Population wrapped up: a response to Jane O’Sullivan

And so we come to Small Farm Future’s final blog post of 2018. Time for some seasonal goodwill and an offer of peace to all? Nah, time to settle old scores – in this case my debate with Jane O’Sullivan about population and poverty that’s been rumbling along on this site over the latter part of the year. I was advised by one commenter to let the debate lie, which is probably wise, but this commentary from Dr O’Sullivan has been sitting unanswered for a while and I think a response is in order – if for no other reason than the underlying issues are of wider interest. But let me not neglect the seasonal spirit altogether. I’d like to have devoted more time to this issue, and perhaps to have reflected further on population issues more generally but with this fairly brief response only to a few of Dr O’Sullivan’s specific points I propose to wrap things up on the population front from the Small Farm Future end.

So in what follows, I’m going to highlight some of Dr O’Sullivan’s contentions from the comment linked above (her comments in italics and quotation marks), and then respond briefly to them.

  1. “Population growth in agrarian communities is a driver of impoverishment”

It’s hard to disagree that that’s sometimes so. But it’s worth noting that it’s a very different, and much milder claim, than Dr O’Sullivan’s earlier one that “population growth is the main driver of impoverishment in high-fertility countries”. Where we would probably continue to disagree is the extent to which population growth is an exogenous driver of poverty.

  1. “You [ie. Chris] say “why, when it comes to discussing pressure on agricultural land in Africa, does [lowering 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.”

…which is surely an implicit admission on Dr O’Sullivan’s part that her position is out of kilter with the consensus of expert scholarship, despite her failure to acknowledge clearly that other scholars take a different view. Of course, sometimes the lonely voice in the wilderness turns out to be ahead of the curve. But not usually. For my part, I wasn’t referring to the scholarly literature on food security so much as lay discussions in the media and the blogosphere, where “population” is widely invoked to explain poverty and environmental pressures, largely as an alternative to any political engagement with issues of structural inequality and rich country environmental impacts – issues that are also conspicuously missing from Dr O’Sullivan’s analyses.

  1. “migration….solves nothing at the source, while transferring the problem elsewhere.”

This is often true, but not invariably so.

  1. “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.”

And yet all the evidence Dr O’Sullivan cites seems to be based on aggregate and cross-sectional data, which is inherently suspect methodologically and can never constitute ‘very strong’ evidence for anything. At best one could claim that it’s ‘slightly suggestive’ and then seek proper corroboration with longitudinal microdata. Case unproven. And plenty of alternative interpretations.

  1. “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.”

Ah, we’re back to the strong claim, with all its politically dubious and victim-blaming implications. I think here it’s a case of “No, you first”. It’s not me who wishes to argue that population growth is the main driver of impoverishment, and I don’t consider the onus is on me to disprove it – a responsible scholar would be aware of how politically explosive this claim is, and be sure to have eliminated all other possible explanations before emphasizing population growth as a dominant (and exogenous) factor. Jason Hickel (The Divide, 2017: p.227) presents data, for example, showing that in most years after 2000 the net resource transfers out of Africa were in excess of US$30 billion, and in some years in excess of US$120 billion1 (much greater than pre-2000 transfers, to offer an alternative post hoc explanation to Dr O’Sullivan’s FP program decline thesis). And that’s only a small part of the larger political-economic story. I think a scholar who expects their claim that population growth is the main driver of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa to be taken seriously ought to have a better answer on matters of political economy than this evasiveness.

  1. “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.”

I’d agree with the first sentence (other things being equal), but not the second sentence – there’s quite a lot of evidence in the development literature that larger family size can be a rational anti-poverty strategy for families. But as Dr O’Sullivan hints at here, it’s kind of a prisoner’s dilemma situation in which it would be beneficial if everyone reduced their fertility but not in anyone’s individual interests to do so. So, in relation to the earlier debate, while it’s certainly a good idea to try to help reduce unwanted pregnancies, there’s a structural problem here that goes beyond individualist solutions. By the way, this ‘fertility trap’ is just one of sixteen poverty traps identified by global poverty expert Stephen Smith in his 2005 book Ending Global Poverty. Smith doesn’t presume to rank these sixteen traps or argue that high fertility is the most important. In fact, directly contrary to Dr O’Sullivan, Smith argues that high fertility is not the underlying cause of poverty but a result of it.

  1. “You [ie. Chris] 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.”

Most of this strikes me as obfuscation. Dr O’Sullivan argued that the fertility decline has tailed off recently, and I showed that most of this tailing off has been in low, not high, fertility countries. The UN’s modelling is irrelevant to our point of contention, and without getting too much into the details of transition and urbanization I’m not persuaded that Dr O’Sullivan provides any evidence here to refute an artefactual explanation or to support the effect of FP programs. There seems to be some slippage from the model of reality to the reality of the model going on here. As I’ve said before, what’s needed to start clarifying this issue is a clear specification of which countries or places have had effective family planning programs and which ones haven’t. In the meantime, I’m not seeing anything in Dr O’Sullivan’s words that refutes an artefactual explanation as a plausible generalized fit to the data.

  1. 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.”

I’d agree that local environmental impacts are important and that poor people can sometimes have negative local impacts disproportionate to their numbers (while continuing to insist that it’s not their numbers that are causing their poverty). I don’t agree that local environmental impacts are overwhelmingly what affects poor people and biodiversity. Nor do I agree that a focus on climate change is ‘myopic’ or does not serve the interests of the poor. Indeed, I’d argue that not to focus on climate change right now is a worse ‘myopia’ both from the perspective of the poor and everyone else.

  1. 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.”

Agreed – depending on what Dr O’Sullivan means by ‘minimising’ – but it’s good to be clear about relative impacts. Suppose, just as an example, that the thirty richest countries in the world reduced their emissions from fossil fuel combustion and land use change associated with their global agricultural footprint to the same level as that of the thirty poorest. I’m presuming we could all agree that this would make an even bigger difference to climate change outcomes over the next century than if the thirty poorest countries reduced their fertility to the same level as the thirty richest?

  1. 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 (sic) 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.”

Agreed – and I don’t think I’ve made that argument. Though the common argument that the main problem we face in the world is overpopulation does tend to distract from developed country behaviours.

  1. 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….What do you mean by “especially”, “important” and “priority”?

I think it’s worth asking this question: “What one single action would do most to reduce the impact of climate change?” And for me the answer unquestionably is to stop burning fossil fuels. If managed appropriately this would probably also do a lot for reducing poverty, and fertility. In practice of course one can take more than one single action, so I’d be supportive of efforts to reduce population growth – but not in the absence of efforts to reduce fossil fuel use, which quite frankly are minimal in global terms currently. I accept that it’s hard to define or quantify what one means by ‘especially important priority’, though Dr O’Sullivan uses much the same vague language in her own writing – but what stands out for me from her writing is a (qualitative) sense that she places a high priority on reducing population in poor countries, a high priority on maintaining wealth in rich countries, and a low priority on what she calls the “myopic focus on climate change”. By any plausible definition of “priority” I’d say that in my view those are the wrong ones.


And that’s it from me for 2018. Thanks to everyone who’s read and commented on this blog – not least Dr O’Sullivan. I’ll be back at some point in 2019 with more nuggets from the Small Farm Future goldmine. But probably not for a little while – I’m supposed to be writing a book, darn it.

Happy holidays.

17 thoughts on “Population wrapped up: a response to Jane O’Sullivan

  1. Ahhh, the yuletide beckons. A wish to all: the best of the season.

    With all due respect to our host’s need for some down time, I’m stuck on a point Chris makes in his reply to item #5. In citing Hickel pg 227 – (which I’m supposing is the 2017 edition published in the UK, while here I sit in a soon to be third world country with a 2018 American Edition of 2018… ) I’m trying to find Jason’s specifics and having some difficulty.

    On my edition’s pg.226 Jason makes a point that extensive tracts of land are being leased for pennies on the dollar when they should be valued at much higher levels. But as a part of the example he goes on to tout an estimated lease value $600 per acre per year. This is preposterous. Annual lease values for some of the most productive agricultural land in the US breadbasket seldom reach half that figure. [perhaps the US is already a third world country and I missed the memo]… Jason may be imagining that the total productive value in per acre per year revenue is $600. But this is a wholly different measure. And all the calculations he makes on top of this erroneous assumption merely multiply the magnitude of the mistake.

    I’m not suggesting Mr Hickel has no point to make; indeed I’m somewhat sympathetic. But a bit more care in making it would be refreshing.

    • Clem, I don’t have my copy of his book to hand just at the moment and I think I’m going to sign off from the blogosphere until the new year now, but I’ll try to clarify these issues with you on my next journey into cyberspace. Until then, season’s best wishes…

    • An example from 2011 was given in another book (The Land Grabbers, by Fred Pearce), with land in Sierra Leone being offered at $2 per acre per year, with free water, virtually nonexistent taxes, and “no restrictions on foreign exchange; no limits on expat employees; full repatriation of profits, dividends and royalties; and 100 percent foreign ownership permitted.” There was a promised supply of workers requiring only 25 cents per hour.


      • And another source for evidence of these international land grabs would be Philip McMichael: https://devsoc.cals.cornell.edu/people/philip-mcmichael/

        As I said, I am sympathetic to Hickel’s point on this issue. And I appreciate the link to Fred Pearce’s work. The seemingly unrestricted flow of capital around the globe (as we have discussed here at SFF) is facilitating these land grabs and extractions – which in ages past had to be accomplished in person at the point of a spear.

        When I wrote the comment above I also thought there might merely be one zero too many. But even in that potentiality there is some difficulty. The $60 per acre rent (or lease) may be seen as exorbitant if there is no local infrastructure to move materials in and out. Me sitting in a (still) first world country and musing about this matter is a bit ridiculous if we don’t factor in whether taxes or other means of ‘user fees’ are collected, account made for the local labor market, insurance, defense, rule of law, and so on and so forth. Fred Pearce’s work does specifically go to these points, so I look forward to viewing his book.

        There is a enough difficulty in comparing one set of circumstances to another where very little is shared in common. My point is that even though a moral line is crossed, exaggerating the matter by an order of magnitude or more (even if accidental) doesn’t help the case.

        • Its no only
          International land grabs that causes problems , the going price for agricultural land here is between $1500 and $3500 an acre giving a return on capital in between ten and fifteen years , ( loan paid off from profits ) then some idiot from the west or east coast bids up the price to $60,000 an acre , that in turn rams up the value of land but not the income from the land ( back of envelope numbers it will take 50+ years to get a return on investment ) AND the taxes payable on it , which in turn makes local farming unable to make a profit without a increase in the cost of food , my taxes have doubled over the last five years while my sales income has stagnated (catch 22 ) , taking this a step further I heard of a farmer that received an exorbitant price for his land immediately move to mexico , buy land and start farming there ramming up land prices there .
          The moral of the story is if you want to stay in farming it’s best to sell to some rich idiot from the the coast and move overseas .

  2. Happy Holidays to everyone.

    I am actually off work and sitting at a computer downsizing my RSS feed, which is how I saw there was a new post here! May you all have even more productive and joyous times over the year end/new year.



  3. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6528763/Campaigners-gear-battle-save-fields-inspired-beloved-novel-Watership-Down.html

    An example of the loss of iconic land on the altar of growth of the population , SSSI’s will be next , growth at any cost . Empty out the third world of young strong men and rehouse them in the west leave their families behind to struggle without them .

    • …except that this story and the previous one you linked from The Sun make no mention of immigration – and, believe me, if those two organs could find a way to spin this as a negative take on immigration, they would. To be clear: for numerous reasons, the homes in leafy Hampshire that Bloor want to build won’t be housing any poor migrants, and the reason that the farmland is under threat isn’t because of migration but because of national and international policies and non-policies on property speculation, food production and economic financialization – the latter also being a major driver of international migration in the first place – with a bit of endogenous demographic change (older population distribution, smaller households) thrown into the mix. People aren’t impoverishing their families by migrating but enriching them by going to places where the money is and leaving places blighted largely by the economic rent extracted by rich countries. International migration would scarcely figure in a sensible policy wishlist for how to stop the destruction of British farmland, while a sensible policy wishlist for how to stop large-scale international migration ought to start with economic rent-seeking, and climate change.

      • Yes… rent seeking can be troublesome – in excess anyway. But I want to look toward that Hampshire Down for a second. What’s all this about rabbits?? We are talking about those tasty little herbivores, right??

        This just in from the ‘future of foods’ front: From a research article comparing the methane production of two ruminant food critters [ https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2018.00575/full ]
        The sheep produced more methane than the rabbits per unit of metabolic body weight, digestible neutral detergent fiber, and acid detergent fiber

        Pastoralists take note. Do your part to prevent global warming – raise rabbits!!

        Ok, I’ll retrieve tongue from cheek – but the bunnies are more than just cute. Recipes to follow.

    • You suggest wrong – there’s changing death rates, age profiles, household composition, net local/regional population flows, redevelopment politics, international investment terms and property prices/development costs to consider as well among numerous other factors.

    • Interest(ing). There being a slight difference between interest and rent. Perhaps too slight for the issue here. But it’s the principal of the thing (pun intended).

      As for China being a communist country… my how definitions have changed (evolved?)…

      In other news, it seems the Chinese are making a play to repatriate their own from the great diaspora. Migration in reverse? https://www.npr.org/2018/10/29/659938461/china-tries-to-woo-a-sprawling-global-chinese-diaspora

      And in Syria some women are calling for their men to come home… while in China the men are missing women because of a generation of one child politics that saw ferocious gendercide. Another opportunity for a great migration??

    • I’m not going to bite on the race gambit there…

      But the link does have a graphic of the various states and their total fertility rates (across racial identities). If one overlays current political affiliations with the fertility stats it looks to this observer like blue states have the most significant fertility declines while red states have the least (and actually a handful of Midwestern ‘red’ states appear to be at replacement). Does this imply the US will shift toward more conservative politics in the coming generation?