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Visualizing the vicious-virtuous cycles of population growth and poverty reduction

The media, Humanosphere included, have put out a flurry of stories this past week or so focused on the call to save the lives of millions of newborn babies across the world.

Hungry Kids Kenya
Flickr, Feed My Starving Children

One interesting feature of these stories is what’s missing or at least muted.

Not that long ago, almost every time some humanitarian spoke about the need to save the lives of the poor in the developing world, someone else would respond with some bleak Malthusian view:

  • “The planet already has too many people on it.”
  • “Who will feed these poor and hungry children if we save them from death by disease?”
  • “Death in the developing world is Darwinian, the unfortunate but natural converse of survival of the fittest.”

Those represent the less-offensive versions of such sentiments. You don’t hear them that much these days, the pendulum having swung to emphasize the life-saving needs above and beyond the need to reduce population growth.

But what’s missing now is the need to consider life-saving solutions in the broader context of creating a sustainable planet. Many experts agree that population growth, especially in the developing world, is a vicious cycle driving poverty and environmental degradation, among other things, all of which represents a real threat to future progress and prosperity.

Fertility rates in countries
Fertility rates in countries


The concerns of over-population were first raised by doomsayer Rev. Thomas Malthus back in the 18th century, when the planet had a bit more than a billion people. Malthus thought we were close to disaster then.

US Census Bureau

In 1968, the noted biologist Paul Ehrlich took up the Malthusian banner when he and his wife Anne published a book called The Population Bomb, predicting mass starvation and conflict if the world population grew much beyond the three billion or so people estimated to be living on Earth back then.

The phrase ‘population bomb’ became a popular meme.

We are today estimated to be at about 7 billion people, on course for 9 billion by 2025. Ehrlich was wrong, at least about how many people the planet could support. But he’s still warning we’re on course for catastrophe due to the increasing burden human population growth is putting on the environment, the food supply, water and other limited natural resources.

Most population growth is in the developing world.
Most population growth is in the developing world.

Ehrlich may still be right, just being wrong on the timing. What’s missing now, some would say, is an explicit aid-and-development strategy that simultaneously accepts the need to curb population growth with the desire to prevent the millions of people dying from easily preventable diseases.

In the 1990s, the emerging philanthropy that came to be known as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was looking for a purpose and initially decided to focus on the problem of population growth. It didn’t go too well, with some critics absurdly accusing the nascent philanthropy of eugenics and all sorts of other bad things rich white people like to do to the poor.

The Gates Foundation instead pivoted to focus on saving lives by basically taking over the global health agenda. More than a decade passed before the world’s biggest philanthropy would again take up the call for family planning, which Melinda Gates has championed.

Bill Gates, over the years, has mentioned what he calls the ‘virtuous cycle’ of how preventing child deaths actually works to reduce birth rates. It’s counter-intuitive at first glance, but makes sense once you give it some thought. Poor people in poor countries are mostly farmers, and families have kids to provide labor and a form of ‘social security’ for when they get old.

If you live in a place that now has 50 percent child mortality, you will tend to have ten kids to make sure five will survive to provide for the family. If child mortality rates decline, studies have shown, birth rates eventually also decline. Why would a poor family have more kids than it needs?

And having fewer kids means less of a financial burden for poor famililes so it’s a win-win-win scenario: Reducing child mortality reduces birth rates and raises incomes.

In this year’s annual letter from the foundation, Melinda Gates makes the case for this counter-intuitive virtuous cycle of reducing population growth by saving kids’ lives.

Melinda Gates
Gates Foundation

The fact is that a laissez faire approach to development—letting children die now so they don’t starve later—doesn’t actually work, thank goodness. It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most deaths have among the fastest-growing populations in the world.

Data wizard Hans Rosling has also pointed out this phenomenon in this entertaining video. Some like David Roodman have challenged the evidence for this, but only as to how strong and direct is the connection between reducing child mortality and birth rates.

Fertility rates vs GDP per capita by country.
Fertility rates vs GDP per capita by country.
CIA World Factbook

Whatever is driving it, there’s not much question that reduced fertility corresponds with economic improvment, as the graph at left illustrates.

The international community is now seeking to agree upon the next set of anti-poverty and development goals as phase one of the Millennium Development Goals comes to half-successful completion in 2015.

The first set of MDGS included reducing extreme poverty, hunger and other laudable goals, many of them focused on specific health issues like HIV or child mortality and one, MDG number 7, with a vague statement about improving environmental sustainability. But nothing about population growth, per se.

Many economists and biologists will continue to debate the carrying capacity for people on the planet. Bill Gates, and others who share his faith in technology, believes innovation can prove the doomsayers wrong by inventing a solution not previously imagined. That has happened many times before, just in terms of feeding people, proving Malthus and Ehrlich wrong – so far.

But the potential threat of population growth to future progress against poverty and inequity may no longer be something that can be compartmentalized as a ‘separate issue.’ Some are starting to argue again that this is a fundamental problem that will determine success or failure on many other fronts such as dealing with hunger, disease and the environment.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.