September 15, 2015
How Electricity and TV Defused the ‘Population Bomb’
The Unexpected Promise of Soap Operas
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.
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."
About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, environment, climate, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.