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The Sierra Club is America's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization, with 1.3 million members.  There more than 13,000 members in NYC who are also members of the SC NYC Group. 

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Current News

Somewhat Good News on the Population Front

Gary Nickerson

Several articles appeared in the New York Times in the past three months that provide some good news on the population front. In April, Sharon LaFraniere reported from China that its one child-per-family policy had taken hold even in areas where second children were permitted. A second article, by LaFraniere and Michael Wines a few weeks later, confirmed that China’s fertility rate had fallen to 1.4 per woman, below the Government’s previous estimate of 1.8. (By comparison, the US fertility rate is 2.06 per woman.) On the negative side, the low birth rate and high male to female ratio among the young pose serious problems for China’s future.

Then, in  early July, Damien Cave reported on the forces within Mexico that are suppressing unauthorized migration to the United States, including an improving economic climate, better education, and the availability of better job opportunities for those with education.

These articles shed some interesting light on two recent articles in the City Sierran. In the Winter 2010-2011 issue of the City Sierran, Diane  Buxbaum and Katherine Schwarz wrote about the intertwined nature of problems created by population growth and climate change. The issues they discussed were clearly important, but they left out the chief drivers of population change. In the Spring 2011 issue, I argued that to understand and do something about population growth we had to focus not on population numbers and rates per se but on its main drivers: economic development and women’s position in society. The three Times articles reinforce my argument.

For decades, China has enforced a one-child-per-family policy throughout most of the country with the goal of bringing down the growth of its population. It turns out that the birthrate in Chinese provinces where second children were permitted was not much higher than in provinces where the one-child-per-family policy was enforced. According to the April 6 Times article, research points to modernization (e.g., development), not the one-child policy as the cause of the decline in birth rates. In fact, India’s population has also declined without the draconian policies, although China’s decline has been more rapid. Indeed, according to a 2009 article in the Economist, China is now below the population replacement level and India is just above it.

At the same time, declines in population growth in China has resulted in a serious gender imbalance as families have opted  for male children so the birth rate is 119 boys to 100 girls. India too has a differential rate of 109 boys to 100 girls, so this imbalance is not entirely a Chinese phenomenon. 

The Times article on Mexico, “For Mexicans Looking North, a New Calculus Favors Home”, makes a similar point: A smaller population, more education, and more job opportunities for those who are educated, along with enforcement efforts, has brought down unauthorized immigration to the US from Mexico. A (report by the Pew Hispanic Center states that the unauthorized immigration population in the U.S., after peaking in 2008 at 12.0 million, declined (along with economic prospects in the US) to 11.2 in 2010

In the specific Mexican region examined by the Times article, improved education increased the skill level of the graduating students. Local industries responded by expanding and providing employment opportunities, so there was less motive to move North. Mexican fertility in the area has fallen from 6.7 children per woman in 1970 to about two currently. While the article attributes this to the availability of birth control, the Chinese example suggests that opportunities for a better life is the critical factor.

These articles reinforce the argument that to bring down population growth, we need to focus on the forces that drive it – economic growth, improvement in life conditions, and women’s empowerment and education – and not on population growth itself. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the article by Olive Freud in the most current City Sierran totally ignores the discussion in the Times article of the roles played by economic changes in Mexico in bringing down the birth rate. By contrast, it is only through an understanding the interwoven dynamics of the economy, women’s empowerment, and population growth that provides the insight into policies that can more effectively lower population growth rates.

I return to the metaphor I introduced in my City Sierran article: Focusing on population is like focusing on the skin lesions created by the plague. The skin lesions can kill if they become infected, but they are the result of the virus and if we focus on the lesions and ignore the virus, the patient will die anyway. So, too, it is essential that we focus on the drivers behind population growth and the policy levers they provide.



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