Ingrained into the U.S. popular imagination is the idea that the world is
overpopulated. Americans talk not so much about "population" as
"overpopulation," in the belief that the planet is burdened with too many
people. Often, Americans think of this glut of people as flowing from Mexico,
India or Africa where birth rates are perceived as out-of-control and rising.
Many view "overpopulation" as the main cause of environmental degradation, urban
sprawl, hunger, poverty, political instability and even war. However, although
many Americans believe and repeat the dire forecast of overpopulation, few know
basic facts about demographic dynamics. For instance, few realize that recent UN
data indicate that population growth rates are declining worldwide faster than
idea of overpopulation promotes the simple assumption that there are a finite
amount of global resources spread among too many people. The reality, however,
is far more complex. Inequitable production, consumption and distribution
patterns often have far more to do with generating poverty and environmental
degradation than the impact of population growth. According to UN figures, the
richest fifth of the world’s people who live in the developed countries consume
66 times as much as the poorest fifth. The richest fifth consume 45% of all meat
and fish, 58% of total energy, and 84% of all paper. In addition, they own 87%
of the world’s vehicle fleet, a major source of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the
gap between rich and poor is growing as a result of the globalization process.
do Americans have such a narrow view of population issues? One reason is the
presentation of population in social studies textbooks. A survey undertaken by
CWPE and the Hampshire College Population and Development Program found that
many mainstream U.S. high school textbooks teach "overpopulation," rather than
giving students the conceptual tools to understand population issues in their
full complexity. Lessons on basic demography are missing from the pages of most
texts, substituted, instead, with glancing references to population, using terms
like "population bomb." The National Standards for World History guidelines for
textbook writers suggest that lessons teaching population should include,
"analyzing causes of the world’s accelerating population growth rate, and
explaining why population growth has hindered economic and social development in
many countries." These guidelines are thus based on the incorrect premise that
the world’s population growth rate is still accelerating, and assume that
population growth necessarily leads to "hindered" development.
of the textbooks surveyed do the same. Geography: Realms, Regions and Concepts
asserts that, "the human population of the world as a whole has grown
explosively over the past two centuries and especially during the twentieth
century.Will this cycle [of growth] go on indefinitely?" The authors answer the
question ominously with, "It had better not." Does this statement inform the
student about population issues, or instill a fear of population growth and its
often references to population are full of stereotypes of the "poor South"
versus the "affluent North." World Cultures: A Global Mosaic is laden with
judgments about the differing levels of development in the North and South. The
authors use words like "failure" and "condemn" to describe Southern levels of
development. "Rapid population growth and the failure to modernize have widened
the gap between developing and developed nations. In the poor countries, crop
failures brought on by drought or other natural disasters condemn millions to
hunger." There is little discussion of how unequal economic relationships
between North and South contribute to the persistence of poverty.
Accompanying these perspectives on the South and North are negative racial
stereotypes that can engender misunderstanding and dislike. For instance, the
author of World Geography and Cultures promotes the stereotype of Africans as
sexually promiscuous. She charges that the out-of-control population growth rate
in Africa is causing the spread of the desert in Africa, and that the African
people have to take responsibility for their actions (i.e. use birth control)
for the process of desertification to slow. She writes, "the values of the
culture may have to change before desertification can be slowed down." Recent
research on Africa challenges these stereotypes, giving a far more detailed
historical perspective of the dynamics of environmental degradation, including
the role of national and international development agencies.
texts hold women as largely responsible for population growth because of their
role as child bearers. The majority of the texts present government enforced
population control, rather than user-controlled family planning methods, as
reasonable measures to curb population growth, without critical discussion of
the effect of population control methods on women. Geography: Regions, Realms
and Concepts creates a picture of post-colonial India doomed to failure by its
own people, then advocates for population control as the solution to the
problem. "Vigorous propaganda campaigns, federal and State support for family
planning campaigns, and even compulsory sterilization tactics have been
implemented," the authors note with apparent approval. However, to the authors
these extreme measures of population control are not effective enough. The
paragraph ends with the portentous phrase, "change is coming perilously slow."
second survey of U.K. textbooks found that, in contrast to their U.S.
counterparts, these books teach lessons in basic demography, recognize the
presence of a debate in population theory, and complicate the study by
introducing other concepts into the picture, such as power inequalities and
colonialism. This knowledge provides students with the tools to critically
understand population issues and to develop a broader worldview. U.S. textbook
authors could learn from the presentation of population in U.K. texts.
the simplistic, incomplete picture of population created by most U.S. high
school social studies textbooks, it is not surprising that most Americans know
little about population except for a general understanding of the pessimistic
idea of overpopulation. It is important to complicate this picture and textbooks
are a place to begin. Teaching students incomplete and misleading lessons in
population perpetuates misunderstanding. It passes damaging stereotypes of
people and cultures from one generation to the next and presents a distorted
picture of the world, narrowing students’ perceptions rather than enriching
them. These impressions can last a lifetime.
Anne Hendrixson is a freelance writer and activist. She is a core member of
the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment.