According to one view of the world, its resources are limited and shrinking. We are running out of oil, out of food, out of topsoil (especially in poverty-stricken Africa). We are over-grazing, over-fishing--and in general, living beyond our physical means.
This neo-Malthusian thesis, elaborated in the pessimistic Club of Rome report, expounded again in President Carter's final days in the "Global 2000 Report," has been aired once more by Lester R. Brown in a new book called "Building a Sustainable Society" (Norton, $14.95).
In addition to the usual doomsday projections based on fears of exhaustion of natural resources, Brown charges that major political forces, notably the World Bank, pursue a policy of economic growth at any cost (social, environmental and political), whereas they would do better to emphasize more effective birth control, looking to bringing the world population growth to a halt somewhere around 6 billion.
He charges that the World Bank has a record of overestimating economic growth possibilities in the 1980s (in part, some would say, to exaggerate the potential for World Bank lending operations). Coincidentally, author Julian L. Simon has attracted wide attention with a book called "The Ultimate Resource" (Princeton University Press, $14.50), attacking the neo-Malthusian philosophy. As you may have guessed, Simon's is a supply-side tract in which the "ultimate resource" is people, the more the better:
"An additional child," writes Simon, "is, from the economic point of view, like a laying chicken, a cacao tree, a new factory, or a new house . . . a durable good."
The contrast between these two views symbolizes a tug of war that is going on inside the Reagan administration, wherein the existing foreign aid establishment is trying to preserve a long-standing commitment to population control, and the right wing of Reagan's party is attempting to get that commitment up-ended or at least hushed up.
An article published in the winter 1981 edition of Policy Review by the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, for example, attacks U. S. financing of birth control efforts in poor countries abroad, and ascribes to the foreign aid bureaucracy "an increasingly impassioned insistence that market forces, which essentially rely on individual free choice, are not enough, and indeed are even vicious."
When Reagan was governor of California in 1974, he issued a proclamation establishing a World Population Day in California, and urged stabilization of global population to avert "severe famine and misery." At the Ottawa economic summit last July, Reagan and leaders of Europe and Japan promised greater international efforts to reduce population growth.
But significantly, when it came to a summary of views at the North-South summit in Cancun in October the "bureaucracy" attacked by the Heritage foundation didn't try very hard to get population control language into the document.
Yet, without it, aid to the Third World will be useless: staggering accumulations of urban population without adequate sanitation, health or minimum services needed for survival are in prospect in Latin America and Asia over the next 20 years. Present prospects indicate Mexico City will have a population of about 32 million, while Calcutta, Bombay, and Seoul will near 20 million each, with Karachi, Cairo and Jakarta over 16 million each.
Let's assume that Brown and other neo-Malthusians exaggerate a bit. It still looks pretty grim. Politicians have problems, particularly in Catholic countries, in endorsing any but so-called "natural" methods of birth control. But it is ridiculous for the presumed intellectuals at the Heritage Foundation to be arguing that individuals in poverty-stricken areas should be allowed to reproduce at will.
Excessive fertility affects the health of mothers and children. As Ambassador Richard E. Benedick, U. S. representative to the U. N. Population Commission, has pointed out, "millions of unwanted children are abandoned each year by parents unable to support them."
To stabilize world population from 4 billion now to 6 billion any time soon may be too ambitious a goal. A century down the road, the U. N. has been saying, the world's population might stop growing at around 10.5 billion. Brown's target would require birth-control laggards like India, Pakistan and Mexico to be as efficient family planners as China, Colombia, Indonesia and Thailand, while the industrial world reaches a stationary population in less than 20 years.
It would also require "widespread rationing, more careful management of biological systems, stringent energy-conservation measures, materials recycling programs, and a more equitable distribution of vital resources both within and among societies."
The World Bank sounds a furious and frustrated rebuttal to Brown's charges. "Malthusians like Brown are just wrong," said bank economist Helen Hughes, who accepts the need for family planning but sees no need to keep world population down to 6 billion. She argues that high economic growth has occurred and will continue to occur in the Third World if the "right policies" are adopted and followed. She cites India's remarkable record of achieving food self-sufficiency in the past couple of years.
Another example is the extraordinary 9 percent real economic growth in Indonesia, accompanied by an inflation rate of only 8 percent. She sees an enormous potential for growth in China and India, where productivity is as yet "abysmal." These countries, bank officials feel sure, can aspire to duplicate the achievement of Korea and Taiwan, which have doubled their living standard in the past 15 years.
"If anything," she said, "we have underestimated the growth potential of the developing countries. We used to think the growth rate of the poor countries was fixed by the rate of growth in the developed world. But that's not so."
But where there has been a striking success in boosting living standards, as in Indonesia, Korea and Taiwan, there also has been extraordinary progress in birth control. Only ideologue extremists will fail to see the connection.