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A book review by Robert A. McConnell

Virginia Abernethy, Professor of Psychiatry at Vanderbilt Medical School, is an anthropologist with credentials in economics, sociobiology, and medical ethics. Her book, Population Politics: The Choices that Shape Our Future (Abernethy, 1993) includes 310 pages of text, plus 308 bibliographical references, a 20-page index, only a handful of tables and graphics, and essentially no notes.

Abernethy recognizes that in the population/environment equation, population is the independent variable and is where emphasis must be placed. In the teeth of continuing population growth, any action relating to the environment can be only palliative. Your reviewer suspects that much of environmental protection activity is psychologically a denial of the urgency of the more difficult population problem.

The first hundred pages of Population Politics are an anthropological study of the causes and control of population density in two-dozen cultural episodes ranging in time from the late Roman Empire to the present, and geographically over all continents. [ The remainder of Abernethy's book is devoted to other aspects of the population/environment problem, e.g., U.S. and world population carrying capacities, cultural integrity as the key to survival, grave errors in neoclassical economic theory, unintended consequences of international generosity, "one world" as yesterday's dream and tomorrow's nightmare, and ethical dilemmas that are forced upon us. ]

The study describes, by rough count, 30 premodern socially-sanctioned methods of limiting the "total fertility rate" (children per couple). These include sexual abstinence supported by superstition and taboo, legal and cultural restrictions on marriage, polygyny, prostitution, primogeniture, ultimogeniture, infibulation in the female or subincision in the male, abortion by primitive methods, prolonged lactation, infanticide, and the depersonalization or killing of widows.

The methods of fertility control are themselves of no importance except as they show that overpopulation is an ancient problem that has been met in the past in many ways. The heart of the study is its answer to the question: "What determines the fertility rate?". Abernethy has been able to identify factors that increase fertility, one that will decrease fertility, and others that are ineffectual. It is for this accomplishment that your reviewer believes her book deserves an accolade as a contribution to our understanding of the impending world population crisis.

Abernethy's findings can be expressed very simply, and they conform to common sense: How many children a couple gets largely depends upon how many they want, and how many they want depends importantly upon how many they think they can support. That, in turn, depends upon their optimism or pessimism about the future.

Factors that increase fertility include anything that reduces economic pressure or that promises to do so. Chief among these are:

1. Government subsidies to the poor in housing, food, and education, and acting as employer of last resort.

2. Foreign aid intended to alleviate suffering.

3. Emigration of one's countrymen (by relieving population pressure and by raising the hopes of those left behind).

4. The intrusion of Western culture, as by missionaries, trade, or television (by destroying old ways of controlling fertility and by promising prosperity).

Factors that are ineffective in changing fertility are:

1. Lowering the child mortality rate.

2. Availability of contraceptives.

3. Government exhortation or laws regulating the number of children.

4. The only national factor certain to reduce the average fertility rate is government-imposed disincentives such as the withdrawal of subsidies. The same is true for international subsidies.

Abernethy's findings are unwelcome and therefore potentially controversial. (Up to now they have simply been ignored.) The importance of her work is that by a study of history it supports what some population experts have been saying for some time, namely, that the "demographic transition theory," which is the basis of U.S. and U.N. policy for controlling world population, is fallacious.

Abernethy says nothing about the dependence of fertility upon the subordination of female to male because that is an incidental issue. The liberation of women from the domination of men can occur only at a late stage in the demographic transition -- after cultural maturation -- and that will never happen in the Third World.

Briefly put, the demographic transition theory is the belief that countries such as Mexico can be economically developed to reach a standard of living and level of education where fewer children will be desired, thus limiting world population. Two flaws in this theory stand out:

(1) The resources of the earth are no longer sufficient to raise the Third World to an acceptable standard of living. We are living off our ecological capital and the total population must be reduced as quickly as possible if we are to achieve sustainability before feedback mechanisms make its attainment impossible.

(2) If economic development by transnational capitalism (which is the centerpiece of demographic transition) is continued, then long before a steady state can be reached, environmental strictures and population increases inherent in the economic development process will bring world civilization crashing to ruin. There are other, subtle flaws involving cultural characteristics and cultural dissolution, which are explained in Population Politics.

Abernethy, V., Population Politics: The Choices that Shape Our Future. Plenum Press, 1993. $26.50.
This review is from POPULATION AND ENVIRONMENT September, 1996.

Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Human Sciences Press, Inc., 233 Spring St., New York, New York 10013-157