The theoretical and political framing of the population factor in development

The silence about population growth in recent decades has hindered the ability of those concerned with ecological change, resource scarcity, health and educational systems, national security, and other global challenges to look with maximum objectivity at the problems they confront. Two central questions about population—(i) is population growth a problem? and (2) what causes fertility decline?—are often intertwined; if people think the second question implies possible coercion, or fear of upsetting cultures, they can be reluctant to talk about the first. The classic and economic theories explaining the demographic transition assume that couples want many children and they make decisions to have a smaller family when some socio-economic change occurs. However, there are numerous anomalies to this explanation. This paper suggests that the societal changes are neither necessary nor sufficient for family size to fall. Many barriers of non-evidence-based restrictive medical rules, cost, misinformation and social traditions exist between women and the fertility regulation methods and correct information they need to manage their family size. When these barriers are reduced, birth rates tend to decline. Many of the barriers reflect a patriarchal desire to control women, which can be largely explained by evolutionary biology. The theoretical explanations of fertility should (i) attach more weight to the many barriers to voluntary fertility regulation, (ii) recognize that a latent desire to control fertility may be far more prevalent among women than previously understood, and (iii) appreciate that women implicitly and rationally make benefit–cost analyses based on the information they have, wanting modern family planning only after they understand it is a safe option. Once it is understood that fertility can be lowered by purely voluntary means, comfort with talking about the population factor in development will rise.

Published in: Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B October 27, 2009 364:3101-3113;