Population-control advocates, which have included this newspaper, should beware what they wish for. The number of humans on the planet is forecast by the UN to shrink before the end of the century.
So now what?
Perhaps it's time to finally realize that "control" methods were not always the best approach. The idea was largely driven by demographics rather than personal well-being. Too many dictators, believing they could reap the economic benefits of having fewer mouths to feed, coerced too many women into practicing "birth control." And too many well-meaning activists used high-handed methods of dispensing contraceptives to "acceptors" without much sensitivity to the deeper needs of couples.
In fact, the original policy of "controlling" the population along with the mass introduction of contraceptives was maybe secondary to the main reason behind the new finding of faster-falling fertility rates in most countries: More women now know they can make a choice in the number of children they bear.
How did they learn that?
Many experts say it was mass media. In countries with television, the sit-coms and soap operas showing happy, smaller families sent a powerful message of what life could be. (TV can also send the wrong messages. In Indonesia, the introduction of television in villages created such an immediate, massive demand for shampoo among women seeking TV-style coiffures that the government had to ban such ads.)
But besides TV, there has been a more general societal shift toward equality for women - a reduction in domestic violence, better healthcare for babies, and more education for teenage girls - that raised the awareness of choice. The steady breakdown of male-dominated social norms has lifted women's right to have children they truly want. The United Nations reports that at least 76 countries have liberalized their laws and policies toward women since the mid-1990s.
This focus on women should continue with even greater fervor because in many nations the fertility rate has yet to drop to "replacement level."
But the human species seems to be reaching a tipping point away from a once-predicted Malthusian future of doom. It now has the far easier task of dealing with higher life expectancy, or an "aging" population. Just two decades ago, UN demographers assumed women would live on average for 77.5 years. The men's average was 72.6 years.
Both projections have since been raised by 15 years!