorporated into local cities infrastructure. They are, however, utilized as low paid servants and landscape workers.

    I don’t see how “the free flow of people globally until the free flow of global capital is staunched.” would work. How will the free movement of people eliminate the flows of global capital? The problems of wealth inequality, inflation of the monetary supply caused by central banks after the Great Recession, and the current power and influence of the financial industry over government are deeply entrenched economic and political problems that are going to be difficult to remove. There would be sever challenges dealing with the chaos and discord in cities inundated with poor immigrants seeking work, housing and social services. It is a very different situation when a highly skilled person seeks admittance to a Western country. And ultimately wouldn’t it be better if wealthy countries helped poorer countries retain highly skilled workers such as doctors and medical personal (the area specifically mentioned in the British report as personnel needed in the UK)?

  22. Clem,
    Yes, I agree with your suggestion that there is “something of a gender issue running below the surface.” I agree with Jane’s position and with that expressed in a paper she references.

    From O’Sullivan, 2018: “A safe climate future depends on minimizing further growth in the human population. Strengthening efforts to empower women, to avoid unwanted births, and to popularize smaller families through voluntary, rights-based planning programs are necessary measures without with low-emissions scenarios cannot be achieved (Guillebaud, 2016).”

    From Guillebaud paper: “A persistent myth is that quantitative concern for human numbers is intrinsically coercive, and in much of civil society this idea still inhibits rational discussion about population stabilisation. Can sensible people not unite in condemning both coercive contraception, which is indeed vile, and coercive conceptions that arise from women being denied access to the methods that they might choose should the applicable barriers be removed?
    Fertility decline by country commonly precedes increases in wealth, and prosperity consistently accelerates after fertility rates fall (this happens sooner in countries where family planning is promoted). Good family planning programmes have driven the fertility transition even where poverty and illiteracy prevailed.”

    My position is not beneath the surface, Clem, I fully agree with efforts to empower ALL women to make their own decisions on the number of children they choose to bear. I also agree with John Guillabrand that in many poorer countries women are NOT choosing to have more children, it is mostly a function of sexual activity and absence of contraceptives. But he also points out that in some countries it is not the woman’s choice to have sex or become pregnant.

  23. I pretty much need to leave this debate now and move on to other things, so I was ready just to say amen to Clem’s comment but I guess I’ll try to essay a brief response to Jody’s additional comments.

    The free flow of people wouldn’t eliminate the free flow of capital – it would just eliminate the market imperfection and spread the chaotic consequences of free capital flow more equitably around the world, albeit with the positive result of reducing the wealth of the rich countries. Undoubtedly a better approach would be to limit the free flow of capital, forcing sustainable long-term local investment that would reduce the drivers for international migration (locked-in climate change excepted) and therefore much of the need for restrictive immigration policy – but it would make us poorer in the rich countries, something that Dr O’Sullivan makes it clear she opposes, despite resulting climate change and equity gains that are much greater than anything achieved by fertility reduction in low-income countries.

    You cannot look at migration in isolation from capital flows and global center-periphery relations. The fact that these inequalities are politically entrenched is not a justification for ignoring them and then identifying policies whose burden falls upon the poor people who suffer the most as a result of them – especially for anyone who describes themselves as a defender of the interests of the poor.

    The MAC report does cautiously identify a small positive relationship between immigration and house prices. But the extravagantly unaffordable nature of housing in most of Britain isn’t caused by immigration but by the private capture of public value. An open border immigration policy would probably make that unworkable, thus lowering house prices to more affordable levels – not that I’d particularly support it for that reason.

    For the reasons set out at length by various people above, I disagree with O’Sullivan about the importance of fertility control for controlling GHG emissions. Not that it’s irrelevant, but in the high-fertility countries it’s fairly unimportant – and it looks like it’s getting hard to improve on in the low-fertility countries, where the real imperatives lie elsewhere.

    For the reasons I set out above, I’m sceptical of the arguments in the Guillebaud paper, but I want to look into this in more detail. The lack of attention to global capital flows and to civil strife resulting from them and from global geopolitics generally strikes me as a problematic omission in this literature, along with the methodological issues I raised above.

    On the gender issue, I also agree with efforts to empower all women to make their own decisions on the number of children they choose to bear, but nobody has disputed this throughout the debate. I agree that it’s generally harder for women in poorer countries to control their fertility and that better family planning services in these countries would be a good thing. However, it’s not fundamentally the fertility that’s driving the poverty, and the evidence that lack of family planning services is the key factor underlying high fertility globally seems weak. Dr O’Sullivan and I both seem to agree that the absence of contraceptives itself isn’t the key factor.

    I think that has to be my final comment on this for now, but I will probably try to come back to it in a future post.

    • Short of restricting the free flow of capital, spreading “the chaotic consequences…more equitably” sounds like a damn fine idea. On a related note, the NYT published a brief but really sharp opinion piece today by historian Quinn Slobodian about the “alter-globalization” of the far right:

      “President Trump and the far right preach not the end of globalization, but their own strain of it, not its abandonment but an alternative form. They want robust trade and financial flows, but they draw a hard line against certain kinds of migration. The story is not one of open versus closed, but of the right cherry-picking aspects of globalization while rejecting others. Goods and money will remain free, but people won’t.”

  24. After all this back and forth argument on the topic of population growth, carbon emissions, immigration, and economic development I thought I’d leave the topic by trying to summarize my own thoughts on the matter as opposed to defending others. I’d like to focus first on population growth in Africa. I liked this article and the suggestion that Africans could benefit from family planning and education of girls.

    The author makes the points that “Currently, women in the region have an average of 0.7 more children than they want. If that number went down to zero over the next five years, the population in 2100 could change by 30%.”
    “…another link between empowerment and population growth is the transformative impact of secondary education for girls. Educated girls tend to work more, earn more, expand their horizons, marry and start having children later, have fewer children, and invest more in each child. Their children, in turn, tend to follow similar patterns, so the effect of graduating one girl sustains itself for generations.”
    “Consider this thought experiment. If every woman started having children at age 15, then in 60 years you’d have four generations (60/15=4). But if every woman started having children at age 20, then in 60 years you’d have three generations (60/20=3). Even if those women had the same number of children in each generation, the total population would be one-quarter smaller in the latter scenario.”

    I know that Africans are not and have not been the main source of carbon emissions. I think their population growth is diminishing their ability to have a better life. I think any aid we provide should have the goal of helping them achieve a more sustainable, healthier life for the majority of Africans. Allowing corporations to expand industrial agriculture and industry to Africa in the name of economic development, loaning money to pay for expensive infrastructure projects and selling military hardware does little to benefit most Africans.

    If we could help Africans improve their life in Africa I don’t think their politics would be more stable and they would not choose to immigrate. I don’t think it helps when the most capable and skilled people leave to work in developed countries where there is more opportunity. Building more schools and hospitals in Africa, providing family planning, improving sanitation access to clean water, small distributed renewable energy systems, and improving local resilience with sustainable agriculture…seem to me to be the direction we should encourage in Africa and everywhere across the globe. I am not a supporter of economic development schemes if it only increases a country’s debt and makes profits for international corporations and a few often rich, absent owners. Economic inequality is a problem in every country, including the US.

    Change, even when necessary, is never easy. The more difficult the change the longer it takes and if estimates are correct we don’t have more than a few years to begin reducing global carbon emissions as opposed to increasing them. I recognize that American consumption of fossil energy is producing the largest per capita share of global carbon emissions. It doesn’t make me feel better even if my family has had a low carbon footprint for more than a decade. Changing the behavior of consumption in America (even in those who understand the danger of climate change issues) is very difficult. We do respond to price signals and that is why I think a tax on carbon could be effective, but our political will has gone in the opposite direction. It will take time and a tremendous effort by voters to change the direction our country is currently going, something much harder to achieve in the current hyper-polarized state we have.

    I support smaller families living a lower carbon lifestyle. I believe that living a simpler life offers more satisfaction than a high consumption lifestyle. I also believe that growing and eating more whole foods not only reduces the carbon emissions of our diet but makes us healthier. “Reduce, reuse, recycle, and repair” has been my life’s mantra. I think most readers of Chris’s blog understand that this is the direction we all need to go.

  25. Here are two articles about the efforts in Germany to train refugees. The first strikes me as a very positive approach and the second details the challenges. From other stories I’ve read it seems the nationalist anti-immigration movement is an issue in Germany too. I recall reading a book years ago about Genghis Khan and how he made efforts to integrate conquered people rather than segregating them as second class citizens. The difficulty will always arise from the feeling on both sides of the issue of fear in losing ones culture and religion through integration. Difficult task indeed!

    • Thanks for that Jody. Certainly much to agree with in those comments. I’m not too sure about Genghis Khan as a model of imperial integration though… I aim to write some more about this presently.

      • Chris,
        Khan’s use of brutal force was legendary no doubt and his reputation in Western history tends to focus on his use of terror. The book I read was “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2004) by Jack Weatherford. According to Wikipedia the book provides a different slant on Genghis Khan than has been typical in most Western accounts, attributing positive cultural effects to his rule.
        From what I recall the author points to his leadership as conqueror as being different from others. He didn’t make conquered people into slaves or second class citizens. As long as people surrendered their sovereignty to him and paid their taxes (which were said not to be overly high) the newly conquered people were treated as full citizens. Khan was reported to have developed a legal system that more just for all citizens than previous systems.

        One of the things the author reported was that Genghis Khan was the first leader to issue laws about deer hunting season, to ensure that the population wasn’t hunted during rutting and lactation thus ensuring the population was maintained. I haven’t read many books about Khan but I did enjoy this one.

  26. Pingback: Our Political Saviors: the Republicans - Resilience

  27. Dear Chris,

    Apologies for the delayed response to your blog – I’ve had other things on my plate. I appreciate your engagement with the population issue, and your willingness to put your ideas forward as exploring particular hypotheses/discussion points. An impressive 4000 words on the topic is more than I will have time to address, so I’ll try to stick to the most salient points.

    Let’s start where you finished, with Land. Let me just explain that my background is as an agricultural scientist, working largely on soil fertility management in tropical subsistence farming systems. I have witnessed, and read many accounts of, the reduction in fallow length and decline in soil fertility that has followed intensification (in terms of more people trying to subsist from the same land). I have witnessed, and read many accounts of soil erosion resulting from this intensification, forest degradation from too great a rate of fuel gathering, and forest encroachment by settlers seeking new land, no matter how inferior it is to the land their parents occupied. All of these trends impoverish those people. Other dynamics happened simultaneously, including introduction of improved crops or farming techniques, or diversification of enterprises, and may counter that impoverishment, and the result may or may not be a net improvement. But that does not negate that the population growth in agrarian communities is a driver of impoverishment. Without the population growth, those other factors would have improved lives much more than they have – thus they masked, rather than negated, the impoverishing effect of population growth (in its mathematical simplicity).

    You say “why, when it comes to discussing pressure on agricultural land in Africa, does point (2) [lowering their fertility] always figure so insistently in the discussion”. For anyone with much exposure to the literature on food security, I think it would be very hard to claim that. It very rarely features at all. As a result, what passes for measures to address ‘food security’ are at best measures to increase productivity of land, or incomes of current households, without a thought for the next generation. It was this absence of analysis and acknowledgement of the impacts of population growth that led me to the work I now do.

    One reason that I emphasise “point 2” is it is the only one that is a sustainable solution. All the others are merely kicking the can down the road, or shifting the negative impact somewhere else (possibly to somewhere where it is less intense, but only for now). Option (5), migration, is particularly the latter. It solves nothing at the source, while transferring the problem elsewhere.

    Rural-urban migration is a case in point. It occurs because individuals judge that their prospects are better in the town than on the land. Often this is because they aren’t inheriting land, or enough land, and at least the town offers some chance of employment. But the town has many unemployed and underemployed people. Adding another one lowers the chance of work for each that are already there, even while it might be improving the chance for the one immigrating. That is a driver of impoverishment – and it works exactly the same whether it is through in-migration or endemic population growth, where each year’s school-leavers outnumber last year’s and job creation doesn’t keep up. Again, concurrent developments may counter that effect, by generating more employment and improving the facilities and services that each person can access at a given level of income. But again, that doesn’t negate the addition of job-seekers as a driver of impoverishment, it only masks the effect. Without their addition, all those other developments would more rapidly improve wellbeing – as we see in country after country as population growth declines. Each million dollars spent on infrastructure or housing or setting up industries could improve the wellbeing of the people there, or it could be consumed bringing newly-added people merely up to the standard of those already there. Those two outcomes directly compete with each other.

    When I looked into it, I was quite stunned how consistent the data are, relating the extent to which fertility had fallen, and the rate at which per capita incomes were growing. The evidence was very strong, that it was not economic advance that drove fertility down, but that lower population growth enabled economic advance. I did not compare countries on the basis of net flows of capital, as I didn’t have that data. But if you can show that your claim, that outflows of capital better explain the pace of development or lack of it, I’d be very interested to see that data. Until then, I stand by my claim, that population growth is the major underlying driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries.

    You said that to argue that high fertility is impoverishing, “it’s necessary to show that, on average, a resident individual who has x children experiences greater poverty over their total lifecourse than another individual starting at an identical socioeconomic level who has <x children.” This is an association strongly made in many past and present anecdotal accounts, and upheld in research on prospects for children in larger or smaller families. Most people from large families will attest to the economic constraints that this put on their family. And yet, the point is quite irrelevant to my claim. As explained in the case of rural-urban migration, adding more people into the job market when it is already oversupplied with labour reduces everyone’s prospects – the children from large families and small families alike. Smaller families will have a greater chance of giving their children a relative advantage, such as through education or inheritance, but they would be even better off if all families were small.

    Family planning programs and the fertility decline slowdown:

    You say “I suggested that another possible explanation was artefactual – essentially, it’s easier to reduce fertility when people are having a lot of children than it is when fertility approaches two or less children.” The evidence for the role of family planning programs is much more nuanced than the counter-argument you provide. The UN’s model for projecting the “medium fertility” path is essentially based on the average relationship between level of fertility and its rate of decline, across all countries over the past half-century. So the fact that the decline slows down at lower fertility rates is built into that. But the UN’s model failed to anticipate this slowdown. What we saw was several countries in mid-transition, with fertility rates between 4 and 2.2, stopping or reversing the decline. Even where a slow decline continued, it was often more attributable to urbanisation (symptomatic of rural overpopulation, rather than urban opportunity), with rural areas showing a stall or rebound.

    As I argued, your regional aggregations included countries that used family planning programs effectively and those that didn’t. Those that didn’t obviously didn’t experience the slowdown as a result of slackening those efforts. So it’s highly unsurprising that the highest-fertility countries are showing more fertility decline recently. They have been the focus of the efforts that international agencies put toward family planning. But these programs are not as effective as the earlier national voluntary programs, because they focus mainly on access to contraception, not on motivating people to have small families.

    Population growth and environmental impact:

    I emphasised local environmental impacts, because that is overwhelmingly what affects both poor people and biodiversity to date. The constant brush-off of such impacts in favour of a myopic focus on climate change is not serving their interests.

    Yet, as explained in the article I linked, minimising further population growth could make a very big difference to climate change outcomes, particularly though its impact on land use change. To say this is not to diminish the role of transitioning developed country systems and behaviours. All approaches work in synergy. The way population growth is currently treated in the climate change discourse, is to use the higher per capita emissions of people in low-fertility countries as an excuse to destroy political will for the family planning programs which would benefit least-developed countries so much. It is a false, “straw man” argument, that helping poor people to stem impoverishment and build resilience against climate change by reducing population growth is somehow a rouse to distract from developed country behaviours. This is nonsense that is very damaging for the world’s poor, particularly women and girls, who are being denied the services they need and the opportunities they can only have when they can control their own childbearing.

    So, on your discussion point: “Reducing fertility in high-fertility countries is not an especially important priority for tackling climate change” I would say that it is so ill-defined to be of no substantive value, other than to discourage directing resources to women’s reproductive freedoms in high-fertility countries, and to mock people who try to increase the currently paltry level of those resources by pointing out its relevance to other high-priority agenda such as climate change. What do you mean by “especially”, “important” and “priority”? One could say that zinc is not an especially important nutrient, but you would die without it. Does that make it the highest priority? Of course not. Does it mean that we omit addressing it until every other nutritional issue is fixed? That would be a travesty against the millions who suffer zinc deficiency.

    As for the ad homonym jeers, Chris, I don’t use the actions of your government to second-guess your motivations, and I suggest you shouldn’t do that to others.

    • Likewise I have other things to do at the moment, but I aim to come back to this issue in the future – both the specific empirical question of the relationship between fertility and poverty, and wider issues we’ve touched on about ‘development’, migration, poverty and the environment. On the first point, it surprises me that you write as if the evidence for a causality running from FP programs to fertility to poverty is so dominant and unquestionable. Things like this are never unquestionable in social science – and you must surely realize that there are alternative perspectives to yours in the research literature? There are numerous contestable assertions in your comment above (along with a few less contestable ones). I guess I’ll try to pick up the threads again when I get the chance. One thing that might help to clear up some of the confusion is if you could specify exactly which countries you think have slackened their efforts to provide effective FP programs, and cite some independent corroborative research. There’s not much hope of choosing between different possible explanations until there’s a clear list.

      On the wider issues, you have a very odd definition of ‘ad hominem’, which in your usage seems to mean ‘raising criticisms of my assertions and intellectual positions that I myself think are misplaced’. You made quite a play in your earlier comments for the relative importance of African GHG emissions vis-à-vis ones from ‘developed’ countries which in my opinion is quite untenable, and the Australian emissions data are wholly relevant to that (as are British ones). In any case, now that I’ve had sight of your representations to the Australian Productivity Commission on migrant intake there’s no need for me to second guess your motivations – your motivations are very clear, they help to make more sense of the rather idiosyncratic line you take on population, poverty and the environment and in my opinion they’re politically malign and reprehensible. So I certainly intend to attack your motivations when I write some more on this – but I don’t think the attack will be ‘ad hominem’…well, certainly no more than your various attacks on my mathematical skills, ignorance, preachiness, motivations etc have been, and probably rather less…

  28. “Discussion point: to what extent is it possible to argue on the basis of available evidence that formal FP programs have been the main cause of the fertility decline?”

    Some disappointing results concerning the effectiveness of Family Planning programs:

    A meta-analysis of all the available family planning program evaluations (done with true experimental design) in various countries looked at the correlation between FP programs and fertility, and estimated the correlation coefficient r to be less than 0.080 (which was the average correlation they found for related factors, since fertility itself was not evaluated in those studies). “For the one study with a measure most closely resembling fertility (pregnancy 12 months after the program), the effect size (r) was [merely] .01…”

    The Effectiveness of Family Planning Programs Evaluated with True Experimental Designs
    Karl E. Bauman, PhD
    Am J Public Health. 1997;87:666-669

    “Organized family planning programs have been implemented in developing countries for more than 3 decades. In 1990, they cost an estimated $4.5 billion  worldwide. This paper presents the first meta-analysis of family planning program evaluations that have used true experimental designs….”

    “The debate often focuses on fertility. For the one study with a measure most closely resembling fertility (pregnancy 12 months after the program), the effect size (r) was .01…”

    “All of the other effect sizes involved variables assumed to intervene between a program and fertility, such as clinic use, contraceptive prevalence, and  contraceptive continuation. The correlation between mediators and dependent variables is imperfect; thus, for the subjects included in this meta-analysis, the program effect size for fertility must have been smaller than the .08 average we found….”

    “In any case, effect sizes were smaller than desired by many family planning program advocates, and it appears that the fertility for the samples studied derived largely from factors other than the types of family planning programs evaluated with true experimental designs.”

    • An extremely poor paper, written with the dogmatism of a statistical novice. There are many approaches which could be called ‘true experimental designs’ in social scientists, that don’t require randomised treatments of identical experimental units. They seem to want FP programs to treat people like guinea-pigs, for the sake of experimental integrity, which is an approach with dubious ethics. The studies reviewed were evaluating specific components of wider family planning provisions over very short time-frames. More importantly, my emphasis was on those programs that included efforts to change social norms around desired family size, and no such programs were evaluated here.

  29. A sampling from a more recent (2011) paper which “provides a brief overview of FP programs in the post WWII era, and a review of the academic literature on the effectiveness of these programs”:

    “The causal impact of declining fertility and/or the impacts of FP programs on fertility have proved to be difficult to find…”

    “Angeles et al. (1998)… find no significant effect of [FP] service quality on [contraceptive] use, nor do they find that community-level access and quality measures strongly influence a woman’s recent fertility…”

    “Angeles et al. (2001)… Contraceptive use does not however, seem to have translated into major reductions in fertility in most countries. If one averages across countries, the simulated effects of FP programs on fertility are relatively small indicating a 0.33 of a child increase in fertility over thirty years in the absence of program variables relative to universal access to FP…”

    “The final word on this debate may not yet be clear in the literature based on cross-country studies, but the literature overall does suggest that FP programs do succeed in lowering fertility, though the magnitude of the effect is often small, and both demand for contraception and the supply of it, are undoubtedly greatly impacted by prevailing socio-economic trends. One interpretation of these findings is that FP programs are perhaps most effective where broader processes of economic development –particularly female education, female employment and economic growth in general – are already underway…”

    “[From a] review of country case-studies [that] is far from complete or exhaustive, it is possible to conclude that they generally suggest that FP programs may indeed contribute to fertility decline even though the mechanisms of impact may be heavily influenced by socio-economic factors…”

    “Gertler and Molyneaux (1994) for example, study the case of Indonesia… fertility decline was undoubtedly accompanied by the adoption of modern contraception. The FP program however, explained only about 4-8% of fertility decline. Increased female education and wage-rates played a far more significant role…”

    “A similar estimate is found in the case of Colombia. Miller (2009) … finds that the availability of modern contraceptives allowed women to postpone their first birth and to have about 5% fewer children in their lifetime (about one-third of a child). These reductions explain only about 6–7% of the fertility decline in Colombia’s major population centers between 1964 and 1993, implying that other factors were more important determinants of women’s lifetime fertility…”

    “There is no agreement on the magnitude of the impact of FP programs, but most researchers find that the effects are highest in countries that are experiencing economic growth and investments in human capital (particularly for women) more broadly.”

    How effective are family-planning programs at improving the lives of women? Some perspectives from a vast literature
    Shareen Joshi, February, 2011

      • Chris and Steve, as Clem mentions I do think there is a gender-divide and an inability to talk across the gender divide, which is a curious thing indeed. We need to identify the gap better if we want to understand each other. Because we are both saying that the other is missing the point. And if you are going to write further on this and use the research that Steve cites then it may be worth the effort.
        Relatedly, I’m going to make an assumption about the research Steve cites which is that it assumes that contraceptives and family planning are perfect i.e. effective when deployed, as if they were user-friendly, accessible, culturally appropriate technologies when the opposite is true. Reproductive technology is not easy to adopt even in the “best” of circumstances, among rich, educated women of the West. It is a hassle and it is highly intrusive. And for a poor, rural, stressed, possibly culturally-constrained woman, it is going to be very difficult for family planning to be available and effective in her environment. Which, to me, is not an argument that “family planning” is not effective, but that it is not effective enough, yet. (So yes, this ties in to the larger picture of investment in women in the more holistic sense, as the last studies Steve cites point out and where we may have found the bridge across the gap.)
        And again, yes, I agree with you, Chris, in the argument that it is us rich people in the cultural West that should humble ourselves and follow the excellent example of our poorer brethren in lowering our carbon emissions. We’re the bad guys in that respect, as in most others.

        • And here I thought I was taking a rather gender-blind approach in my search for an overview of studies, whichever direction they may point, regarding the discussion point Chris raised (whether FP programs have been the main cause of the fertility decline…) Did I somehow seem to imply that I’m anti-FP? (I’m not.)

    • Thanks for this ref – I’ll have to look for a published version.
      The key point here is that this study is using the post-1994 redefining of what ‘family planning programs’ are, generally limiting them to providing the means to control fertility, but not taking any measures to motivate smaller family aspirations. So the weak effects are exactly what I argued – the programs were emasculated by removing motivational messaging to change social norms about family size, attitudes to women and responsibility of parents to their children. Part of this shift was to deny impacts of population growth per se, so they didn’t evaluate benefits of family planning on societies as a result of lower population growth, and benefits on the next generation – although some discussion of human capital investments per child are sometimes included.

    • For a more recent take on the impacts of family planning effort, see

      Tiloka de Silva and Silvana Tenreyro at the London School of Economics analysed which factors most influenced the rate of fertility decline, using three separate measures of family planning program effort. They found that family planning effort was highly correlated with rate of fertility decline, while change in education levels and urbanisation had little if any influence. Reduced infant mortality was correlated with fertility decline, but this might be explained by the effect of the family planning programs improving perinatal care and reducing the pregnancies with worst prognosis for infants (such as births to teenagers, closely spaced births, and high parity). They also found that change in desired family size accounted for more than half the fall in fertility; avoiding unwanted births accounted for only a quarter.

  30. Sorry, I never meant to imply that you were. Or that Jane (or I) are somehow “right” by virtue of some kind of mystical gender divide. Not at all. But there is a missing element to this deliberation that keeps skewing it towards talking past each other and I can’t quite figure out what it is.
    Part of it is just argument dynamics, but I think there is another bit that is more interesting involving – I think – some embedded subsidiary meanings within some of the terms that we are using. For instance, for some of us, the term “family planning” has seemed to imply some kind of program of shifting blame to Third World inhabitants (which Jane may or may not be guilty of in some of her writings), while for some of us, “family planning” is an valuable but still very rudimentary -which is to say ineffective as yet – part of a larger and ongoing process of enabling women. So for Chris to ask for a list of countries with effective FP is to miss the point, which is that no such thing exists – as yet anywhere to my knowledge, although I an not an expert in the field. I would love to know if such a thing exists. And politics has everything to do with this non-existence. From such and similar shadings the talking past each other seems to spiral.

    • Hi Michelle, while there is certainly a very important role for family planning as part of a larger process of enabling women, I don’t see the women wanting to control fertility as the only stakeholders. In particular, their children’s interests (and the interests of all children in their cohort) are too often neglected in this discourse. It is they who suffer the failure of job-creation and resource-access to keep up with their growing numbers.

      The other problem with the exclusive focus on women’s rights, is that it has proven a very poor lever to motivate developing country policy-makers. For most of them, misogyny has served them very well – giving more power to women is a direct threat to their privileges. So killing off the arguments that linked population growth to floundering economic development, which motivated the programs in the 1970s-80s, meant killing off support for these services that enable women to control their lives – exactly the opposite of the explicit intention of these changes.

  31. Michelle, with respect Jane has made the point more than once when I’ve tried to suggest the possibility of alternative explanations for the slowing rate of fertility decline that my analysis conflates countries with effective and ineffective FP policies – so she’s clearly operating with a conception of ‘effective’ FP herself. We can’t really advance this part of the debate unless she specifies the countries that she thinks have effective or ineffective FP programs.

    A quick glance through the de Silva paper linked by Jane suggests to me that it’s based on aggregate data, which makes conclusions about the effect of FP programs or any other independent variables at the individual level suspect. There are problems with ecological fallacy and post hoc fallacy that Jane is not adequately addressing throughout her analyses to my mind. To make the kind of strong claims she is about the efficacy of FP programs you need (preferably longitudinal) microdata. This paper based on microdata suggests that the effect of FP programs on fertility decline is pretty weak . But I guess I need to read through this literature a bit more thoroughly when and if I get the chance.

    Regarding the wider politics of this debate, I have no argument with the case for funding good quality FP programs in high fertility countries and, despite Jane’s comments to the contrary, I don’t think I’ve ever suggested otherwise. I have a probable argument with her view that FP programs are the main factor behind the global fertility decline and a definite and large argument with her view that high fertility is the main cause of poverty in high fertility countries – for which I think the evidence is weak to non-existent and the political implications disastrously victim-blaming and problematic. Jane’s consistent refusal to engage with a critical political economy of poverty and ‘development’ is of a piece with this, and its dubious implications are apparent in her representations to the Productivity Commission. Beneath an irreproachable concern for the health and wellbeing of poor people and poor women in particular I think there’s a much more conservative concern for implicitly maintaining the global structuring of inequality.

  32. Lots to digest.

    Steve and Jane: Thanks for this ref – I’ll have to look for a published version. An interesting remark. The .pdf Steve mentions is available – and it specifically warns that the paper is a draft and not published. But the draft is cited by a peer reviewed paper. One supposes there will be differences in the final draft if it is even published… but I’m puzzled why this patience is necessary to the current discussion.

    Michelle: the gender issue may be relevant, but for the sake of human happiness I hope there might be ways we can move forward together and help find some consensus or mutual understanding. I obviously can’t “see” the world through female eyes. But I can influence the way the world around some females is structured. I’m thinking particularly about a mate, a daughter, a sister, a mother, and other friends and neighbors who do witness life with female eyes. So I hope issues that impact one another along lines of gender can be discussed – a sentiment I think we share if I read your comment correctly.

    All: Here is another more recently published piece that looks at the population/environment issue and specifically takes on FP in its contribution to where we stand:

    Unfortunately I can’t also offer everyone more time in their life to read it…

  33. Well, I think my work here is done, having displayed my ignorance quite extensively enough.
    Chris, I think your synopsis seems quite fair.
    I am rereading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, because my daughter is reading it for school, and it seems to describe rather well our journey up this treacherous river. 🙂

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