Debunking the latest batch of population hysteria—this time, sub-Saharan Africa's big families have Chicken Littles losing their cool.
The front page of yesterday’s New York Times informed readers that “in a quarter-century, at the rate Nigeria is growing, 300 million people—a population about as big as that of the present-day United States—will live in a country the size of Arizona and New Mexico.” The capital alone houses 21 million people and has all the accompanying strains—ungodly traffic, potential for political unrest, upward pressure on food prices, insufficient hospital capacities—which the article uses as an example of how a “population bomb” will hurt sub-Saharan Africa.
The article implies Nigeria and other sub-Saharan countries must figure out how to engineer a decline in family size and birth rates before achieving economic progress—in this account, people start having two kids instead of 12 and can invest much more time and money and education in each child.
But limiting population growth isn’t necessarily a precursor to economic development. In fact, it’s the other way around: Economic development is usually a precursor to limiting population growth, and scare-mongering about exploding populations isn’t helping solve any problems.
Small families are basically a luxury. It shouldn’t be surprising that poorer countries like Nigeria, Mali, and Uganda have some of the highest birthrates among countries around the world, while wealthier nations like the United States, Germany, and Japan are near the bottom. When people achieve a certain level of income, they can afford to worry about having fewer kids and investing more in each because they no longer have to worry as much about concerns like whether enough food will be on the table.
Sky-is-falling overpopulation stories have roots in the 18th century, when economist Thomas Malthus warned that unchecked population growth would threaten food supply and lead to a Soylent Green-like dystopia. The Times’ “population bomb” rhetoric is tired too—it was the title of a 1968 book in which Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted mass starvation to come in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation. It sold like funnel cake at the state fair. He received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award in 1990 and wrote another bestseller, in 2008, chock-full of similar themes.
But as early as the 1960s, eventual Noble laureate economist Simon Kuznets worked on seminal research about the relationship between economic growth and other factors like population and environmental quality. His research provided evidence that rising income correlates with slower population growth and better environmental quality.
Kuznets even argued that population growth was a net positive. In the long view, more people means more brains to dream up innovations like books, penicillin, the internet, Peruvian chicken, and ideas to solve to problems like rising population growth and pressured food supplies. Kuznets’ work influenced University of Maryland professor Julian Simon, who for decades crusaded against population growth doomsayers.
MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo provide an in-depth and sober look at population growth in the developing world in their 2011 award-winning book Poor Economics, noting that people in developing countries don’t have large families due to a lack of self-control or “backwards” cultural norms. Instead, it’s an economic calculation.
“For many parents,” they write, “children are their economic futures: an insurance policy, a savings product, and some lottery tickets, all rolled into a convenient pint-sized package.” Families in rural Africa might have a lot of children because they need as many hands as possible to work in the fields, or a Lagos mother may think that having 12 kids gives her better odds of seeing one grow up to be a doctor or other professional.
There are tangible reasons for higher population growth, like contraception not being widely available in much of sub-Saharan Africa, or people choosing not to use it. While ensuring that women have the opportunity to control their reproductive choices is important, making those choices for them isn’t very effective. Consider the problems caused by China’s one-child policy, or the experience of India in the 1970s, when the country offered incentives like land and money for citizens who volunteered to be sterilized and a few states even considered compulsory sterilization laws. Banerjee and Duflo point out that by the 1977 elections, Indians so resented the civil liberties violations that resulted from sterilization programs—sometimes, for instance, male villagers were rounded up, falsely arrested, then forcibly sterilized—that a popular slogan became “Get rid of [incumbent Prime Minister] Indira and save your penis.”
Just like Indians or Americans or anyone else, sub-Saharan Africans make a practical and rational calculus about how many children to have—or at least as practical and rational a calculus as can be expected from anyone, given the process that precedes pregnancy.
While population growth clearly strains infrastructure in cities like Lagos across sub-Saharan Africa today, in 50 years, doomsayers and “population bomb” true believers are more likely to look like Chicken Little than Cassandra.