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More people should not signal tighter population restrictions

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When more people currently live on the planet than ever before, should we institute laws that regulate how many children people should be allowed to have?

According to the United States Census, at the time this article was written the population of the United States was 315,213,798 people, while the population of the entire world clocked in at 7,061,807,441 people. Comprehending the existence of that many people is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

As one might expect, this extraordinary milestone elicits a variety of responses from our massive and excitable species. The two most dominant arguments in this case are between those who believe that this population explosion will eventually lead to environmental and social catastrophe, and those who believe that overpopulation is not the true problem — distribution of available resources is.

Fear of population size is nothing new. Thomas Malthus, an English economist, published a pamphlet on the evils of population growth in 1798. Malthusian fears were reawakened in October 2011, when the world population officially surpassed 7 billion. Professor Paul Elrich of Stanford University is the modern crown prince of panicking, and his book The Population Bomb predicts massive famines and widespread death if population is not held in check. Elrich told the progressive news site Raw Story that “nobody, in my view, has the right to have 12 children or even three if the second pregnancy is twins.” He suggests laws to limit the number of children people are allowed to have.

This suggestion is completely ridiculous. Limiting the number of children adults can have is not only insulting, it is deeply impractical, and would almost certainly be unfair. Rinku Sen, president and executive director of the Applied Research Center, also told Raw Story that these laws could be circumvented by the wealthy. Sen also discusses the possible impact these laws could have on minorities, and she’s right to be concerned. Determining who can have children under what circumstances is a slippery slope, and a perfect playing field for the nastier sides of any given culture to come out. A prime example of this phenomenon is China, where the one-child law led to an increase in female infanticide and gender-selective abortion.

If population must be limited, a far better suggestion would be to increase the availability of reliable birth control. Susan Wood, interim chief executive of the International Women’s Health Coalition, argues in The New York Times that “another essential strategy is to invest in the largest population ever of young people entering their reproductive years, 85 percent of them in developing countries ... with comprehensive sexuality education, combined with health information and services.” An increasingly massive population means a population filled with young people. In order to slow population growth, young people need to know how to avoid pregnancy. Heterosexual intercourse is always going to carry the risk of pregnancy, but that sex does not have to result in children. People are not going to stop having sex, even if they cannot support the children that they might produce.

Not everyone believes that the population growth modern Malthusians fear is so catastrophic. Dominic Lawson of The Independent argues that “there are not (and never will be) too many people for the planet to feed.” The article goes on to argue that the world has enough agricultural produce and the technology to feed everyone, but that technology is not implemented effectively. In the same article, Joel Cohen, professor of earth and environmental science at Columbia University, says that “those who say the whole problem is population are wrong. It’s not even the dominant factor.” So, the problem is distribution, not supply. The idea that the planet generates enough food to feed every person on the planet, and yet people still starve, is insane.

Laws to limit population growth are both impractical and absurd. Ensuring better universal access to birth control would be a much better idea, as would improving our methods of food distribution. Instead of worrying about how many people will live on the planet in the future, we should be worrying about how to feed all the people who live on the planet now.