Population: Malady or Symptom? (W-8)

Population: Malady or Symptom? (W-8)

Publication details

  • Monday | 08 Mar, 1993
  • Tariq Banuri, Frank Amalric
  • Working Papers
  • 35
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Frank Amalric and Tariq Banuri, SDPI


The paper starts by examining the three debates on population at the local, national and global levels. In the fourth section the authors sketch the two emerging and competing paradigms: the first one, in line with the conventional theory of development, isolates the population factor from other societal factors; this is contrasted by the alternate paradigm, built around the concept of governance, which takes a more structural approach to population growth. Finally, the fifth section relates the opposition between these two paradigms to the opposition between the two forms of globalization. In conclusion the authors call for a need to build a community of the world i.e., an inter-dependent world, where responsibilities are shared and for good governance at the global level.

If one debate is highly controversial and raises emotional reactions, it is without doubt the one on population, and more particularly, on the interaction between population growth and environmental degradation. The subject is particularly sensitive in North-South discussions. In Bucharest in 1974, India and China led the opposition of Third World countries to Northern views (particularly that of the United States) stressing the negative effects of population growth and the need to control it, while at the same time they implemented particularly strict population control policies at home. Symptomatically, population was the issue not raised in Rio during the "Earth Conference", whereas it is on everybody's lips elsewhere. In international forums and conferences, physicists and biologist repeatedly argue that it does not make sense to speak about global sustainability without speaking about population growth. And representants from the South denounce new forms of colonialism disguised under environmental concerns, of which the population debate would be the epitome.

This paper is an attempt at deciphering what is at stake behind this apparent impossibility to communicate. To start, it is necessary to recognise that there is not one, but several debates on population, each corresponding to a different level of aggregation - the local, national and global levels - and each raising different aspects of what may constitute the population growth "problem" . At the local level, central aspects of the debate revolve around the health of the mother and of the children, including education, and the problem of commons in the wake of Hardin's famous "tragedy of the commons" (Hardin 1968). At the national level, the debate turns around the links between population growth and (economic) development, with particular focus on the consequences for capital formation, employment, and the capacity for the government to purvey social services. Finally, at the international level, a growing focus has been given to the links between population growth and environmental degradation.

This is the "conventional" position on the issue of population growth. But there is another way to look at  it, which starts by denying that there is a population "problem" at the local level (in line in fact with much of demographic theory), and rather emphasizes the conflict between national priorities (to reduce population growth) and local goals. In this line, the population growth "problem", mainly a national one because this is the level at which development and modernization takes place, is first and foremost a problem of governance, linked to the incapacity of the state (notably in South Asia) to take and implement collective decisions. Population growth instead of being the source of all ills is seen as the symptom of bad governance, as are in large measure forms of mis-development and environmental degradation.

This different interpretation changes fundamentally the nature of the debate at the international level. Indeed, if it was straightforward, within the conventional view, to suspect population growth of even greater ills, the matter becomes much more difficult in the other perspective. Moreover, the different intervenants in the debate tend to choose one or the other perspective according to their own interest; thus the North will rely on the first interpretation in order to shift the agenda towards population growth in the South rather than facing the issue of over-consumption in the North. Similarly, governments in the South speak about inequalities at the global level when intervening in the international arena, thereby relying on the second interpretation, but shift back to the first one at the national level as to avoid addressing larger political questions. But one's capacity to export one's problems is not the same for all actors, and depends very much on the relationships of power. At the bottom of the hierarchy, the poor's only possibility to export their own problems is through high population growth.

In the end, the conflict over population is directly related to the opposition between two processes of globalization, one which has been taking place de facto, led by economic forces, power relationships, and the possibility of certain actors to export their problems onto others, and the other one which is a political attempt at addressing global issues, and which calls for people's responsibilization. The first process also loosely corresponds to the way economists perceive the world, that is as infinite, whereas the second one correspond to the physicists' and biologists' perspective that stresses the finiteness of the biosphere in all its dimensions - water, soil, forests, energy, sinks - with the general goal to delimitate the world in which human activities take place . In this line, Alain Lipietz (1992) has notably described the UNCED process as a global "enclosures movement" through which rights to the global commons are being allocated.

The heart of the matter is whether this global enclosures movement is possible without its entailing some new form of colonization. In the North, a number of participants in the debate refuse to consider this question and withdraw behind supposed scientific neutrality and questions of the type: " how many humans can live on the Earth?". Representants from the South, definitely more historically aware, refuse precisely to enter this game unless the North can provide strong warrants that the process will not be eventually diverted in its (that of the North) favour.

The possibility to discuss population issues at the global level thus rests on the capacity for the North to provide warrants that it is really "Our Common Future" which is discussed. But beyond the political conflict, the real matter to reach sustainability is the capacity to influence local behavior to make them take into account global goals. In this sense, it is a matter of governance. In this perspective, we need to reflect further on the so-called "crisis of development", for this crisis is precisely in part a failure of governance in a number of southern countries. It would be illusory to try to achieve at the global level what national governments have repeatedly failed to do.