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.

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

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