This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Monday, August 29, 2016

The Economist Gets it Wrong on the Birth Rate

I have subscribed to The Economist for a long time and I generally feel that I am getting an intelligent and relatively unbiased view of what's happening in the world. However, this week's Economist has a couple of articles, and a leader article introducing them, about the fact that many couples in the world are having fewer children than they want. In the extreme case of people who are unable biologically to have a child, but would like to have a child, I don't know anyone who would argue against the idea that it would be great if an inexpensive solution could be found for that issue. However, when the Economist notes in its leader that this would avoid the situation where men attack their wives because the wife is unable to conceive a child, I say hold it! First, the problem may be the man, not the woman, and secondly, any man who would do that shouldn't be become a father.

For some reason or another, the Economist employed a firm to survey couples in 19 countries to show that, on average, couples are having fewer children than they "want." OK, we know that from Demographic and Health Surveys in developing countries, and from other surveys in richer countries. Nothing new there. What is troubling is the interpretation of these data by the Economist to mean that we should be encouraging couples to have more children. NO! We need to encourage couples to want fewer children. No matter what the writer(s) at the Economist may think, the world's population cannot just keep growing forever. We are running out of resources and the attitude that I'll just take mine now, thank you, is one of the reasons this is happening. The Economist puts down "Malthusians" who are worried about population growth, and sneers at Paul Ehrlich because the birth rate has dropped and food production has increased since he published his dire views on population growth in the Population Bomb back in the 1960s. Well, guess what? That book and the discussion he started helped to push along efforts already underway at the time to reduce the birth rate and grow more food (whether or not you like genetic modification, that was one of the solutions). But, the birth rate is still declining less quickly than the death rate and so we are on track to add 2-3 billion more people and we really don't know how we are going to feed them and find them jobs. 

This was a completely irresponsible Op-Ed published as news by the Economist and I am very disappointed. I noticed in the comments published on the Economist website that some people were ready to unsubscribe and I saw too that Sir David Attenborough, the force behind Population Matters in the U.K., weighed in with a short but to the point comment: “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people and harder — and ultimately impossible — to solve with ever more people.”

Finally, the Economist claims that family planning programs need to pay more attention to infertility issues, not just providing birth control. In fact, every family planning program of which I am aware does both. However, most can only provide medication to deal with STDs that prevent a woman from conceiving. Almost everything else is too expensive. A dose of reality on these issues is what we need, not uninformed and incorrect statements presented as facts.

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