History was rewritten to delegitimize population concerns: we need to reassert the truth

In the old fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, people denied the emperor’s nakedness because they wanted to be seen as smart. Today people deny overpopulation because they want to be seen as moral. It is a form of virtue signaling: are you for justice and equity and families and being nice to refugees, or are you one of “The People Who Hate People”? Few look at the data to see whether their position actually favours those goals, or whether, indeed, they are having the opposite effect, obstructing progress toward a fairer, more peaceful and sustainable world. How did it come about that so many people became so passionately misinformed? 

by Jane O’Sullivan

It takes a certain level of cultural indoctrination not to connect large families with impoverishment. The association is far from being a modern product of global overshoot: Aristotle (384—322 BC) said, “One would have thought that it was even more necessary to limit population than property. The neglect of this subject, which in existing states is so common, is a never failing cause of poverty among the citizens; and poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” European literature is full of the plight of divided inheritance, redundant sons, and the desperate under-employment of the rural population overflow. It is self-evident that an oversupplied labour market depresses wages to the benefit of employers. It is self-evident that, whatever rural development can achieve by increasing agricultural productivity, this is eroded by the subdivision of land. It is self-evident that a family with ten children will spend less on educating each than a family with one. It is self-evident that a whole community or country composed predominantly of large households will fall ever further behind those with small families.

The first advocates for family planning, such as Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, were determined to make lives better for women and their families by ending the burden of unwanted pregnancies. The international family planning movement began in the 1960s as a humanitarian response to the very evident threats that population growth posed to economic development and food security in the Global South. When pre-existing family planning organizations were recruited to this new population agenda, for them it was very much about women first and population second. They encouraged governments to provide and promote voluntary family planning, and provided those services through NGOs. I am unaware of any instance where they advocated targeting any particular race or ethnic group or where they advocated coercive measures.

But these days even writers seeking to raise the profile of population issues refer to “the ugly history of eugenics” and imply that a rights-based, non-coercive approach is a novelty. The 1994 United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo is commonly cited as a watershed between authoritarian, abusive approaches and voluntary, rights-based approaches to birth control, but this is untrue. We need to discover not only the truth, but why it was buried.

Most countries that implemented family planning programs in the 1960s, 70s and 80s used only voluntary measures, adapted to local context and culture. In all countries that achieved rapid fertility decline, the benefits of small families were actively promoted – governments did not merely hope that more wealth or education would cause people to break from pro-natalist cultural norms. In a few countries, forced or coerced birth control was imposed by national governments, or by officials seeking to achieve quotas placed on them by national governments. China’s one-child policy is the most infamous, but its extreme heavy-handedness typified the Chinese government’s approach to all social issues at the time, it did not typify family planning globally. Such measures were opposed by international family planning professionals long before the 1994 Cairo Conference. They were never part of the agenda advocated at the earlier UN population conferences.

Photo by: reza_i_harf

Family planning advocates welcomed the new Cairo text, to make more explicit opposition to coercion, commitment to women’s health and rights, and more client-focused delivery of family planning. The Cairo text did not belittle population concerns: it reaffirmed “interrelationships between population, resources, the environment and development.” It advised, “To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate policies, including population-related policies” and “Explicitly integrating population into economic and development strategies will both speed up the pace of sustainable development and poverty alleviation and contribute to the achievement of population objectives and an improved quality of life of the population.” Few who signed onto the Cairo Agenda anticipated the subsequent deletion and delegitimization of all population focus from its implementation.

A major strategy toward delegitimization was to rewrite history. According to the new doctrine, all “population control” activities before the Cairo conference had been conducted “without heed to people’s reproductive aspirations, their health, or the health of their children.” This particular version of the oft-stated or insinuated accusation appeared in the UNFPA’s 2014 review of achievements under the Cairo Agenda which, without any democratic process, presumed to set the “framework” for subsequent work, further distancing the ongoing agenda from the Cairo text and its acknowledgement of the need to minimize population growth.

Displaying a bizarre cognitive dissonance, this discourse insists on one hand that past concern about population growth was misguided (if not a mischievous cover for other agenda – whether racism, eugenics, or blaming the poor for rich-world overconsumption) and led to no good, but simultaneously boasts that eschewing population and focusing only on women’s health, education, and rights would “also lead to lower population growth than targeted efforts for birth control,” as if that goal mattered. [1] A hollow claim: all the countries that achieved a rapid fertility transition did so while running family planning programs that actively promoted small families as part of an explicit population deceleration policy (examples are South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Iran and Mauritius). Those that were persuaded by the Cairo agenda to drop their population focus part-way through their transition saw fertility stall or rebound (Indonesia, Egypt and Kenya are examples). Globally, the fertility transition that was so strongly established by family planning efforts before 1994 subsequently slowed to a crawl.

But this story never appears in reviews of the Cairo legacy, because we are officially disinterested in fertility rates. Meeting unmet need for contraception is the new focus, not generating demand for it. If women want eight children apiece, that’s just fine – ignoring the stifling patriarchy in which such aspirations are cultivated.

Meanwhile, in the rewritten history, successful family planning programs did not exist, and past fertility decline is seen as driven variously by infant survival rates, women’s education, urbanization, industrialization, or general enrichment. Yet the few studies that compare these factors with the prevailing family planning program effort demonstrate the overwhelmingly greater influence of the latter. These studies are rarely cited, while every popular-media article will tell you that study after study shows how fertility plummets when countries educate girls. I have found not a single paper drawing on primary data that shows this to be true. No example exists of a country or study area that achieved a rapid fertility transition without actively promoting smaller families and addressing cultural barriers to uptake.

The delegitimization agenda also rejected the idea that population growth impedes economic development. Ironically, by demoting family planning programs from central pillars of development plans to minor activities of health departments, women are worse off post-Cairo. The countries that got fertility down before Cairo have seen a steady improvement in women’s status, education, and autonomy, facilitated by relieving the burden of childbearing and by the deliberate reframing of women’s roles to break away from seeing childbearing as a woman’s only means to gain status and security. All those countries have also taken off economically, achieving a steady and inclusive enrichment. With the exception of a few Middle East oil states, no high-fertility country has lessened poverty. What little increase in per capita GDP some have achieved is marked by widening inequalities.

Perversely, the people seeking to end population growth are cast as the enemies of just and equitable development. This view has roots in Marxism: the admission of any endogenous cause of poverty diminishes the role of class relations. Never mind that, as Adam Smith explained, it is population growth and consequent underemployment that suppress wages and keep the market from eliminating capital’s profit margin.

Those who believe they are defending the poor by denouncing ‘populationists’ should take a good look at the company they are keeping. Population growth plays straight into the hands of global corporatization, polarizing wealth between the ever-more concentrated ownership of assets and those forced to sell their labour cheaply. In whose interests was the 1972 Rockefeller Report (on the disbenefits of further population growth in USA) politically buried for thirty years? Whose influence was behind the sudden change of US delegation to the 1984 UN population conference in Mexico City, that startled other delegates with the newly minted position that population growth is economically neutral, not the threat to development that was by then widely accepted? The same interests behind the Mexico City Policy, adopted by that delegation to ban US funding in any way associated with abortion, and cunningly linking family planning conceptually with abortion, despite contraception being the most effective anti-abortion measure ever (and criminalization the least effective)? Who benefits from ill-founded hysteria about ageing and the “birth dearth”? Strange bedfellows for self-righteous anti-Malthusians.

As a 1992 UNICEF report said, “Family planning could bring more benefit to more people at less cost than any other single technology now available to the human race.” It won’t fix climate change on its own, but according to the IPCC’s recent mitigation report, “high levels of global population growth … may render modelled pathways that limit warming to 2°C (> 67%) or lower infeasible.” It is an extraordinary tragedy that the global community shuns this opportunity, on the grounds that they are defending the poor from abominations like China’s one-child policy, instead of championing the great family planning successes such as Thailand and Iran. Instead of emulating these successes, the high-fertility countries in Africa and elsewhere are being served an insipid and ineffectual reproductive health agenda, in deep denial of the harms wrought by population growth. It is supposedly centering women’s rights but effectively impedes women’s emancipation.

As resource scarcity and environmental degradation are reaching crisis points, we have run out of time for the passives solution to population growth. It is time to reclaim history and redefine the moral high ground.


[1] This quote was also from the UNFPA (2014) Framework of Actions for the follow-up to the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development Beyond 2014: Report of the Operational Review of the Implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and its Follow-up Beyond 2014. (p. 223) https://www.unfpa.org/publications/framework-actions-follow-programme-action-international-conference-population-and. This 235-page official review of the Cairo legacy mentions population growth only in a closing section, to disparage and discredit any explicit focus on population.



A version of this essay appeared in the Great Transition Initiative’s June 2022 discussion The Population Debate Revisited.

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26 thoughts on “History was rewritten to delegitimize population concerns: we need to reassert the truth

  1. An incredibly important message. Can it be written for common reader consumption and promoted to popular press?

    1. Few experts in population biology, related fields of science, demography and economics appear ready and willing to see what is in front of naked eyes. Too many experts have confused cause and effect and thereby vitiated the coherence of mind and clarity of vision required to sensibly interpret evidence of whatsoever could be objectively correlated with reality. As a consequence, they appear to find the ecological science of human population dynamics simultaneously unbelievable yet virtually irrefutable.

      We do not have a food production problem. Food harvests are abundant; food is sufficient to feed the human community plus many more. The problem is food redistribution. Granted the fair and equitable redistribution of available food to the human community writ large would lead in all likelihood to a temporary, exacerbating increase in absolute global human population numbers; however, limiting total global food production that humans consume would in the course of space-time return Homo sapiens to balance within the natural world.

      Consider biomimicry, the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes. For a moment let us assume that nature has the answers to the problems human beings have induced by relentlessly increasing the human food supply, and must now confront and overcome. By following the laws of the natural world, by changing our way to conform with nature, humans would consciously and deliberately mimic nature’s way where we find that all resources (including food to feed a growing population) are categorically limited by the size and finite resources of the planet which is our planetary home, the house humans have filled beyond its natural carrying capacity through the massive deployment of complex systems and inventive technologies.

      One of the worst mistakes of the second half of the 20th Century has been and continues to be generated by the United Nations. A delusion in the form of a meme, or unquestioned cultural transmission, has been viewed as real and spread virally by misusing the imprimatur of science upon which the meme is not actually based. Large scale human organizations have held tightly to versions of the same meme prior to this time period. Most experts became captives of a satisfying false cultural transmission: humans must continuously increase food production to feed a growing population. This misperception/misconception of reality cloaks our view of the way the world really works with regard to the population dynamics of all species within the evolutionary ‘tree of life’, including Homo sapiens.

      There are hallmarks that define a deluded cultural transmission. They include political convenience, economic expediency, social suitability, religious tolerance, and legalization. All seem necessary for a false meme to become culturally prescribed. Purveyors of false memes willfully ignore the questioning of ideas upon which their misinformation is based — a hallmark of science. Without the support of science we find ourselves in a festering haze of delusion.

      With regard to its population dynamics, our evolving memetic species has a vital task. Substitute a scientifically founded meme for the unquestioned false one. Then the new meme would be: increases in the total production of food for human consumption lead to a global population increase of H. sapiens. We would acknowledge not only that we have a food distribution problem but also a problem derived from our tragic failure to use available ways and means to prevent unwanted births humanely.

      How the human community chooses to act in response to this daunting predicament is something others more capable than I will have to address and find a way to overcome. Years ago, before the 21st century began to unfold, my spouse advised me not to communicate the ecological science of human population dynamics until I had a solution to the existential situation disclosed by the evidence. I told her then and say to all now, I do not have answers to the thorny questions or solutions to difficult problems the heretofore uncontested science raises. Please allow me to add the belief that any program of action to rein in the size of the human population by limiting the human food supply must begin by taking simultaneous steps to feed the human community as well as to save the flourishing of life (i.e., biodiversity) as we know it.

      It is neither necessary nor sustainable to continue increasing food production to feed a growing human population. To the contrary, such a determination ultimately carries with it profoundly harmful consequences. In the case of H. sapiens the species eats itself out of house and home.

  2. Promoted to the popular press my foot! It is the PRESS, now owned by Big 6 that is DELIBERATELY AND IN A CONCERTED CAMPAIGN silencing any reference to population!

    Just what publication do you plan to start with, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE, destroyed and mostly gone due to a hedge fund take over, THE DENVER POST? Ditto! Or any of the thousands upon thousands of Mom and Pop papers that used to be published in small towns across America but that no longer exist?


    I challenge you, please, tell me, WHAT POPULAR PRESS? For those who might have missed a rare moment of real news reporting on “60 Minutes,” I urge you to boot up and watch their program a week or 2 ago on the DEMISE OF THE LOCAL PAPER–as they deftly ignored the DEMISE OF HONEST BROADCASTING with the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine and the passage of Bill Clinton’s gift to Wall Street, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which means that the 54 companies that used to own major media in this country are now just 6 companies OPERATING IN CONCERN, NOT IN COMPETITION!

    1. I have to say, I share Kathleene’s disgust at the demise of the traditional (newspaper) popular press here in the United States. There are fewer outlets, they are mostly corporate dominated and hence mostly not amenable to any messages that question growth.

      As traditional newspapers have declined, online outlets have proliferated. Perhaps there are more options to reach people online with these messages. Suggestions are welcome! So is sharing our blogs with your own networks on Facebook, Instagram, etc. It’s easy to do!

      1. Aren’t the kids all getting news from Tik Tok now? (No idea how that works)

        It’s funny that things that were new and cutting edge less than 20 years ago, such as blogs and even facebook, are now old already.

    2. There are other countries in the world besides the United States, and they all have press.

    3. Ms. Parker: Very well-put. You cover the key problems that now exist with our major News Media organizations. It’s a very serious matter, and (as you note) directly tied to the cloud of confused perception that affects so much of our country.

    4. This is an excellent article, IMHO. It lays out the reality of what happened not that long ago, and should be required reading for those who believe that modern history cannot be rewritten. Yet it was. Rewritten by those who selfishly are acting to control a society; rewritten to suit the interests of dangerous people. I’m old enough to remember all the sold articles about the immediate dangers of overpopulation. And how those articles dried up so quickly.

  3. Superb article from Jane O’Sullivan. Long overdue response to the political correctness of population deniers.
    Hurrah! Robert Wyman, Professor, Yale University.

  4. Excellent work, Jane, digging into the details of this history and providing us all with the historical facts and arguments to push back against attempts to silence discussion about population policies. As you say, it is past time to assert the high moral ground.

  5. Jane, you are a legend. Consider trying to publish this article on Quillette, you would get a lot of prominent readers.

      1. Try the Guardian!
        (I know, I’m a bit obsessed, but George Mombiot drives me nuts)

  6. Excellent essay, and particularly the digging down to the inconvenient and most scary to confront truth that generally human elites whether they be the 5% party members in Marxist states or the 5-10% professional class in present developed nations want and so do necessary manipulations to continue population growth, As economists and business leaders chant that we need more “bodies” to continue economic growth while they allude and fiddle with the numbers to assert more people sharing the resource pie actually makes everyone richer or better off. But I think that this talented author, as a commentator suggested, could go more explicit and address the general public audience by making statements like that elites in nations often want more bodies in order to not only keep wages low which means most citizens will remain in poverty, and also to use these desperate bodies to threaten adjacent nations with … so greatly increasing the probabilities of war. While of course these claimed to be family loving elites themselves continue to live in large homes, have access to travel and nature, have plenty of food. While it’s only when the social position and wealth of elites are threatened due to overpopulation … when catastrophes occur like starvation that killed 10’s of millions in China and the Party’s grip on that nation were threatened that China’s leader elite instituted the brutal one child policy. But of course by that time with over a billion consumers and polluters China was a over populated no rights disaster. Now unfortunately capitalist monopolists are elites who are similarly insulated because of their high economic and social status from the the damages of overpopulation (like they were from the economic collapse they caused in 2008). So they are also enthusiastic about riding a population boom of 30 million additional customers and cheap workers per decade in the USA until that bubble bursts as well. Because again their fortunes will be safely stashed away offshore and they will have passports for a few countries that have not been intentionally over populated “grown” to achieve profits. So again good job by making reference to the implicit mendaciousness of elites who use common citizens bodies and suffering to achieve selfish ends. But I think that we need to be much more explicit about describing the many damages that our elites ‘more bodies’ greed cause, and again the reason why human elites are so ambivalent about overpopulation is that they expect to be able to dodge the negative consequences that too many bodies cause..

  7. And abortion, now unavailable in much of the U.S., was used effectively as a lever to get out the vote for candidates as morally rotten as Trump and carefully selected to vote for the interests of their billionaire backers. The abortion argument in the U.S. is another important form of science denial (abortion should be seen as back up birth control, not murder, 6 in 10 conceptions are lost before birth through failure to implant and miscarriage. Abortion makes that 7 in 10. God can take care of all the tiny souls and the fetuses don’t suffer. But women and children do suffer when unwanted pregnancies are forced to be born by the state. This is another Galileo moment when science is being suppressed for the benefit of the heirarchy.

  8. Good post, thanks. I have to remind myself to check the TOP blog more often. It’s the only place where I can find stuff that I agree with!

    ‘Populationists’ are the friends of all the other activists out there, that is why I call overpopulation activism ‘universal activism’ in my book. They help and reinforce all other good forms of activism. If we could all just pull the same card we would be light-years ahead.

    I just got rejected by a north-south news website because they believe that there is no population issue! I can’t understand that…

  9. Thank you for this; there is much I agree with.

    However, I think this is food for thought from other sources, eg Cleland et al (2006) [“Family planning: the unfinished agenda”].

    “Success came at a price. The strategies used by some Asian programmes to achieve an effect on fertility were criticised as coercive and the quality of family-planning services in many countries was deemed unsatisfactory. These concerns bore fruit at the fifth international population conference held in Cairo in 1994. The recommendations of the Cairo conference replaced the hitherto dominant demographic-economic rationale for family-planning programmes with a broader agenda of women’s empowerment and reproductive health and rights.

    Despite the enthusiasm generated by the conference, family-planning promotion has dropped steadily down the list of international development priorities since 1994.”


    Washington and Kopnina (2023) [“Discussing the Silence and Denial around Population Growth and Its Environmental Impact. How Do We FindWays Forward?”] state:

    “However, O’Sullivan [109] argues that the Cairo text did not belittle population concerns,
    and that this was done later by the United Nations Population Fund [123], who insisted
    that family planning programs had neglected people’s reproductive aspirations or health.
    As O’Sullivan documents, such claims were exaggerated, and she argues they amount to a
    rewriting of history about family planning.”

    Ref 109 is this one (ie “History was rewritten to delegitimize population concerns: we need to reassert the truth”).

    I agree that “the Cairo text did not belittle population concerns”, though I think it did leave these concerns further in the background. The presence of one or more supportive quotes in a long document does not mean that the overall document supports that – especially in UN documents that seek to please multiple masters.

    In summary, I may have misunderstood Dr O’Sullivan’s intent, however I am not yet persuaded that the “re-writing” of reproductive health history post Cairo (eg by UNFPA in 2014) was itself a watershed; I suggest it was more a continuation of processes which started well before Cairo, eg in the leadup to the Mexico City meeting, held in 1984 (as Dr O’Sullivan also discusses here); that these processes intensified in Cairo, and this process then continued. And it still does continue.

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