Shortly after the conclusion of the World Population Conference held by the U.N. in Mexico City last year, the editor of a leading American magazine called our office.
"What's going on?" he asked. "Until recently all I ever heard about was 'the population bomb,' 'the population crisis,' and 'the population explosion.' But now I hear some experts saying there's no bomb, no explosion, no crisis. Something has happened."
Indeed, something important has happened in the field of population. There is an argument going on. And even people who still believe in the bomb-explosion-crisis scenario feel the ground shifting beneath their feet.
In a major article in Foreign Affairs in Summer of 1984, Robert McNamara, a firm believer in the crisis view, wrote, "Many . . . believe that the world in general and most countries in particular no longer face serious population problems." He added, "Editorial writers and commentators in the mass media have been quick . . . to take up this theme, announcing the end of the population explosion or declaring rapid population growth to be 'another non-crisis.'" McNamara's article, of course, argues that "such a view is totally in error."
The dispute is an important one--more than a clash among experts, a confrontation between editorialists, or an academic argument.
Population levels spring from the most intimate human behavior--decisions about family size, sexual practice, household economics, and so forth. Population affects, or is alleged to affect, many other important and sensitive issues that are the daily stuff of headlines: resource availability, international migration, energy consumption, pollution, national income, and military security There is a religious component to the argument. And lurking in the background, but clearly present in some aspects of the population control debate, are racial fears. The stakes of the dispute are high.
What, then, has changed in the Great People Debate?
Two things. New facts. And new theorists, promulgating theories both new and old with vigor and originality.
The most important new aspect of the old debate has been the dramatic change in the demographic situation. As recently as 1970, women in the less-developed world (as defined by the U.N.) were bearing a lifetime average of 6.1 children. Today it is 4.1 children. When you consider that eventually 2.1 children would produce stable populations in the Less-Developed Countries . . .