How Electricity and TV Defused the ‘Population Bomb’

The Unexpected Promise of Soap Operas

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Wealth, electricity, education, and urbanization are all loosely correlated with lower fertility, but the strongest correlation is watching television. How does TV act as a contraceptive? Perhaps it is watching popular soap operas, which paint a vision for poor women of how much better life with fewer kids might be.

May 14, 2013 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

In the late sixties, India was the poster child of Third World poverty. In 1965, the monsoon rains failed to arrive, food production crashed, and much of the country was on the brink of starving. Asked for help, President Lyndon Johnson is reported to have told an aide, "I'm not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems." Johnson came around, but by the end of the decade India was viewed in the West as, at best, a basket case and, at worst, a "population bomb" that threatened the entire planet.

Given this history, it's hard not to see the success India has had feeding its people and slowing population growth as the finale to a Bollywood movie — one most Americans stopped watching in 1970. "In a recent exercise," Stanford's Martin Lewis writes in a new article for The Breakthrough, "most of my students believed that India’s total fertility rate 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."

What did it? Lewis created a series of fascinating maps comparing Indian fertility rates to per capita wealth, female education level, electrification, access to TV, and other metrics to answer this question. His first map is one of the most striking. It shows the entire southern half of the country, plus the northern pan handle, as having fertility rates below replacement levels. 
 
Wealth, electricity, education, and moving to the city are all loosely correlated with lower fertility, but the strongest correlation is watching television. "The map of television ownership in India," writes Lewis, "does bear a particularly close resemblance to the fertility map." He notes that two Indian states with a low level of female education, which is traditionally inversely correlated with low fertility, still had low fertility rates, a fact that may be explained by its high levels of TV penetration. Lewis bolsters his argument by pointing to a study from India that found declining fertility after cable TV was introduced into poor neighborhoods.
 
How does TV act as a contraceptive? Lewis notes it may be 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." It may not be TV generally, but rather soap operas specifically that paint a vision for poor women of how much better life with fewer kids might be.
 
Maybe the reason the West has been so slow to appreciate this Indian success story, Lewis speculates, is because it contradicts everything we've come to believe about overpopulation. Back in the late sixties, some prominent Western ecologists called for the sterilization of Indian men and the halting of food aid, so as to not prolong the suffering. A book called The Population Bomb that proposed these things sold four million copies. 
 
Hopefully now, anyone concerned about both human development and the environment will come to see electricity, rising wealth for the poor, and even TV not as anathema to human development but, at least in many parts of the world, essential to it.
 
 
Photo Credit: Nonicoclolasos

Comments

  • TV ownership has been extremely low among the majority of Indians until relatively recently. Yet the fertility rate has been declining for decades. Martin Lewis’ static graphics don’t explain this at all. The data’s here: http://challengingciv.blogspot.ie/2013/05/martin-lewis-response-on-indias.html

    By Tom on 2013 05 15

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  • My response to thoughtful critique of my article posted on Challenging Civilization can be found here;

    http://geocurrents.info/cultural-geography/television-and-fertility-in-india-response-to-critics

    By Martin Lewis on 2013 05 16

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  • Okay, . . so what?  What is the purpose of this article?

    By George Kamburoff on 2013 05 23

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  • I had a great deal to do with the phenomenon cited in this article.  In 1981 whan a former Minister of Info and Broadcasting invited me to come to India, the tv signal would reach 14% of the people.  I got them a hardware technology from Televisa Mexico. In 194 working days they went from 14% coverage to more than 70%.  I got them the Sabido Methodology for Social Communication from Mexico. They produced and aired Hum Log (We People) an watershed television event of 156 episodes seen everywhere in India.  There is more to the soap opera story - including impactful radio soap operas

    By David O. Poindexter on 2013 05 23

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  • Wonderful stuff.

    By George Kamburoff on 2013 05 23

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  • Deceptive comparison using the fertility rate. A better comparison is the actual population growth rate, and yes India`s is twice that of the US and three times that of China. Keeping in mind that the US population is one fourth of India’s, that means India is adding 8 times the number of people each year.

    So fears of not having the resources to provide a adequate standard of living for all are justified. It helps keep the pressure on for family planning policies.

    By Jernau on 2013 09 10

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  • The fertility rate is a better measurement of what is actually happening than the population growth rate, due to the unavoidable lag factor entailed by the latter measurement. If the birthrate plummets in a short period, as has happened in much of India, it will take quite a while for that change to be reflected in the growth rate figures. The only way for population growth to come to an end is for the fertility rate to drop to (or below) the replacement level, barring a major increase in mortality (or massive emigration). As such, an Indian state such as Tamil Nadu should be given credit for having reduced its fertility rate to 1.64, well below that of the USA, rather than be taken to task for the fact that its population is still expanding—as nothing can be done about that.

    I agree that “fears of not having the resources to provide an adequate standard of living for all are justified,” at least in regard to Uttar Pradesh and other parts of northern India. Indeed, this is precisely why I support mass electrification and the spread of television, as they are closely correlated with fertility declines. Official family planning policies are significant as well, as can be seen by comparing Bangladesh and Pakistan in this regard (Bangladesh has been much more successful). But nothing in my article indicated opposition to family planning efforts.

    By Martin W. Lewis on 2013 09 10

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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

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