Population Bomb? So Wrong

How Electricity, Development, and TV Reduce Fertility

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Population growth rates have declined significantly in most developing countries outside tropical Africa. India, which now edges closer to the replacement rate, is a case in point for how economic and social development have slowed fertility rates. And yet, popular and expert beliefs continue to be informed by misguided perceptions that global population is spiraling out of control and putting unsustainable levels of pressure on resources and the environment.

May 8, 2013 | Martin Lewis,

India’s declining fertility rate, now only slightly higher than that of the United States, is part of a global trend of lower population growth. Yet the media and many educated Americans have entirely missed this major development, instead sticking to erroneous perceptions about inexorable global population growth that continue to fuel panicked rhetoric about everything from environmental degradation and immigration to food and resource scarcity.

In a recent exercise, most of my students believed that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) was twice that of the United States. Many of my colleagues believed the same. In actuality, it is only 2.5, barely above the estimated U.S. rate of 2.1 in 2011, and essentially the replacement level. (A more recent study now pegs U.S. fertility at 1.93.) Still, from a global perspective, India and the United States fall in the same general fertility category, as can be seen in the map below.

In today’s world, high fertility rates are increasingly confined to tropical Africa. Birthrates in most so-called Third World countries have dropped precipitously, and some are now well below the replacement rate. Chile (1.85), Brazil (1.81), and Thailand (1.56) now have lower birthrates than France (2.0), Norway (1.95), and Sweden (1.98).

To be sure, moderately elevated fertility is still a problem in several densely populated countries of Asia and Latin America, such as the Philippines (3.1) and Guatemala (3.92). 

But as the Google Public Data chart posted here shows, even the Philippines has been experiencing a steady fall in TFR. The same is true of Afghanistan, the most fecund country outside of Africa, at least for the past 15 years. As can also be seen, TFR declines have been much more modest in such African countries as Niger and Tanzania. It must be acknowledged, however, that reductions in fertility are not necessarily permanent. As the New York Times recently reported, the decline of family planning services has already ticked up the birthrate in Egypt, threatening that country’s already tight demographic squeeze.

I find it extraordinary that the massive global drop in human fertility has been so little noticed by the media, escaping the attention of even highly educated Americans. The outdated idea that Mexico has a crushingly high birthrate continues to inform many discussions of immigration reform in the United States, even though Mexico’s TFR (2.32 in 2010) is only slightly above that of the United States.

It almost seems as though we have collectively decided to ignore this momentous transformation of human behavior. Scholars and journalists alike continue to warn that global population is spiraling out of control. A recent LiveScience article, for example, quotes a co-author of an April 2013 Science report who argues that “the poorest nations are caught in a downward spiral that will deplete resources and cause a population explosion.” The article goes on to argue that “with the world population slated to hit 9 billion by the year 2050, many scientists and others worry that unchecked population growth and increasing consumption of natural resources will cause dire problems in the future.”

Although the LiveScience article notes that the original report focused on sub-Saharan Africa, it does not mention the fact that high birthrates are in fact increasingly confined to that part of the world, or that fertility rates are persistently declining in almost every country in Africa, albeit slowly. Many African states, moreover, are still sparsely settled and can accommodate significantly larger populations. The Central African Republic, for example, has a population of less than 4.5 million in an area almost the size of France.

India is an instructive place for investigating fertility decline. Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich* began his pivotal 1968 book The Population Bomb with a vignette of teeming New Delhi and the disasters it portended. Warning that overpopulation would soon spread massive famines across continents, Ehrlich advocated coercion: the “sterilization of all Indian males with three or more children.”

Responding in part to such dire prophesies and advice, India enacted a population campaign in the 1970s tilted toward forced sterilization. This widely despised program was quickly dismantled with little appreciable effect on India’s TFR, which continued along its steady downward path.

It can be deceptive, however, to view India as an undivided whole. As shown on the map posted here, fertility figures for half of India are actually below replacement level. Were it not for the Hindi-speaking heartland, India would already be looking at population stabilization and even decline. All the states of southern India post TFR figures below 1.9. A number of states in the far north and the northeast boast similarly low fertility levels, including West Bengal, noted for its swarming metropolis of Calcutta (Kolkata).

India’s geographical birthrate disparities, coupled with the country’s admirable ability to collect socio-economic data, allow us to carefully examine ideas about fertility decline. The remainder of this post will do so through cartography, comparing the Indian fertility rate map with maps of other social and economic indicators. Where spatial correlations are strong, underlying causes may be indicated. Such a technique is admittedly suggestive rather than conclusive, and it does not take into account institutional variables, such as family planning efforts. Still, some of the implications are intriguing.

Several scholars have linked birthrate decline to female education. Educated women, they reason, generally prefer smaller families, allowing them to pursue their own interests while investing more resources and time in each child. As it turns out, the map of female literacy in India does exhibit striking similarities with the map of fertility. States with educated women, such as Kerala and Goa, have smaller families than those with widespread female illiteracy, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

But this correlation, although strong, is of limited explanatory power, since Kerala and Goa rank high on every social indicator, just as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rank low. A number of exceptions, moreover, are evident. Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, for example, combine low female literacy with low fertility, whereas in Meghalaya and Nagaland the pattern is reversed. Thus while the education of women is no doubt significant in reducing fertility levels, it is not the only factor at play.

General levels of economic development, as reflected in per capita GDP, also fail to fully explain India’s fertility patterns. Again, map comparisons reveal congruencies in some places but deviations in others. Low-fertility Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal are not, by Indian terms, prosperous states. Gujarat in western India is well ahead of them economically, yet its fertility rate remains higher, slightly above the replacement level.

Urbanization often correlates with reduced fertility, and the rapid growth of India’s cities is probably linked to its declining birthrate. India as a whole, however, remains a predominantly rural country, so urbanization itself cannot be the answer. Note also that low-fertility Kerala and especially Himachal Pradesh have low urbanization levels, whereas in Mizoram the opposite situation prevails.

The general level of social development makes another interesting comparison. The somewhat dated Human Development Index map from Wikipedia again deviates from the fertility map, especially in regard to low-HDI-ranking Andhra Pradesh and Odisha (Orissa), and high-ranking Nagaland and Manipur. The mapping of life expectancy, a major social indicator, again reveals both common features and anomalies. States with high life expectancies tend to have low birthrates (Kerala, yet again), whereas those with low life expectancies tend to have high birthrates (Madhya Pradesh, especially). Yet while Odisha lags behind even Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in terms of longevity, its TFR (2.2) is close to replacement, lower even than that of Gujarat.

Technological modernization is also worth examining. Here we use electrification as a proxy. The extent of electricity use varies tremendously across the country. All of southern and far northern India are now almost fully electrified, whereas in impoverished Bihar fewer than 20 percent of households have electric lights. Overall, the general pattern holds here as on the other maps, with interesting exceptions. Nagaland and Chhattisgarh, for example, have relatively high levels of electrification, yet are marked by elevated birthrates.

Some scholars have argued that recent fertility decreases in India and elsewhere in the Third World are more specifically linked to one technological innovation: television. The TV hypothesis is well known in the field, discussed, for example, in the LiveScience article on the African population explosion mentioned above. In regard to India, Robert Jensen and Emily Oster argue persuasively that television works this magic mostly by enhancing the social position of women. As they state in their abstract:

This paper explores the effect of the introduction of cable television on women’s status in rural India. Using a three-year, individual-level panel dataset, we find that the introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility. We also find suggestive evidence that exposure to cable increases school enrollment for younger children, perhaps through increased participation of women in household decision-making. We argue that the results are not driven by pre-existing differential trends.

As it turns out, the map of television ownership in India does bear a particularly close resemblance to the fertility map. Two anomalously low-fertility states with low levels of female education, Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, score relatively high on TV penetration, as does West Bengal, which lags on several other important socio-economic indicators.

The correlation is far from perfect: Mizoram ranks higher on the TV chart than its fertility figures would indicate, whereas Odisha and Assam rank lower. Odisha and Assam turn out to be a bit less exceptional in a related but broader and more gender-focused metric, that of “female exposure to media.” These figures, which include a television component, seem to provide the best overall correlation with the spatial patterns of Indian fertility.

I suspect that the rapid drop in fertility in such countries as India and Brazil, as well as its association with television, has been missed in mainstream U.S. commentary in part because it flies in the face of deeply ingrained expectations. That television viewing would help generate demographic stabilization would have come as a shock to those who warned of the ticking global population bomb in the 1960s.

Many of these same critics regarded television as inauthentic, mind numbing, and thought controlling, and feared that by inculcating consumerism it would hasten environmental destruction. Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, was widely embraced by the green movement, and is still approvingly cited in such places as the “primitivist” blog Challenging Civilization. Mander argued not only that television singularly lacks democratic potential, but also that it functions to enhance autocratic control.

Mander currently sits on the board of directors of the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization alongside Vandana Shiva, India’s most prominent environmental activist. Shiva, best known for her campaigns against genetically modified crops, is deeply opposed to most aspects of modernity, calling for a return not just to organic farming but to a broadly traditional way of life, albeit without patriarchy and class (and caste) oppression. She gained global attention earlier this year when she responded to a prominent environmentalist advocating genetic engineering with the following tweet: “Mark Lynas saying farmers shd be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic farms is like saying rapists shd have freedom to rape.”

Despite Vandana Shiva’s insistence to the contrary, most experts doubt that India could feed itself through non-modern farming. The “progressive contrarian” blogger Bernie Mooney concludes that Shiva is nothing less than “an elitist, anti-progress menace” whose program, if enacted, would not “help the poor of the world, [but would] only keep them at a subsistence level and more importantly, in their place.” Although Mooney’s assessment is harsh, it does seem likely that a return to traditional lifestyles would bring back high fertility levels, resulting in truly unsustainable population growth.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the transition to a low fertility regime, deemed necessary by almost all environmentalists, requires substantial modernization, particularly in the socio-cultural realm. Television depresses fertility because many of its offerings provide a model of middle class families successfully grappling with the transition from tradition to modernity, helped by the fact that they have few children to support. In a study of declining fertility and television in Brazil, Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea point in particular to the role of soap operas (telenovelas):

We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior … Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that novelas, and not just television, affected individual choices.

If it is true that soap operas have played a critical role in Brazil’s spectacular fertility decline — its TFR dropped from 6.25 in 1960 to 1.81 in 2011 — the policy implications are momentous. But it will take a fundamental change in the way we talk about technology, population, and environment for this point to come across. As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argue, old-school environmentalists typically prefer to “wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying even worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world.” The data presented here confirm that it is time for a new mode of environmental rhetoric.

To return to our first map, fertility rates remain stubbornly high across tropical Africa. The analysis presented here would suggest that the best way to bring them down would be a three-pronged effort: female education, broad-based economic and social development, and mass electrification followed by the dissemination of soap-opera-heavy television. As it is, Africa’s television market is growing rapidly, but much of the programming so far has been heavily oriented toward sports. One can only hope that Nollywood (Nigeria’s Hollywood) and other African entertainment centers can provide the women-focused, locally appealing telenovelas that have been so strongly associated elsewhere with fertility reduction.

Martin Lewis is a senior lecturer in history at Stanford University. This post was originally published at Geocurrents.

*Ehrlich is also one of the co-authors of the Science article referred to above.

Further Reading

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "How Electricity and TV Defused the 'Population Bomb,'" May 13, 2013

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "It's Not About the Climate," The Breakthrough, April 29, 2013

Breakthrough Staff, "Evolve Beyond Planetary Boundaries," The Breakthrough, April 2, 2012



Photo Credit: Flickr User Lee Animal


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