The Continuing Challenge of Demographics

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I used to laugh at the guilty conscience of physicists while I was a biologist at the Pasteur Institute. By creating and offering remedies, I always felt good about my work, whereas physicists were sometimes involved in arms, violence and war. Now however, I realize that the population explosion in the third world would not have developed without our intervention. I ask myself now as many questions as physicists did over the atomic bomb. The population bomb may be more dangerous.” (Michel Serres interviewed by Bruno Latour, Flammarion Editions, Paris, 1995).

Philosopher Michel Serres’ statements reflect the problems of conscience expressed by Jacques Monod, one of the founders of molecular biology, shortly before his death in 1976. At the time, the radically new concept of population explosion was perceived as a serious threat.

In the U.S., the ecologist Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 work, « The Population Bomb” had likened the dramatic rise in the human population to a cancer. “ A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable at first, but eventually he dies – often horribly.

A similar fate awaits a world with a population explosion if only the symptoms are treated. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense. But the disease is so far advanced that only with radical surgery does the patient have a chance of survival.”(Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, Ballantine Books, New York, 1971)

This climate of uncertainty and even fear led dozens of countries to introduce family planning programs. International public opinion viewed Asia’s coercive birth control policies with relative complacency. An iron lady before her time, India’s Indira Gandhi tried – but failed – to control her country’s fertility rates – as well as its democratic channels – in the mid-1970s.

By being able to silence the media and human rights critics with little concern for the impact on the next elections, Chinese leaders were this time successful in imposing their single child policy.

In the 1980s, and to a greater degree in the 1990s, the threat of a population bomb disappeared, along with the warnings of the Rome Club calling for the fight for prosperity in a context of globalization. Increasingly, population control was seen as a women’s’ rights issue rather than a pre-condition for economic prosperity, and eventually lost its status as a priority on the international development agenda.

A Matter of Style

It is becoming increasingly awkward for the inhabitants of rich countries, who consume the majority of the Earth’s resources, to speak about the « demographical cancer » of poor nations. It has become evidently clear that it is not the fertile, disinherited masses of developing countries that pose a threat to the human adventure, but the non-sustainable lifestyles of the planet’s richest, a lifestyle which a growing number of people aspire to, and achieve.

China, a country that has successfully brought population growth under control in order to push its economy forward, sends a clear signal to the world – that the development model it has adopted is anything but sustainable. Even if the per-person impact of China is far less than that of the U.S. and even that of the European Union, its population is so large that the country already exports enormous environmental problems to the rest of the world.

In a world of the rich that includes certain segments of the Chinese population, new human and social problems have arisen. An increasing number of people are retiring, and unhealthy lifestyles are the source of an obesity epidemic that carries a high price tag in terms of living standards…and medical expenses.

Meanwhile, the world’s « forgotten » population growth continues, and will do so on a massive scale over the next 50 years. However there are important reasons, not least of which humanitarian, to remind the world of what’s happening. Every year, over 500 000 women die from childbirth-related causes, including one in every 16 women in Africa (compared to 1 in every 4000 in industrial countries). Babies also suffer from their mothers’ exhaustion following multiple pregnancies.

While these populations do not pose a threat to the global equilibrium, they face problems such as clean water shortages, the limits of agriculture (especially in arid regions) and governments weakened by spending on new schools, health, and employment for example.


For Amartya Sen, human freedom – as the means and end of development – lies at the heart of his vision of the world (Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, 1999). Around the world, increasing gender equality is bringing down birth rates. But what freedoms will help humanity – men and women united in a common goal – to use its ability to think and act to invent a radically new development model, capable of making room for the 2.5 billion new individuals that will join us by 2050?

March – April – May 2007, p. 19

Reprinted with the kind permission of the magazine

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