The magnitude of the population problem is frequently exaggerated. Anxious commentators have been terrifying others about imagined disasters for a very long time. That roaring tradition goes back at least 200 years, when Thomas Robert Malthus declared that the world was heavily overpopulated already and that the growth of food supply was losing the race with the growth of population. However, as in Malthus's time, food production now continues to grow significantly faster than world population, with the fastest expansion of food output per head occurring in relatively poor countries, such as China and India. What is particularly remarkable is that the rapid expansion of world food output has continued despite the reduced economic incentive to produce food, as a result of a sharp fall in food prices relative to other prices. Indeed, although international prices of wheat, rice and other staple foods, in constant US dollars, have fallen by more than 60 percent between 1950-52 and 1995-97, more and more of these crops are being produced, staying well ahead of population growth.
But there is a danger of complacency here. The fact that population growth is much slower than the growth of world output (of food as well as of industrial and other commodities) often generates undue placidity, reinforced by the further recognition (correct, as it happens) that fertility rates and population growth are coming down fast for the world as a whole and also for most regions of the world. This reassuring overall picture hides the fact that population growth rates are falling very fast in some regions and very slowly-sometimes not at all-in others.
It is, in fact, extremely important to avoid complacency in dealing with the population problem and to understand that it raises serious issues that are not particularly well captured by the old Malthusian perspective. One such issue is the environment-global as well as local. It is true that environmental adversities such as global warming are influenced by total consumption rather than the total size of the population (poor people consume much less and pollute far less). But one hopes that in the future the poorer nations of today will be rich as well, and the compound effect of a larger population and increased consumption could be devastating for the global environment. There is also the important challenge of overcrowding in a limited habitat. Children, too, have to be raised, not just food crops.
But perhaps the most immediate adversity caused by a high rate of population growth lies in the loss of freedom that women suffer when they are shackled by persistent bearing and rearing of children. Global warming is a distant effect compared with what population explosion does to the lives and well-being of mothers. Indeed, the most important-and perhaps the most neglected-aspect of the population debate is the adverse impact of high fertility imposed on women in societies where their voices don't count for much. Given the connection between overfrequent childbirth and the predicament of women, there are reasons to expect that an increase of gender equity, particularly in the decisional power of young women, would tend to lower fertility rates. Since women's interests are very badly served by high fertility rates imposed on them, they can be expected to correct this adversity if they have more power.
Why, then, do women have little decisional power in some societies, and how can that be remedied? There are various distinct influences to be considered here. (I discuss this question more fully in my book Development as Freedom.) First, social and economic handicaps (such as female illiteracy, lack of female employment opportunity and economic independence) contribute greatly to muffling women's voices in society and within the family. Second, the absence of knowledge or facilities of family planning can also be an important source of helplessness. Third, there are cultural, even religious, factors that place young women in a subservient position, making them accept the burden of constantly bearing and rearing children (as desired by the husband or the parents-in-law). …