The fizzling of The Population Bomb: China ends its one-child policy

population bombLast night, I attended a presentation looking at trends in world population since biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, a best-selling work of non-fiction that scared everyone, and spurred the Zero Population Growth [ZPG] movement. This morning, I learned that China is ending its decades-old, one-child policy. What a juxtaposition!

So, what happened? Why didn’t the population bomb detonate? And how does China’s policy reversal play into this story?

I learned most of what I now know about the complicated aftermath of The Population Bomb from Sara Weiser, a reporter for The Retro Report, an innovative, documentary news organization. Retro Report, founded in 2013, looks back at some of the big news stories of recent years to see what has happened since, how things may have changed, or even to correct the record:

From The Retro Report website:

How often does a great story dominate the headlines, only to be dropped from the news cycle? How often do journalists tell us of a looming danger or important discovery – only to move quickly to the next new thing? What really happened? How did these events change us? And what are the lingering consequences that may affect our society to this day?

…Complicating matters, the first draft of history can be wrong. When news organizations fail to invest the time and money required to correct the record or provide context around what really happened, myth can replace truth. The results are policy decisions and cultural trends built on error, misunderstanding or flat-out lies.

Retro Report is there to pick up the story after everyone has moved on, connecting the dots from yesterday to today, correcting the record and providing a permanent living library where viewers can gain new insight into the events that shaped their lives.

Weiser applied these questions and principles to Ehrlich’s predictions. Her reporting focused on India—whose exploding population inspired Ehrlich’s research and dire predictions. Ehrlich predicted that, if birth rates continued at their 1968 rate, by 2000 there would be so many people on Earth that there might not be enough food to sustain life.

The result of Weiser’s exploration of post-Population Bomb India is a documentary report, which you can view here. [Highly recommended.]

In her report, Weiser includes archival clips from 1960s news reports sharing Erhlich’s dire warnings, interviews with Ehrlich and some of his followers—then and now—an examination of India’s governmental policies [for better and for worse] that have impacted the country’s birth rate, and commentary on other factors that have played a role in defusing the predicted population bomb.

What’s the answer? It’s complicated. Weiser’s report shows that, while India has instituted policies that have been effective in promoting sex education, birth control and voluntary sterilization, the results differ in rich and poor regions of the country. There’s also measurable inequality between regions regarding the availability of education and healthcare services for women and children. One of the lessons of the report is that, as healthcare services improve, families—who often rely on children as revenue-producers in agricultural areas—feel more confident that their children will survive, so they don’t feel compelled to have so many.

And then, of course, there is the Green Revolution factor. As the report reminds us, you don’t need as many hands on the farm when you have modern machinery and better-yielding crops. Clearly, Ehrlich did not foresee the development of the genetically modified seeds that have revolutionized farming.

Finally, there’s the bottom line: It has been demonstrated many times that, as families—particularly women—become more educated and more economically secure, birth rates decline. And, in fact, as the documentary notes, we now have a situation in which economically developed countries—Japan is a prime example—are worrying that their birth rates are too low.

Which brings us to China.

China’s decision to end the one-child-family rule, instituted in 1979, may offer the ultimate repudiation of Ehrlich’s prognostications. China remains cautious about overpopulation–it’s still limiting families, but now the limit is two children, not just one. But the lifting of the one-child restriction reflects China’s worry that its population has begun to age out of the work force, with not enough younger replacements. Interestingly, although the one-child limit has been seen as onerous and inhumane by many, the rising economic status of many Chinese families has already spurred a trend toward voluntarily smaller families.

So, was Ehrlich wrong? Yes and no. He didn’t—and couldn’t– foresee some of the factors that drove lower birth rates. But he was prescient about the impact of having too many people on the planet. Today, while birth rates have diminished in many places, the same factors that spurred the slowdown—primarily the improving economic status of families—have created a new monster: We may not be growing in numbers as quickly as Ehrlich predicted, but each of us has access to and is using more of Earth’s finite resources. Now what?