11 July, according to the UN, is World Population Day. The aim is to ensure universal access for the world's women to reproductive health services, including, in the fine print, voluntary family planning. In truth, the latter offers what is arguably the most cost-effective means of reducing human misery in the long term. It nicely aligns with the new interest in family planning which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been advancing of late. They, and the Department of International Development, are behind the Family Planning Summit which takes place in London on the same day. This follows on from the belated UN recognition that population growth is a major factor in the climate change picture - as well as in world poverty. This was reaffirmed in April 2012 by the Royal Society's People and the Planet report. It was not always thus. Once upon a time, the excesses of India's brief and tragic sterilisation policy and China's One Child Policy were used to tar the entire family planning movement as an illiberal, eugenic monstrosity. Some stubbornly stick to this dogma.
The delay in bringing population into the climate and poverty equations stemmed from prejudice on both the Right and Left. On the Right, moral conservatives jump on those who oppose unrestricted population growth as being 'anti-people'. Neoconservatives claim that the Malthusians were forever proven wrong by the Green Revolution and the demographic transition. The free market, like God, 'will provide' for as many humans as we care to give birth to. Malthus was alarmist, but so too are the anti-Malthusians. And the latter, whose mantra has been swallowed by global agencies for decades, has wreaked far more havoc. Consider the fact that a billion people - 20% of the world, rising to 40-50% of sub-Saharan Africa - continue to live a precarious existence on less than a dollar a day, with many starving when crops fail.
On the Left, there is a reluctance to criticise developing countries' lack of family planning facilities for fear of being branded racist. Some feminists, strangely, also seem enamoured by the idea that the aim should be to focus solely on women's health without considering the family planning question. Sadly, this logic has also emboldened self-appointed leaders of the dispossessed in the developing world, notably Islamist firebrands Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad in contemporary Iran or Abu Ala Maududi in twentieth century Pakistan, who excoriated family planning as a western plot designed to control the numbers of Muslims or nonwhites.
The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development nicely brought the vanguard of left-wing feminism and anti-racism together with the agents of neoconservatism and the religious right. Sunni Salafists from the Gulf rubbed shoulders and traded memos with emissaries of the Vatican, American evangelicals and Mormons and Shiite mullahs to oppose family planning. The compromise position, cooked up between the extreme Right and loony Left, seemed to be that women's reproductive rights would be enshrined with little emphasis on offering contraceptive services.
Today, six million children die of hunger each year, equivalent to an annual Holocaust. Yes, food and health security is largely a redistribution problem, but, no, this does not mean that the same numbers would have died in the past few decades. Exactly how many avoidable deaths cornucopianism caused is impossible to specify. It is safe to say that at a minimum it killed in the millions as excess numbers of people overwhelmed local resources. In addition, population pressure on food supplies combined with large numbers in the 15-30 ('youth bulge') age bracket is associated with elevated levels of civil war and a delay in the onset of democratisation. These factors exacerbate the redistribution problem, compounding the silent holocaust of malnutrition and insufficient healthcare.
Paragons of Left and Right sit contentedly in their comfortable offices, from San Francisco to Riyadh, preach and moralise to Malthusians and suggest that all is well because fertility rates are declining in much of the developing world. They convince themselves that matters will inevitably go in the right direction as technology improves and family sizes come down. Yet how much suffering and death might have been averted by a more robust voluntary family planning programme, advanced early on and backed with sufficient resources? This is the real human rights tragedy, which every anti-Malthusian ideologue should consider when they next look themselves in the mirror.Suggest a correction