Articles about population in the media typically are riddled with misconceptions and tiptoe around taboos. Moving past these can free us to have open and honest discussions about population matters. The following list does not pretend to be exhaustive, but to help debunk the most common myths and become more aware of the complexity of the subject.
by Lucia Tamburino
According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, confidence in being an expert on a given topic depends on having experience in that topic. But this relationship unfolds in a very strange way: when people know just a little bit about a topic, they feel very confident – we call them ignorant. When they start to study a topic in depth, they become insecure, because they realize that there is much more to learn, and the confidence decreases with further studying. Only after studying more and more do they become confident again, albeit never reaching the same level as the ignorant .
When talking about population, I meet very confident people. They talk, claim, state, and are pretty convinced they do not need to learn anything, because they already know everything. But what they know is often wrong, or at least insufficient. Here is a myth-busted list of the 10 most common misconceptions about population, some of which even those more familiar with the topic may not know.
1. Demographic decline: the non-existing problem that scares so many people.
“The population growth problem is solved, now the problem is demographic decline.” Lots of people are convinced of this, but where does such an idea come from? Do people confuse population with fertility rates? Fertility rates have decreased, true. But in many countries they are far above the replacement rate, especially in Africa. The global population continues to grow by over 80 million every year, and this increment is actually increasing. In most countries, population is growing more or less rapidly, with a few exceptions that has declining population (around 20 countries). The problematical population growth is far from solved. In 1970s the global population was supposed to grow to 8 billion and then to stabilize. But since the 1990s, fertility rates have decreased more slowly than expected and now we know that population will reach 9 billion within 2050. According to the current trends, it will continue to grow to around 11 billion by 2100, and perhaps even more in the next century. We are already experiencing serious environmental problems now, at 7.7 billion people.
2. Population decline is not necessarily a big deal for the economy.
In several countries the fertility rate is lower than the replacement rate (about 2.1 children per women). Without strong immigration, this implies future population decline in those countries. This is seen as a problem by many politicians. The reason is that population decline implies ageing, which means more unproductive people who, it is argued, must be maintained by younger productive people. But a similar problem exists even when population is growing: lots of children who, exactly like old people, are non-productive and need to be maintained. “But children grow up” is the common argument, “and in 10-15-20 years they usually become productive”. Using the same logic, in 10-15-20 years, old people usually die, and do not need to be maintained any more. However, the dominant economic thinking is that population decline is bad for the economy, growth is good. The reality suggests something different. By some reckonings the poorest countries in the world are Congo, Mozambique, Uganda, Tajikistan, and Yemen. All of them have a rapidly growing population and high fertility rates (respectively 6.0, 5.2, 5.5, 3.3 and 3.9). On the other hand, Japan’s population has been declining for the past 10 years and it has a fertility rate of 1.4. Yet Japan is one of the richest countries in the world, with a pretty strong economy. So, why be so scared by an eventual population decline?
3. Non-coercive policies do exist, were implemented and worked.
When mentioning demographic policies, the reaction is always the same: China. Everybody links demographic policies with the one-child policy in China. Few people seem to know about other, non-coercive demographic policies that have been implemented in dozens of countries, including China itself. In the ’70s, China implemented a demographic policy (“Later, Longer, Fewer”), which was much softer than the one-child policy and, despite this, was able to reduce the fertility rate from 5.9 to 2.8 in less than 10 years (see fig. 2).
It is important to note that cases of coercive enforcement occurred even during that phase , but this does not mean that demographic policies themselves are coercive; rather it confirms once again that China was not respectful of freedom and human rights. In most other cases demographic policies were on a voluntary basis: Iran, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Bangladesh, Mexico, South Korea… all these countries succeeded in reducing their fertility rates without coercion. At least one country was even more successful than China: Iran. There is no reason to automatically equate demographic policy with coercion.
4. More than 50 million people died of starvation in China in the twentieth century.
In the 1950s and 1960s, China was one the poorest countries in the world, where millions of people died of starvation. Exact numbers are not known, but according to some estimates up to 50-60 million (45 million between only 1958 and 1962). China still has many problems, but that big, dramatic problem is solved: nobody dies of starvation and the economy is strong. This economic development has been possible, in part, due to the demographic policies implemented from the 1970s (well before the one-child policy). There is no doubt that demographic policies in China could have been softer and non-coercive. But there is also no doubt that, in synergy with other actions, they worked! They worked so well that the one-child policy is no longer needed: Chinese people are allowed to have two children, if they want. Nigeria had a fertility rate similar to China in the 1960s, it has done little to limit population growth, and now it is still poor, with recurrent epidemics and famines. There have been positive outcomes from Chinese policies. The alternative of not doing anything could have been much worse.
5. Gender imbalance in China was common even before the one-child policy.
In rural areas of China, gender imbalance is a well-known problem. It is commonly viewed as a result of the one-child policy: families preferred to have a boy and, as they were allowed to have only one child, women aborted when they were pregnant with a girl. Consequently, males became more numerous than females. Often ignored is that such an imbalance exists in rural areas of other countries as well, where this policy was not applied: e.g. in India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and some Southeast European countries . Currently, an excess of 37 million males is estimated in India . Moreover, gender imbalance existed in China before the one-child policy. Proximate causes are many. One is selective abortion, which became frequent (not only in China) with the increased access to prenatal sex discernment procedures. Others are female malnutrition in poor families (males are fed first, females only after, if there is something left), and differences in vaccination (in India females are less vaccinated than males ). Dramatic practices such as infanticide, child abandonment/sale were also very common in China during massive famines, and victims were mainly females. The ultimate cause is only one: the anti-female cultural bias spread among rural populations in those countries. Therefore, we should not blame the one-child policy for gender imbalance in China: it existed even without that policy. The only difference was the proximate cause: not selective abortion, but excess female mortality in childhood. Which is even worse.
6. Demographic policies are not pointless.
There is a clear correlation between fertility rates and several factors, among which economic growth. Based on this, many people argue that family planning programs are pointless: the economic growth will automatically lead to a decline in fertility. Why couldn’t it be the other way around? There is no logical reason why a causality relationship should hold in one direction and not in the other; one could also argue that a fertility decline will lead to economic growth. More likely, both things act in synergy, reinforcing each other. Empirical cases show that demographic policies are far from being pointless and can dramatically affect fertility rates and population size in a country. For example, Pakistan and Bangladesh were two similar countries with the same population size in early 1980s. Now, thanks to voluntary family planning programs, population in Bangladesh is much smaller than in Pakistan (less than half), even if the countries have a similar GDP per capita. And in Bangladesh the GDP per capita is growing much faster. The correlation between economic growth and fertility decline is not a sufficient reason to consider demographic policies pointless.
7. Population growth is the main driver of deforestation.
Populations need to be fed, producing food requires agriculture, agriculture requires soil. Soil is limited on our planet, productive soil even more so. Clear-cutting forests is the most common way to find new productive soil that can be cultivated. Agricultural expansion is estimated to be the proximate driver for around 80% of deforestation worldwide. Not only commercial agriculture, which prevails in South America, but also subsistence agriculture, which prevails in Africa and tropical Asia , and is directly linked to population growth. In tropical areas, agricultural expansion causes destruction of rainforests, a sensitive ecosystem especially rich in biodiversity. Besides biodiversity losses, deforestation is associated with worsening of climate change (e.g. release of sequestered carbon), desert expansion in sub-tropical areas, and losses of ecosystem services such as soil protection, water filtration and groundwater recharge.
8. 7 billion angels would destroy the planet.
“Unequal distribution of resources, waste and over-consumption are the real causes of unsustainability, not overpopulation.” This is a very common statement once you mention overpopulation. Let’s look more closely at the argument. Imagine a perfect world, with no waste, equally distributed resources, and all the people having exactly the same impact. And let’s imagine that, thanks to amazing advances in technology and to an environmental-friendly lifestyle, such an impact is very low: only 2 global ha per capita (lower than the current per capita ecological footprint in Namibia). Under this peace-and-love scenario, would we live sustainably? To calculate the global impact you have just to multiply the per capita footprint by the total population. You find that the answer is a clear no. With the current population of 7.6 billion humans, the global impact would still be above the biocapacity of the planet. So even if we were all angels, 7.6 billion of us would be too many. Now we risk being 8, 9, 10, 11 billions, and more – unless we act wisely. In fact, only addressing both population and overconsumption can lead to sustainability.
9. Women have more children than they want.
The population is growing especially in developing countries. Therefore, admitting that population growth is a problem also implies recognition that poor people have responsibilities. This is embarrassing: it sounds unfair, unethical, politically incorrect. This is one of the reasons why many people don’t want to admit the problem. Let’s give all the blame to rich people and let’s protect the right of women – all the women around the world – to have as many children as they want! But, many women do not have the number of children that they want. Here is the real coercion (to a large extent related to males). Around 40% of pregnancies are unplanned/undesired globally. There is a huge unmet contraception demand around the world, especially in developing countries . Each year “about 85 million unintended pregnancies result in 32 million unplanned births worldwide; the large majority of these (28 million) in the developing world” . A high number of children is often not a choice of women, but an imposition of their husbands. Or, the result of poor access to contraception and any form of family planning. Or, the result of a lack of education, or a religious culture, or a combination of factors. Family planning would really be helpful for the weakest groups in the less developed countries. Denying this help, whether in the name of an ethical principle or through political correctness, is just wrong.
10. The right of children to have a rich and happy life seldom enters the ethical debate.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. And it is also the country with the highest fertility rate: 7.2 children per woman, who enter an unsafe world, with uncertain access to education, health care and other facilities that should be a right for every child in the world. Currently, 84.5 children under 5 years per 1,000 die in Niger, according to the World Bank . In poor and unsafe countries, parents are not able to ensure good conditions for their children, but still they have many children. Is that fair? Does a couple have the right to have a child, just because they want? Do parents have the responsibility of ensuring a good life for their children? All these ethical questions should be discussed in any debate on population. Instead, the ethical debate is currently polarized around two main concerns: 1. (typical religious/right-wing concern) limiting contraception and avoiding abortion; 2. (typical left-wing concern) women’s rights: women must have the complete power to decide how many children they have. And the rights of children to have rich and happy lives? This crucial point is left out in the cold.
To solve a problem, whatever it is, the first steps are to be aware of it and admit it. The problem of population growth has been denied, surrounded by misconceptions, and transformed into a taboo. It’s time to break this taboo.
 Justin Kruger and David Dunning. Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6):1121, 1999.
 Martin King Whyte,Wang Feng, and Yong Cai. Challenging myths about china’s one-child policy. The China Journal, (74):144–159, 2015.
 WHO. Preventing gender-biased sex selection. An interagency statement OHCHR, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WHO. World Health Organization, 2011.
 UNICEF. http://www.unicef.in/story/1129/declining-sex-ratios-a-matter-of-concern. 2018.
 Emily Osters. Proximate sources of population sex imbalance in India. Demography, 46(2):325–339, 2009.
 FAO. The future of food and agriculture trends and challenges. Report, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2017.
 Gilda Sedgh, Lori S Ashoford, and Rubina Hussain. Unmet need for contraception in developing countries: examine women’s reasons for not using a method. Technical report, The Guttmacher Institute, 2016.
 John Bongaarts and Brian C. O’Neill. Global warming policy: Is population left out in the cold? Science, 361(6403):650–652, aug 2018.
Lucia Tamburino is a post-doc at the SLU in Uppsala. She has a background in Mathematics and Natural Sciences and a PhD in forest ecology. She is especially interested in the relationships between population and resources.
Do you want to learn more about the solutions for overpopulation and actions towards sustainability? What actions we need to take on individual, community, national and global level? Check out the Overpopulation Project’s list of solutions!