Reporting: Synthesis

Exercise 32

Read the articles below and, in a paragraph of not more than 250 words, discuss the future with regard to population.


Among two-thirds of humanity, population is rising faster than food production, and living standards and vast numbers of people daily experience the deprivations and suffering that inevitably result when population levels approach too close to carrying capacity.

Recognizing that continued population growth poses a grave threat to world peace, the developed countries are paying increasing attention to the possibility of slowing down the rate of growth of the populations of developing nations. The main approach to the problem has been to reduce fertility through the introduction of contraceptive devices and techniques. Getting people to use these devices and techniques has thus far proven extremely difficult. Adoption of fertility control has been left to the discretion of domestic units - so-called family planning programs. Yet it is generally recognized that family planning programs by themselves are an ineffectual means of population control. As Kingsley Davis has put it:

    Current programs will not enable a government to control population size. In countries where couples have numerous offspring that they do not want, such programs may possibly accelerate a birth-rate decline that would occur anyway, but the conditions that cause births to be wanted or unwanted are beyond the control of family planning, hence beyond the control of any nation which relies on family planning alone as its population policy (1967, p. 734).

For example, it has been found in India that millions of men are willing to be sterilized - but only after their wives have given birth to five or six children. It has been said quite bluntly: "In no developing country has a government undertaken, or been allowed to undertake, a really effective fertility-control policy" (Spengler, 1969, p. 1235).

In the absence of more vigorous and effective government-directed policies, it is reasonable to conclude that many developing nations are not wholly committed to reducing their rate of growth. Although it cannot be denied that high rates of population growth impede development, there is another dimension to this issue seldom presented by those seeking to extend the benefits of contraception to the developing nations. Population expansion must be seen in the perspective of the worldwide evolutionary relationship between population size and political power. It is only in the last few hundred years that size of population has ceased to be a reliable index of political-military strength. Given the uncertainties of military strategy in an age of nuclear weapons, there is no evidence to indicate that the correlation between population size and the ability to withstand military aggression has been decisively changed. For example, a Nigeria with 60 million people represents a totally different political-military entity from a Nigeria of 200 million people, as may very well occur by A.D. 2050. Many leaders of developing countries are quite conscious of this difference and do not share the enthusiasm for population control now being exhibited by government agencies and private foundations. In many small or middle-sized developing nations the campaign to reduce population growth is viewed as an attempt on the part of the former colonial powers to ensure the continued political-military subjugation of the countries upon whom they depend for cheap raw materials.

The Population Explosion

Many factors must be considered in explaining the rapid growth of population in the developing countries. Although each country must be studied as a separate case, some popular notions about which factors are generally most important need to be qualified. For example, it is often said that the explosive rate of increase derives from the introduction of modern medical techniques. Better health care, it is said, lowers infant mortality and promotes longevity. People continue to have children at the former rate, and the widened gap between birth rate and death rate produces the explosion. This explanation fails to take into account the fact that the population explosion began in most countries before the introduction of improved medical care. The populations of India, Indonesia, Egypt, and Mexico, for example, began to zoom during the nineteenth century, and the increment may even have been associated with an average shortened life-span and deteriorating health conditions. The view that modern medicine caused the population explosion also fails to take into account the proven ability of pre-industrial human populations to stay far below carrying capacity for millions of years. It cannot be assumed that peasant families were the helpless victims of a sudden improvement in the survivability of their children. Rather, it is much more probable that the birth rate was adjusted to immediate practical and mundane conditions. An extremely important consideration, for example, concerns the probability that a given rate of raising children to adulthood will provide enough survivors to take care of aged parents who can no longer work in the fields. The decline in the death rate associated with improved medical care has not been sufficient in many countries to ensure parents that they will have a living heir when they need support in old age (Polgar, 1972, p 211). There is considerable evidence that when the peasant class death rate comes down far enough and parents have good odds that most of their children will survive to adulthood, then they have fewer children. Thus, contrary to popular opinion, improving the diet and health of infants and children is not necessarily a self-defeating activity that results in greater suffering for all (Brown & Wray, 1974).

There is also considerable evidence to indicate that peasant families in many underdeveloped countries increase the number of children per domestic unit as part of an attempt to improve their economic position or to prevent its deterioration. The fact that this behaviour leads in the aggregate to a declining per capita income puzzles many outsiders. It seems irrational for poor people to have so many children. Yet from the point of view of each domestic unit, the only hope of improving one's standard of living or even of holding on to what one has, meagre as it may be, often depends on increasing the size of the domestic work force. Responses of this sort are especially common among peasants who practice irrigation agriculture where labour can be intensified many times over per hectare without a loss in productivity per worker, provided there is enough water. The original impetus for intensification may be an increase in taxes or rents or the introduction of cash crops. If the peasants intensify their efforts to meet the new demands and opportunities, they soon find themselves being taxed even more and are obliged to respond by further intensification. Population growth in such a situation is not a suicidal, irrational "involution" but rather a rational response to the demand for labour.

Seeking an explanation for the disastrous tenfold increase in the population of Java between 1820 and 1920, Benjamin White (1973) has suggested that peasant families were responding to colonially imposed needs and opportunities for greater labour input into agriculture per household. The Dutch established sugar plantations, expanded the irrigation networks, and enlarged the sphere of commercial agriculture. At the same time they imposed various forms of rents, taxes, and corvée. To meet these taxes and labour obligations the peasant family faced the threat of having to take a cut in its standard of living. The peasants sought to avoid such a cut by increasing the number of children put to work in an expanded range of economic activities. By putting more children to work the peasant family sought to preserve its standard of living (much as middle-class families in the United States as a result of inflation are now finding it necessary for both husband and wife to work in order not to suffer a deterioration in their standard of living). The Javanese peasants raised as many children as they could, as long as the cost of raising each child was more than compensated for by the value of the food and handicrafts that each child produced. In a study of the labour contribution of Javanese children to the domestic economy White (1973) has provisionally shown that the cost of rearing children is still a major determinant of family size in neo-colonial Javanese villages. The more children a family has, the more children it can free from household chores and put to work weaving mats or working for wages in the fields.

This approach helps to explain why middle-class families in Europe, Japan, and the United States are more likely to want fewer children than do peasant families in underdeveloped parts of the world. The more children a modern middle-class couple have, the closer to bankruptcy they must live. In the developed countries children are prohibited from entering the labour force until they are fourteen or sixteen; their lifetime economic contribution to their parents consists largely of occasional household

Colonialism has probably also contributed to the present population explosion by suppressing the practice of overt forms of abortion and infanticide. This has been achieved both by more effective police-military supervision on the village level and by the spread of religious doctrines opposed to infanticide. Regardless of the ethical and moral pros and cons of abortion and infanticide, it should be kept in mind that it was to the benefit of every nineteenth-century colonial power that the population of its colonies increase as rapidly as possible. With the suppression of the more overt forms of abortion and infanticide it is conceivable that colonial peasant populations for the first time in history actually found themselves without effective means for adjusting numbers of children to the demand for labour, old age insurance, and other domestic requirements. This possibility makes it imperative that cheap and reliable contraceptive techniques and medical abortions be made available as quickly as possible to all the countries of the underdeveloped world that have instituted programs of population control.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

It is increasingly evident that the high standard of living enjoyed by Japan and the Euro-American industrialized nations is causally related to the continuing poverty of the underdeveloped nations. In other words, one of the reasons why the advanced industrialized powers are so rich is that they have been systematically looting the natural resources and exploiting the labour of the underdeveloped peoples. This looting and exploitation has been made possible in no small measure by political-military conquest and control. The underdeveloped nations can be expected to intensify their struggle for a larger share of the world's industrial wealth by confiscating foreign investments and by actions aimed at forcing up the price of raw materials and tropical products. Ultimately they may resort to war to force a redistribution of wealth. The reliance of the developed nations upon military strength to maintain international inequality is hazardous for all of us. The threat of war will not be removed until (1) international inequalities in standards of living are abolished; (2) population size is brought under control everywhere through medical abortions or contraception; and (3) a system of mutual security based upon internationally supervised disarmament is created. Given the catastrophic potential of nuclear weaponry, additional delays in achieving these fundamental changes in world culture may very well result in the extinction of our species. Ignorance is the sole ground for being optimistic about our chances. As George Gaylord Simpson has warned, the ability of any species to survive is exceptional:

The vast majority of all multitudes of minor sorts of organisms that have appeared in the history of life have either changed to forms distinctly different or have disappeared absolutely, without descendants. (1949, p. 196)


Brown, R. E. & Wray, J. D. (1974). The starving roots of population growth. Natural History, 83, 46-63.

Davis, K. (1967). Population policy: Will current programs succeed? Science, 158, 739-779.

Polgar, S. (1972). Population history and population policies from an anthropological perspective. Current Anthropology, 13, 203-215., p 211)

Simpson, G. G. (1949). The meaning of evolution: A study of the history of life and of its significance for man. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Spengler, J. (1969). Population problem: In search of a solution. Science, 166, 1234-1238.

White, B. (1973). Demand for labour and population growth in colonial Java. Human Ecology, 1, 217-236.

(From: Marvin Harris: Culture, people and nature, 1975, Thomas Cromwell, New York, pp. 454-9)

The development of human population and stages of cultural development

At the start of the Ice Age, some three million years ago, human life probably first appeared on earth. The oldest remains have been found in sediments from the Rift Valleys of East Africa, notably in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia. Since that time the human population has spread over virtually the entire land surface of the planet (figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1 The spread of human life in the Pleistocene

Estimates of population levels in the early stages of human development (figure 1.2) are difficult to make with any degree of certainty. Before the agricultural 'revolution' some 10, 000 years ago, human groups lived by hunting and gathering in parts of the world where this was possible. At that time the world population may have been of the order of five million people and large areas would only recently have witnessed human migration. The Americas and Australia, for example, were virtually uninhabited until about 30,000 years ago (or possibly even later).

Figure 1.2 The growth of human numbers for the past half-million years

The agricultural revolution probably enabled an expansion of the total human population to about 200 million by the time of Christ, and to 500 million by AD 1650. It is since that time, helped by the medical and industrial revolutions and developments in agriculture and colonization of new lands, that human population has exploded, reaching about 1,000 million by AD 1850, 2 000 million by AD 1930 and 4,000 million by AD 1975. The figure should reach 5 billion by 1987. Victory over malaria, smallpox, cholera and other diseases has been responsible for marked decreases in death-rates throughout the non-industrial world, but death-rate control has not in general been matched by birth control. Thus the annual population growth rate at the present time in South Asia is 2.64 per cent, Africa 2.66 per cent and Latin America (where population increased six fold between 1850 and 1950), 2.73 per cent.

Clearly, this growth of the human population of the earth is in itself a highly important cause of the transformation of nature. Of no lesser importance, however, has been the growth and development of culture and technology. Sears (1957, p. 51) has put the power of humankind into the context of other species:

Man's unique power to manipulate things and accumulate experience presently enabled him to break through the barriers of temperature, aridity, space, seas and mountains that have always restricted other species to specific habitats within a limited range. With the cultural devices of fire, clothing, shelter, and tools he was able to do what no other organism could do without changing its original character. Cultural change was, for the first time, substituted for biological evolution as a means of adapting an organism to new habitats in a widening range that eventually came to include the whole earth.

We now turn to a consideration of the major cultural and technical developments that have taken place during the past 2-3 million years. Three main phases will form the basis of this analysis: the phase of hunting and gathering; the phase of plant cultivation, animal keeping and metal working; and the phase of modern urban and industrial society.


Sears, A. (1957). Man, the newcomer: A living landscape and a new tenant. In L. H. Russwurm & E. Sommerville (eds.), Man's natural environment, a system approach (pp. 43-55). North Scituate: Duxbury.

(From: Andrew Goudie, The human impact on the natural environment. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp. 7-9.)


The essential fact about the population problem is well known. It is simply that world population is increasing at a rate with which food and other production may not be able to keep pace and will certainly not be able to overtake sufficiently to raise the standard of living in the underdeveloped countries. World population is thought to have increased by 1,000 million since 1800 - that is, by more than 60 per cent to raise the estimated total in 1956 to about 2,700 million, and the present rate of increase, which far exceeds the estimates of 25 years ago, is such as to conjure up visions of staggering numbers in the foreseeable future.

The total, now thought to be approaching 3,000 million, is not, of course, equally distributed in proportion to the land areas. Europe, including the U.S.S.R., is about averagely populated, Africa, North and South America and Oceania are under-populated and Asia is greatly over-populated. The rate of increase is also very uneven. In Singapore a very high and almost static birth-rate, coupled with a rapid decline in the death-rate, is giving rise to serious alarm. Many other regions, such as Malaya, Ceylon and Mexico, are in the same position to a greater or lesser extent. In Japan a decline in the death-rate has been offset by a dramatic drop of nearly 50 per cent in the birth-rate brought about mainly by quasi-legalized abortion. In the United States a low and slightly declining death-rate has combined with a substantial and recently static birth-rate to give a formidable rate of natural increase. In Great Britain a death-rate which is not particularly low combines with a low birth-rate to give a very small rate of increase. Those Asian countries in which the rate of increase is still slow are being held back by a high death-rate rather than a low birth-rate, and the same applies to Africa. Unless steps are taken now, it is only a matter of time before the population explosion extends also to these areas.

The differing patterns of birth-rates and death-rates cause differences in the age structure of populations. A high death-rate and a high, static birth-rate mean that each age group comprises fewer people than the one before, giving the pyramidal 'profile' typical of India and many other countries today and of Great Britain a century ago. The same applies as a whole to South America, which demographically is essentially a country of the young. The profile for the United Kingdom, in which five years ago there were about as many people aged 40 to 45 as there were infants 0 to 5 years old, shows the effect of an erratic but overall decrease in the birth-rate over many years.

The explosive growth of world-population has not been caused by a sudden increase in human fertility, and probably owes little in any part of the world to an increase in birth-rate. It has been caused almost entirely by advances in the medical and ancillary sciences, and the consequent decrease of the death-rate in areas where the birth-rate remains high. This is of some biological interest. Nature takes as her motto that nothing succeeds like excess, and any living thing, including Man, if able to reproduce without restraint to the limit of its capacity, would soon inundate all parts of the world where it could exist. As it is, biological populations are kept severely in check by limiting factors, of which the most important are limitations of food supply, disease and enemies, and fluctuations in natural populations are determined by fluctuations in these limiting factors. Generally speaking relaxation of one factor, after a period of expansion, brings into operation one of the other two.

In the l00 years before the second World War, the expectation of life at birth in England and Wales rose from about 40 years to over 60 years - that is, one year every five years. In India the expectation of life at birth is about 40 years, and is said to be increasing by 2½ years every five years. Even if the birth-rate were at no more than replacement level, the increasing expectation of life would add enormously to the population of India. True, the expectation of life is not likely to increase indefinitely at the present velocity, but it has a very long way to go in many countries of the world. Even in the developed countries it has some way to go before everyone dies essentially of senility, and in the meantime increasing longevity will reinforce natural reproductivity. With present birth-rate and death-rate trends, the world is threatened with astronomical numbers of people. To quote from the preface of a United Nations report, The Future Growth of World Population (1958): '. it took 200,000 years for the world's human population to reach 2,500 million; it will now take a mere 30 years to add another 2,000 million. With the present rate of increase, it can be calculated that in 600 years the number of human beings on Earth will be such that there will be only one square metre for each to live on. It goes without saying that this can never take place, something will happen to prevent it.' The human race will have to decide whether that 'something' is to be pleasant or unpleasant.

(From: A. S. Parkes in The New Scientist, 02 December 1964, vol 150. pp. 15-16.)

Global Change

Most of the isolated peoples that anthropologists studied around the world in past generations are now in dismal situations. Small indigenous societies have suffered as a consequence of the spread of western culture over the last century. Some of these peoples have died out, while most are in terminal phases of the stressful process of rapid acculturation. This radical, often painful culture change is occurring mostly in underdeveloped nations today. These countries have persistent low levels of living that can be linked historically to the manner of their integration into the world economic system. They usually provide cheap raw materials and labor. Their natural and human resources are bought cheaply by rich nations and transnational corporations.

It is quite clear that small indigenous societies have not been the only ones experiencing rapid, dramatic culture change over the last century. People in all societies have faced unprecedented changes in their lives. There has been a globalization of economies so that the entire world is now economically tied together by complex webs of interdependence. Most manufactured items that we buy have components produced in several countries on different continents. Fresh produce in our supermarkets often was grown elsewhere, especially in the winter. Corporations regularly outsource their tech support and other phone based services to India. Manufacturing jobs also progressively move to China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other nations where labor is comparatively cheap. In a very real sense, geographical barriers are things of the past. Distances do not matter any more for communication and business. When there is a stock market collapse in Asia, Europe, or North America, it reverberates throughout the rest of the world within a day. Regional economic independence no longer exists. Economic wealth also has progressively shifted from nations to transnational corporations. At the present time, 51 of the 100 biggest economies in the world are corporations. More than 20 million Americans now work for major transnational corporations, often in other countries.

The rate of globalization has been accelerating over the last decade. Contributing factors in making the world a smaller place have been the spread of Internet and email access as well as massive levels of international travel. Every year, approximately 8 million Americans travel to other countries on business trips and 19 million visit other parts of the world as tourists. Frequent international travel is by no means limited to Americans. It has become common for people in the industrialized regions of the world. However, the majority of those living in underdeveloped nations do not travel internationally nor do they have Internet access. Over half of all North Americans are using the Internet, but only 1% of the people in Africa and the Middle East have it available to them. However, images, values, and tastes from the Western World are now flooding virtually all nations via television, movies, print advertising, and commercial products.

We are living in a time of a continuously accelerating knowledge revolution. This has resulted in shorter time periods between major impacting technological inventions. In less than a single lifetime, jet aircraft, televisions, transistor radios, hand held calculators, cellular phones, computers, the Internet, and iPods have appeared and radically changed our lives. Rapid, inexpensive global communication and travel are a reality. On the down side, information overdose is now a common problem. People in developed nations have 24 hour access to news and entertainment in many forms and vast databases of information are as close as the nearest computer with Internet access.

Driving all of these global changes has been a dramatic increase in the size of the human population. Our numbers have doubled over the last 4 decades. However, only 5% of that growth has occurred in the developed nations. Because the underdeveloped nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are generating nearly all of the population growth, we will have added the equivalent of 3 more impoverished sub-Saharan Africas to the world within a quarter of a century.

However, the overall world growth rate is now declining, especially in the developed nations. Birth rates generally are down, but life spans are longer. Consequentially, the elderly are the fastest growing age group worldwide, even in many of the poorer nations. Those 65 and older are likely to increase in numbers twice as fast as the population as a whole at least until 2020. One result of this change will be an increasing financial burden on younger working people to pay for the pensions and medical costs of the expanding elderly group. The graying of the population is most pronounced now in Europe and Japan. Italy has the unenviable record of being the first nation to reach the point at which there are more people over 60 than under 20 years old. Spain, Germany, and Greece will shortly achieve this ratio also. In the United States, similar trends are being statistically masked by an enormous immigration of young people from Latin America.

In some regions, however, the trend is just the opposite. For instance, Nigeria's continued high birth rate will likely result in a doubling of its population over the next quarter century. While the highest projected growth rates are in Africa, the biggest population increases will be in the developing nations of Asia.


  1970 2020

Less Developed Nations



More Developed Nations



Geographic Region:


---- Sub-Saharan Africa



---- Near East and North Africa



---- Mainland China and Taiwan



---- Other Asia



---- Latin America and the Caribbean



---- Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union



---- Western Europe, North America, Japan, and Oceania



Accompanying the dramatic growth in population has been a massive immigration into the richer nations of North America, Western Europe, and Australia by people from the poorer ones. This primarily economic driven migration has had a profound effect on life in the receiving countries. The new diversity has been felt particularly by public services. For instance, large school districts in California now must cope with more than 75 different languages being spoken by their students. Generally, these demographic changes have more profoundly affected cities than rural areas. In Los Angeles, for example, only 9% of its residents were foreign born in 1960. By 1990, that number had grown to 40% of the population.

Within the industrialized nations, there has also been massive internal migration over the last half century. Many middle class urbanites moved out into suburbia and beyond. In addition, there have been extensive regional migrations. For instance, many Southern Italians have moved to Northern Italy for jobs. Many people from Ireland, Scotland, and the old industrialized cities of Northern England have moved to Southern England for the same reason. In the United States, millions of people from the old industrialized "Rust Belt" centers of the Northeast have migrated south and west to the "Sun Belt."

Over the last two centuries, there has developed a progressive disparity in wealth between nations and between major regions. Economic power has become concentrated mostly in the industrialized nations of the northern hemisphere. Their control of manufacturing and international trade resulted in an unequal playing field. This disparity has provided people in the richer nations with greater access to food, electricity, fossil fuels, education, and medicine with the consequence that their lives are materially more comfortable and their life spans are significantly longer. By comparison, 1.2 billion people in the third world live on less than one U.S. dollar per day.

The disproportionate amount of resources used by the rich nations has exacted a high cost for our planet. There is increasingly burdensome environmental decimation and pollution as well as depletion of key non-renewable resources. This situation will likely become much worse over the next few decades as China, with its enormous population, becomes highly industrialized and the standard of living for its population increases dramatically. They already consume more meat, grains, coal, steel, and several other basic resources than the United States. Americans still use more oil than any other nation, but consumption is increasing rapidly in China. If the trend in growth of the Chinese economy and standard of living continues at its current rate, by early in the 2030s they could be consuming more oil and other key resources than the entire world currently produces. The phenomenal growth in the Chinese economy comes at a high price for its own people. Their cities are among the most polluted in the world. Not far behind China in becoming an economic powerhouse in the 21st century will likely be India, the second most populous nation. A consequence of this will be a dramatic increase in the global competition to acquire key resources.

One of the most far ranging social and cultural changes that has occurred over the last century has been the increase in economic and political power of women in the developed nations, especially in the Western ones. During the 19th century, women in these countries generally could not vote, attend a university, become doctors, lawyers, politicians, government officials, or corporate leaders. They were expected to only aspire to become housewives and mothers. When married, their husbands often gained full legal rights to their property. This second class status of Western women has largely ended. Men gave up some of their power due in part to the need for women to actively participate in industrial production during the great world wars of the first half of the 20th century. It also has been due to the emergence in recent decades of post industrial economies that require much less manual labor in factories. An additional important factor has been the constant pressure by women to be treated as equals. However, the significantly increased status and power of Western women generally has not been matched by women elsewhere in the world.

(From: Culture change: Global change by Dennis O'Neil, 2006, New York, Simon & Shuster, pages 15-16.)

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