Local elites in many developing societies shared the Western sensibilities and often took draconian measures to limit population growth.
The world's 7 billionth person was born last month, according to the United Nations, in Manila, or Uttar Pradesh, or some nearly one dozen other cities that celebrated the honor. Or possibly not. The U.S. Census Bureau and other agencies believe the 7 billion mark will not be breached for another year, or possibly three years.
It doesn't matter. It is, in any event, not a real, but a symbolic figure.
But what a powerful symbol, one, which, since the 18th century, when Rev Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman, warned of global calamity of apocalyptic proportions driven by overpopulation, has unleashed powerful forces to drive down population growth among the global poor.
For a good half-century now, the UN, the World Bank, Western nations, especially the United States, and some of the world's leading philanthropic foundations have worked in concert to stem the burgeoning population of the Third World. The 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich, which warned of hundreds of millions of deaths from ecological disaster precipitated by overpopulation in Asia, Africa and Latin America, prodded Western governments and global agencies to link their foreign aid programs to strict population control targets, including, very often, coercive family planning.
Local elites in many developing societies shared the Western sensibilities and often took draconian measures to limit population growth. China instituted its oppressive one-child policy, under which hundreds of millions of men and women have been forcibly sterilized and tens of millions of fetuses aborted in the past three decades. During the notorious era of the emergency in India from 1975 to 1977, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's son Sanjay Gandhi pursued a coercive family planning program in which an estimated 8 million poor Indian men were forcibly sterilized.
During the past few decades, some of the most brutal family planning tactics have been rolled back, because of right wing backlash in the United States. Religious fundamentalists object to abortions and sterilization on theological grounds and so the political tactic of tying Western aid to coercive family planning regimes has eased. It is indeed ironic that the most brutal and coercive family planning regimes were forced upon developing societies by Western liberals and feminists, who profess to be their biggest advocates, and that the measures were relaxed only because of the ascendancy of the political right, which is least sympathetic to the poor. Tragically, the victims (or beneficiaries, in Western parlance) themselves were powerless to shape their own destinies, serving as mere pawns in the power plays of local and Western elites.
It is now well understood that large family size is often driven by low life expectancy among the poor. More children enhances the probability that some at least will live into adulthood. As India's former health minister Karan Singh famously said in the 1970s, 'Development is the best contraception.'
The population alarmists have long been barking up the wrong tree. If their concerns are driven by the limits of planetary resources, the right focus ought to be consumption. Ehrlich, the man, who more than anyone else is responsible for leading us into the 50-year misguided global family planning war on the poor, recently told the BBC that he "wouldn't focus on the poverty-stricken masses today." Instead, Ehrlich said, "I would focus on their being too many rich people. It's crystal clear we can't support seven billion people in the style of wealthier Americans."
Hmm.... Wonder if Malthus or his progeny would consider sterilization of the rich.