True, old-style population control seems to have helped slow population growth in China. The country’s leaders brag that their one-child policy has spared the world’s climate 300 million greenhouse gas emitters, the population equivalent of a U.S. that never happened. But most of the drop in Chinese fertility occurred before that coercive policy went into effect in 1979, as the government brought women by the millions into farm and industry collectives and provided them with the family planning they needed to stay on the job. Many developing countries—from Thailand and Colombia to Iran—have experienced comparable declines in family size by getting better family-planning services and educational opportunities to more women and girls in more places.
With President Obama in the White House and Democrats dominant in Congress, the signs are good that the U.S. will support the kind of development abroad and reproductive health at home most likely to encourage slower population growth. Like almost all politicians, however, Obama never mentions population or the way it bridges problems from health and education all the way to food, energy security and climate change.
Bringing population back into the public conversation is risky, but the world has come a long way in understanding that the subject is only one part of most of today’s problems and that “population control” can’t really control population. Handing control of their lives and their bodies to women—the right thing to do for countless other reasons—can. There is no reason to fear the discussion.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Population and Sustainability."