Nick Kristof Is Wrong About The Wonders Of Birth Control

It should be no surprise that the (supposed) arrival of the 7 billionth person on the planet has brought the Malthusian doom-mongers out of the woodwork, bringing with them dire warnings about the negative effects of all these darned people everywhere.

NYT columnist Nick Kristof — who has admirably gone all around the world documenting poverty — talks about the too-many baby problem in a recent column called The Birth Control Solution.

His story: The entire world could get rid of war, poverty, and global warming if it weren’t for Republicans in Congress preventing more funding for birth control.

That’s not an exaggeration of his view, by the way! He starts off with:

What if there were a solution to many of the global problems that confront us, from climate change to poverty to civil wars? There is, but it is starved of resources. It’s called family planning, and it has been a victim of America’s religious wars.

Unfortunately, after starting off with such a bold statement, he doesn’t really even try to back it up.

After walking through the population explosion (It took until 1804 for the world to hit its first billion people, but by 2050, we’ll probably be at 9.3 billion) this is as close as Kirstof gets…

What’s the impact of overpopulation? One is that youth bulges in rapidly growing countries like Afghanistan and Yemen makes them more prone to conflict and terrorism. Booming populations also contribute to global poverty and make it impossible to protect virgin forests or fend off climate change. Some studies have suggested that a simple way to reduce carbon emissions in the year 2100 is to curb population growth today.

Moreover, we’ve seen that family planning works. Women in India average 2.6 children, down from 6 in 1950. As recently as 1965, Mexican women averaged more than seven children, but that has now dropped to 2.2.

He then goes onto say that in some countries Africa — the area that he really knows and cares about the most — some women average 6 children or more.


Now first of all, note the word “overpopulation” as if it’s just some fact that we have the wrong number of people in the world, merely because the population has grown by quite a bit over the past 200 years.

More problematic is the assumption that the increase in standard of living in India and Mexico is the result of family planning, rather than the other way around: That with increased standard of living, families have decide to have fewer children.

The fact of the matter is that the alternative viewpoint — that richer people decide to have fewer children — seems to be the way in which the causation really goes.

A 2008 paper from economist Larry E. Jones called Fertility Theories: Can They Explain the  Negative Fertility-Income Relationship? includes this beautiful chart (via @rrichard09):

demographics fertility

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Data going back to the early 1800 shows that people in richer professions have fewer babies. Period.

Now, the ultimate conclusion of the paper is that there’s no great explanation for the fact that richer families have fewer babies. Evidently, the theory that because time is more important to richer people, they elect not to spend as much time raising families, doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

There’s also something offensive about Kristof citing Afghanistan and Yemen as examples of the hell that overpopulation hath wrought.

The problem in Afghanistan is that the Taliban and the sympathists in power are a bunch of troglodytes.

In today’s San Francisco chronicle, Joel Brinkley offers some stunning facts about the treatment of children in Afghanistan:

…From there they become fodder for adults who beat, rape and torture them as a matter of routine. And these are the people for whom nearly 2,000 American soldiers have given their lives. This is the country on which the United States has spent about $2 trillion so far. It’s clear from the reports that a decade of exposure to Western values (not all of them entirely admirable) has not brought even the smallest change in their view of their progeny.

War is part of the problem, of course. The Taliban routinely use children as young as 3 years old as human shields, placing them directly in the line of fire. And many thousands of children are orphaned when their parents are killed in battle. They’re sent to orphanages where they are subject to “mental, physical and sexual abuse; were sometimes trafficked and did not always have access to running water, winter heating, indoor plumbing, health services, recreational facilities or education,” the State Department found.

How do you “solve” something like this? We’re not sure, but Kristoff’s argument that it basically comes down to GOP politicians who won’t authorise enough money for global family planning, because they’re too religious is absurd.

None of this should be construed as opposing more education and empowerment of women, as well as the right not to have babies. But the line that birth control will solve climate change, war, and poverty, if only it weren’t for Republicans is just too pat.