THE best thing about George Moffett's book "Critical Masses: The
Global Population Challenge," is that he resists the temptation to
pretend that population growth is a simple matter. He's bucking a
long policy trend, which has lurched from one simplistic theory to
Shortly after World War II, when death rates started plummeting
in what were then called the "underdeveloped countries," the
wealthy nations began to be concerned in an organized way about
population growth. The concern was based partly on abstract
compassion for the burgeoning hordes, partly on ecological worries,
partly on security considerations. Those hordes live in places that
supply us with metals, oil, timber - places where political
stability is important to us.
Whatever the causes for the concern, a simple solution emerged.
The folks having all those babies must not know any better. Give
So international family-planning programs were born. To some
extent, they worked. The poorest women in the most isolated places
began to hear the astounding ideas that they might choose the time
and number of their pregnancies.
The women chose, however, to have many pregnancies. They needed
children to work in the household, to tend the animals, to send to
the city to earn money, to provide old-age support. Given the mean
economics of their lives, children were one of the few forms of
wealth available to them.
Eventually the international community caught on and came up
with a new theory. These people need development. Build dams and
roads and electric plants and factories. That lasted a few decades.
Global population continued to soar upward, eating up, almost
literally, whatever development did occur.
Another theory emerged: Focus on women. Give them education and
jobs and power. Involve them as equal and dignified partners in the
process of development. This women's agenda was the breakthrough of
the recently concluded World Conference on Population and
Development in Cairo. Like the previous breakthroughs - the
commitments to family planning and development - it is an essential
part of the answer. But not all of the answer. Even family
planning, development, and women's empowerment together do not make
up the full or final solution to the population problem.
Moffett, a reporter for this newspaper, has covered the
population issue for years, and he knows it is a messy,
fascinating, profoundly human topic. He avoids oversimplicities -
but he also manages not to get swamped in complexities.
"Critical Masses" is a remarkably balanced book, balanced not
only in keeping an equilibrium among the hot-button issues
(abortion, Malthusianism, the pope), but balanced between
population as a global issue versus a personal one. Moffett goes
back and forth from the particular to the general, from policy to
the lives of real people. …