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Population Control


population, the inhabitants of a given area, but perhaps most importantly, the human inhabitants of the earth (numbering about 7 billion in 2012), who by their increasing numbers and corresponding increasing needs can seriously affect the global ecosystem.

Population Growth

History and Evolution

General population increase in the world was negligible until the Industrial Revolution. From the time of the Roman Empire to the colonization of America, the world population grew from about a quarter billion to a half billion persons. By the early 19th cent., however, it had grown to one billion, and subsequently rose to more than 2 billion by 1930, 3 billion by 1960, 4 billion by 1975, more than 5 billion by 1990, and more than 6 billion by 2000; the United Nations estimates the world population will peak at about 10 billion around 2100. In world terms, the population is growing at about 1.2% annually (compared with 0.1% in ancient times and a rate of 1.75% as recently as the 1990s) in population. Although a 1.2% growth rate may appear small, it annually adds some 77 million persons to the world's population, with nearly all of this growth taking place in less developed nations (as it has since the 1950s).

During the Industrial Revolution, advancements in sanitation, technology, and the means of food distribution made possible a drop in the death rate so significant that between 1650 and 1900 the population of Europe almost quadrupled (from about 100 million to about 400 million) in spite of considerable emigration. As the rate of population growth increased, so did concern that the earth might not be able to sustain future populations. The phenomenal increase in numbers led Thomas Robert Malthus to predict that the population would eventually outstrip the food supply. Karl Marx emphatically rejected this view and argued that the problem was not one of overpopulation but of unequal distribution of goods, a problem that even a declining population would not solve.

Modern Population Growth

In the late 20th cent., a major population difference arose in the comparative growth rates of the developed (0.6%) and developing (2.1%) nations. Africa's annual growth rate is about 3%, compared to 1.7% for Asia, 0.7% in Latin America, and 0.3% in Europe. If current rates hold steady, many developing countries will double their populations in 25 years or less, compared to 50 years or more for industrialized nations. Great Britain, for example, has a present doubling rate of 140 years, while Costa Rica has one of 19 years.

Great Britain has accomplished what is known as demographic transition, i.e., it has moved from a condition of high birthrate and high death rate (before the Industrial Revolution), to one of high birthrate and low death rate (during industrialization), and finally to one of low birthrate and low death rate (as a postindustrial society). Most of the countries in the Third World are in a condition of high birthrate and declining death rate, contributing to what is known as the population explosion.

Population Control

A declining birthrate depends to a large extent on the availability and use of birth control and on high living standards that make unnecessary the production of additional children to provide necessary and inexpensive labor. Family planning is national policy in many industrial countries, such as Japan and most of Europe. As a result, in most cases the birthrate has declined. Many developing countries have followed the lead of India (which has since 1952 conducted an extensive, but not totally successful, birth control program) in trying to promote family planning as national policy. These countries include China, Kenya, Pakistan, Taiwan, Turkey, Egypt, and Chile.

In the United States, aspects of the population question, such as birth control and abortion, are among the most bitterly debated subjects. The United States has opposed at times the use of foreign aid appropriations for family planning overseas; domestic family planning is mainly run by private groups such as Planned Parenthood.

A number of nongovernmental organizations concerned with population growth have also appeared. Zero Population Growth, an educational group founded in 1970, aims to stop population growth, first in the United States and then in other countries. On the international level, besides the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the United Nations Economic and Social Council provides birth control aid to underdeveloped nations.


See D. Glass and D. Eversley, Population in History (1965); W. D. Borrie, The Growth and Control of World Population (1970); N. W. Chamberlain, Beyond Malthus (1970); D. Fraser, The People Problem (1971); P. Hauser, Population and the Urban Future (1982); K. Davis, Resources, Environment and Population (1991).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control
Betsy Hartmann.
South End Press, 1995 (Revised edition)
Morality and Population Policy
Michael D. Bayles.
University of Alabama Press, 1980
Managing Planet Earth: Perspectives on Population, Ecology, and the Law
Miguel A. Santos.
Bergin & Garvey, 1990
Ending the Explosion: Population Policies and Ethics for a Humane Future
William G. Hollingsworth.
Seven Locks Press, 1996
Population Policy: Contemporary Issues
Godfrey Roberts.
Praeger Publishers, 1990
Population, Law, and the Environment
Robert M. Hardaway.
Praeger Publishers, 1994
Population Control and Sustainability: It's the Same Old Song but with a Different Meaning
Abrams, Paula.
Environmental Law, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 1997
Population Policy & Women's Rights: Transforming Reproductive Choice
Ruth Dixon-Mueller.
Praeger, 1993
Feeling Grounded: A Gendered View of Population Control
Spahn, Elizabeth.
Environmental Law, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 1997
Are World Population Trends a Problem?
Ben Wattenberg; Karl Zinsmeister.
American Enterprise Institute, 1985
A Brief History of Population Control and Contraception
Bullough, Vern L.; Bullough, Bonnie.
Free Inquiry, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring 1994
Population and the Environment in China
Qu Geping; Li Jinchang; Jiang Baozhong; Gu Ran; Robert B. Boardman.
Lynne Rienner Publications, 1994
The Humanitarian and Technical Dilemmas of Population Control in China
Xiaokang, Su; Xue, Yuan.
Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 49, No. 2, Winter 1996
Environmental Malthusianism: Integrating Population and Environmental Policy
Hardaway, Robert M.
Environmental Law, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 1997
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